Home > Afghanistan, Education, International Relations, Thomas Gouttierre, UNO (University of Nebraska at Omaha), Writing, Youth > UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies plays role in multi-national efforts to restore Afghan educational system

UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies plays role in multi-national efforts to restore Afghan educational system




As unlikely as it may seem, the University of Nebraska at Omaha of all places is home to a major archival and training resource having to do with Afghanistan.  UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies has been actively engaged in Afghan matters in educational, expert and consulting capacities, alone or as part of U.S. and United Nations efforts, that have gone on before, during, and after the Soviet invasion and the more recent U.S. war on terror waged there.  Many Afghan leaders have participated in UNO programs.  Even though UNO was unable to operate in Afghanistan itself during the Soviet occupation and during the Taliban’s rule, the university’s Afghan support programs continued in Pakistan and in Nebraska, where Afghan exiles and refugees accessed various services.  Since the Taliban’s overthrow the Center has ramped up its programs.  The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is one of a series of pieces I did on the Center’s work in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  You can find the other stories I did about the Center under the Afghanistan heading in the category roll on the right, including a profile of Thomas Gouttierre, who directs the Center and whose deep ties to that country go back to the 1960s.  You will also find a more recent story about an exchange between UNO School of Communication faculty and students and peer communucation faculty and students from Kabul, a subject I will be revisiting in 2012.

UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies plays role in multi-national efforts to restore Afghan educational system

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)


It seems as soon as one plague leaves Afghanistan, a new scourge surfaces in its place. In a constant state of upheaval since the early 1970s this ill-fated central Asian nation has variously fended off foreign invaders, waged civil war, chafed at restrictive measures imposed by harsh rulers, suffered under international boycotts and dug-out from the rubble of both man-made and natural disasters.

Now, in the aftermath of decades-long warfare that wreaked such widespread havoc that not a single school was left unscathed, the country’s fragile interim government is struggling to find its way out of the abyss with the aid of an Omaha institution with deep ties to Afghanistan. Just as it has been involved in past revival efforts there, the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies is right in the thick of United States-led rebuilding efforts aimed at shoring-up that nation’s gutted infrastructure, including restoring a ravaged educational base.

The new Afghan ruling class UNO is working with includes many American-educated, including UNO-trained, leaders from the Northern Alliance that helped depose the repressive Taliban regime and assisted U.S. forces in the war on terrorism. Before the Taliban instituted stifling cultural decrees that all but snuffed-out formal education in the country, the UNO center operated a program in the 1980s and early ‘90s that focused on developing leadership and nation-building skills among Afghans, whose training took place in Nebraska, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

With the Taliban now relegated to the fringes of power in the wake of the recent U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, the UNO center is implementing a new education program funded by a $6.5 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Called America’s Rapid Response to Education Needs in Afghanistan, the program is helping jump start the nation’s dormant education system by, most visibly, printing and distributing millions of textbooks for students of all ages now attending school in makeshift sites across the country. Throughout the Afghan civil war and the more recent U.S. campaign to root out Taliban and al-Qaida elements, UNO maintained long-held offices and printing presses in Peshawar, Pakistan, where it also stored textbooks and other educational resources in warehouses. UNO kept more than a symbolic presence in Peshawar, where Afghan refugee camps are located and where UNO education programs train teachers. When the interim government’s Ministry of Education announced plans to reopen schools in March, UNO emptied warehouses and geared-up presses for an unprecedented run of textbooks and materials that continues today. UNO also stepped-up its ongoing training of teachers, many of whom lack any rigorous secondary education.

Thomas Gouttierre, director of the UNO center, recently returned from a weeks-long visit to the war-torn nation. Gouttierre, who’s served as a senior political affairs officer with the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan, oversaw the Rapid Response program’s startup phase and met with Afghan leaders to assess educational needs and how UNO may play a lasting role in helping meet some of those needs. “The task is somewhat monumental. We’ve lost three generations of students who have not had the chance to go to school in many parts of the country. There may have been some parts of the country where there was some sporadic education but, for the most part, there was very little and, for women, almost nothing. And because there’s been no census, we don’t really know how many students there are. We’re probably going to find out by taking a count of the books we’ve distributed and subtracting that number from the total we publish,” Gouttierre said from his office on the UNO campus.





In addition to elementary and secondary education, he said, “there is a real need in vocational-technical education and in trying to wean people away from the culture of the gun, where they get paid to bear weapons, to some other kind of work where they get paid” to weld a joint or repair a car engine or drive a nail or fix a leaky faucet. “Also, there was a lot of literacy lost during these last three decades and so each of the major urban centers in Afghanistan needs to have literacy programs for adults in those regions. Afghanistan’s literacy level has dropped to the level it was at when Afghanistan was emerging right after the Second World War. After that, education went through boom lets — developing rapidly enough at times to reach a significant part of the non-educated population. In the last three decades, however, that underserved segment has been missing out on any educational opportunities.”

According to Gouttierre, the rebuilding process must encompass both soft and hard infrastructure features. “In terms of teaching and administration, there are many, many people assuming roles today both in teaching and management of education whose primary qualification for those tasks has been experience and not actual higher education or, if they do have some higher education, it is one of not any real substance. So, there has to be training of what I describe as ‘the barefoot teachers’ — the people who are essentially teaching the ninth grade because they’ve had an 11th grade education or are teaching the third grade because they’ve had a seventh grade education. It’s not realistic for them to go back to school and start the whole process over at age 50 or whatever. So, in-service education is the thing for them. It has to focus on making these teachers better teachers. We’re doing that right now, and that’ll go on for a long time.”

“In terms of schools, I did not see one that isn’t in need of major rehabilitation. I saw schools in the neighborhoods in which I used to live in the capital city of Kabul where there were three walls or two walls up and no roofs,” said Gouttierre, whose own experience in Afghanistan extends back some 40 years as a former Peace Corps volunteer, Fulbright scholar and Fulbright administrator. He has appeared before the U.S. Congress, the British Parliament and the French National Assembly to discuss Afghan matters. Despite the many challenges there, by the end of April UNO was expecting to have printed and, hopefully, distributed 10 million textbooks in a little more than two months time. But even getting textbooks into the hands of children is equal parts adventure, faith and improvisation.











“The actual distribution of books and materials is a problem. The roads are bad. The Ministry of Education doesn’t have the money for trucks to take books from, say, Kabul to some outlying area, where they then need to be distributed by smaller trucks to villages and schools and from there to even more remote sites.” To facilitate the books’ delivery, UNO has formed a “cooperative” network enlisting facilities, vehicles and workers of many agencies.

There are also constant security concerns in a country rife with tribal animosity and terrorist-extremist threats. “We were told while we were there that there had been a threat uncovered from al-Qaida against our education program,” he said. “We increased our security, but nothing came of that” threat.

Even with all the problems, he added, there “are some upsides. First of all, there is this curriculum created by Afghans that students have in-hand in the books” UNO is making available. He said the curriculum is one that has been “developing over the last several decades through the help of USAID, Columbia University and UNO. That curriculum is a resource for them and one they can decide to do with as they wish.” Regarding criticism leveled against the curriculum by officials with UNICEF and other agencies who allege it relies heavily on rote learning and contains inappropriate militaristic and religious references, Gouttierre said the content in question was long ago removed or revised. Besides, he said, critics fail to take into account that symbols of, for example, dead Russian soldiers used in math problems came in the context of the nation’s bloody war with the Soviet Union.

When Gouttierre considers Afghanistan’s plight, he sees a country desperate for normalcy but unsure how to get there. He said the road ahead will need to be an entirely new one for a country reeling from more than a generation of violence — a period that saw it fracture along fault lines of both internal and external origin. A succession of disruptions destabilized Afghanistan to the point where war became an every day reality. The chaos began with the ouster of former King Mohammad Zaher Shah in 1973, quickly followed by the Soviet Union’s installation of a puppet communist government. When civil unrest threatened Soviet interests, the Red Army invaded in 1979. A bloody 10-year war ensued. By the time the Afghan rebels  — the mujahideen — defeated and drove out the Soviets, most of the country lay in ruins and millions of Afghans were dead, wounded, politically exiled, dispossessed as refugees or long-since fled to the safety of other countries. Then, in this still largely feudal land where ethnic and religious rivalries viciously compete for the hearts and minds of its beleaguered people, civil war erupted between factions loyal to opposing tribal warlords and to opposing forms of Islam. In the midst of this power struggle, the extremist Islamic movement known as the Taliban allied itself with the Pashtun minority in the southern part of the country and engaged in civil war against the more moderate Tashik majority in the north, whose forces came to be known as the Northern Alliance.

Today, even with the Taliban and al-Qaida removed from power, outbreaks of violence continue, countless thousands of civilians remain homeless and millions of mines litter the landscape. It is an embittered populace with virtually no family left untouched by the carnage. In a society bereft of much of its pre-war leadership and still divided along ethnic-religious lines, the pervasive culture of the gun looms over the scene, with the threat of coups, insurgences and feuds never far away.

As Gouttierre sees it, Afghan leaders and their international partners must look beyond cultural-political differences and focus instead on forging a common vision for public programs like education that operate at the national level. Because he estimates about “80 percent of the real brain trust of Afghanistan has been drained,” the country is starving for human and material resources and is being flooded by NGOs (non-government organizations) trying to corner the market in relief or aid programs, including education programs. He said the country is so desperate for help that it feels obliged to accept any aid, regardless of whether it conforms to or helps further national education aims.



“What’s needed but what is lacking is an emphasis on the national nature of the educational mission. Programs are needed that have a cohesive nation-building content. I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge now. That’s one of the reasons why Afghans’ new leadership chose the curriculum we were safeguarding. It was their curriculum. It was comprehensive. It was cohesive. And it was, more than anything, theirs.”

He said the U.S. has a major part to play in any process that makes Afghan education a source of unification rather than division. “We have to do whatever we can to increase the capacity of the Ministry of Education. The infrastructure of the ministry is somewhat skeletal right now. There are people filling a lot of positions who are now faced for the first time with a national mandate. All the mandates up till now have been somewhat regional or else lacking totally. But education in Afghanistan is now a national program. It’s not divided up into regional school districts or local school districts or anything like that. It’s national. So, we have to increase the capacity of the ministry to call the shots for what should be done in that country.”

What is being done now, he said, is “an immense” reclamation project that seeks to  not only revive but reinvent an education process interrupted and largely destroyed by the hostilities of the past 23 years. He said as more Afghans migrate to urban centers from rural provinces, where the traditional practice of agriculture has been rendered next to impossible by the presence of land mines, adult vocational education will become paramount. He added that education for women will need to be a primary focus in a country where “female empowerment” is a new but crucial concept. “Women have been unable to work for so long but there are so many of them who are eligible for the workforce, age wise and need wise, if not skill wise.”

Even as conditions remain difficult and dangerous throughout the country, the wish of the Afghan people to resume education is so strong that weeks before the official start date for schools to reopen on March 23 students began gathering in all manner of impromptu settings to attend class. School was to begin in two phases over a several month period, but citizens’ interest in seeing school start NOW was overwhelming enough that the government opted to open all schools at once. “People had been deprived of education for so long they all started at the same time,” Gouttierre said. “They are just so eager. They’re really embracing this concept, especially the girls.”




The deluge of students has been such that no real attempt is being made now to place individuals according to ability or age. “Nobody’s making a challenge,” he said. “I think everybody feels that if someone says he should be in the fourth grade then let’s put him there and let’s work with him because, bottom line, we’ve got to get this thing going rather than wading through endless challenges. Besides, there’s not the means to find out for sure where people should be placed.”

While attending the launching day ceremonies for the new education initiatives at a ramshackle school in Kabul on March 23, Gouttierre said it was apparent to him and the Afghan nationals present that a historical milestone was being witnessed. “Everybody understood they were marking time,” he said. “That they were marking a major departure from the way life had been for the last decades in Afghanistan and that they were trying to relaunch modernization, development and progressive movement.”

The festive ceremonies included not only Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai and other high-ranking Afghan officials, but a parade of peasant families, including parents accompanying young children who had never attended school before. The scene left Gouttierre with some lasting impressions. “I have two very vivid images in my mind from that. One is of all the mothers and fathers coming to register their children for school. And to see the excitement and enthusiasm and hope and desire on their faces was just very, very meaningful. The other thing was seeing this parade of boys and girls in uniforms and of teachers and administrators in suits and dresses enter the school. Watching that, one recognized something happening there that hadn’t been going on for nearly three decades. People were crying, as was I and as was Hamid Karzai. We were thinking about the sacrifices and losses and the new opportunities.”

Securing a stable education system in Afghanistan, Gouttierre said, demands two things. “One is establishing universal security. The second is making sure the international communities really do provide what they’re promising to provide and haven’t yet — namely, the kinds of money and in the right forms” Afghanistan requires. “There’s a lot of money being spent on putting the elements into place and that’s mostly in management and administration. The actual programming money, I think, is still to come. Whether or not there’s going to be that delivery of funds is the important thing.”

He said the symbolic return in mid-Aprilc of long-exiled King Mohammad Zaher Shah may bolster the rebuilding efforts underway. “It could mean a lot. It might mean more credibility to the current process if he’s supportive of all this and I think he should be and will be. He is highly popular and, again, if he is part of all this it will give it a historical-traditional foundation that would help. Now, he’s 87-years-old, so he’s not going to be dynamic. He’s going to be symbolic. He’s going to be presiding. He’s going to be a great-grandfather kind of figure. But that’s an important thing for Afghanistan, which has lost out on so much of its traditions and history.”

If nothing else, Gouttierre said, the rebirth of education in Afghanistan expresses the will of the people and represents the first national program sponsored by the interim government. “This action is the first comprehensive program initiated and sustained by this government that has national reach in Afghanistan. Everything else may not reach beyond the confines of Kabul. I think there is a consensus behind it. The only place there would be a lack of consensus would be among the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida and those of like-mind.”

Whether the present leadership remains in office to carry out its educational mission will be determined by a congress of Afghan elders convening in June. The loya jirga or grand assembly will decide if Karzai and his ministers retain power or are replaced in a new transitional government until democratic general elections are held in two years.

UNO’s efforts in rebuilding the educational system in Afghanistan were honored by President and Mrs. Bush during a March 20 event in Alexandria. Va. The university’s current grant through USAID ends at the end of 2002. In the meantime, Gouttierre said, “we’ll look at what other areas we might be able to do and do well for Afghanistan. We think the one that might be most down our line would be something like vocational education.”

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  1. August 11, 2018 at 4:29 pm

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