Education Prevails: Navigating COVID-19 in Afghanistan with Shafiulhaq Rahimi

By Ashley Williams

April 30, 2020

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The world is adjusting to a new reality as the coronavirus continues to cause global havoc. Education is one of the many consequential sectors hit during this crisis, and we are left asking: “How do we educate 1.6 billion students who are now out of school, particularly in low-resource areas?” 

The solutions are being developed, but each day education professionals and policymakers are mobilizing to bring learning into people’s homes. Throughout our series “Education Prevails,” we will speak with people from across the sector to explore the challenges, innovations and humanity going into caring for children worldwide during COVID-19. 

Shafiulhaq Rahimi, Deputy Chief of Party for the Afghan Children Read project, discuses Afghanistan’s unique vulnerabilities, rays of hope, fears for his home country and a way forward in partnership with the international community. 

What are the challenges facing projects in Afghanistan during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The COVID-19 outbreak was more tangible in Afghanistan, where there is an already troubled economy. The outbreak of the pandemic caused extreme disruptions to the implementation of humanitarian and development projects in the country.

The Government of Afghanistan’s decision to lock down densely populated cities to prevent spreading the virus and global restrictions on air travel forced a number of expats to evacuate to their homes of record. Despite all these challenges, many organizations and development partners were able to mobilize very quickly and adopted new approaches for business continuity consistent with on-the-ground realities.

In response to this situation, the government launched a Multi-Sector Humanitarian Country Plan for Afghanistan and sector specific plans that pave the way for development partners to support the government to effectively respond to this pandemic by realigning their activities and efforts.

The major challenges could be categorized under the areas of access to goods and services for smooth implementation of planned activities, constraints in coordination and collaboration with partners and projects’ participants due to restrictions caused by COVID-19, drastic change in direction and attention of partners and government towards COVID19 pandemic related response. As a result, many projects are forced to choose the option of putting activity implementation on hold, enter into contingency planning and re-assess their ability to operate. Rising insurgency, political tensions and lack of reliable information about severity of the pandemic in the country makes it a bit difficult to foresee the magnitude of challenges projects will face in the coming months.

Tell us about an inspiring education solution you’ve seen in Afghanistan in response to COVID.

Over the last few years, the USAID-funded Afghan Children Read project has helped develop School Management Shuras (similar to Parent Teacher Associations).

In a number of districts in Nangarhar province, these community groups have initiated a campaign to raise educational awareness during the COVID pandemic. They contacted families through mobile phones, sent text messages and letters, and used Mosques’ loudspeakers to encourage families to support their children during the ongoing crisis.

They are working with families to create supportive learning environments for their children — mainly those in early grades — to study their schools’ subjects at home and make other forms of learning opportunities available for their kids if they have means and access.

This effort helps Afghan families in rural and remote districts with limited access to information and media gain a better understanding about the importance of education. It also reminds them about the crucial role parents can play to support and enhance their children’s education and establish some normalcy for children while they are away from the regular school routine.

What’s your greatest fear for education in Afghanistan during this time?

Afghanistan is an import-dependent and aid-reliant country. It is very obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic will emerge as a more serious challenge for all sectors, including education.

The Afghan Ministry of Education and Government, with support from the international community and development partners, has been working hard to address the challenge of enrolling around 3 million out-of-school children. The emergence of this pandemic and an influx of tens of thousands of Afghan families from neighboring countries will further add to the magnitude the of problem of out-of-school children.

My greatest fear for education in Afghanistan relates to children’s access to education, particularly those in rural and remote parts of the country where ongoing armed conflicts and no access to basic services will limit their ability to pursue their education during this period.

I also fear that the current situation will divert attention more towards pandemic response in health and economic areas while children from returnee families, IDPs and those already living in the poorest conditions will remain out of school.

What education opportunities do you think might emerge in Afghanistan during this time?

The situation requires all countries to take immediate steps to prepare, respond and recover.

Development partners can best invest their experiences from other countries and in different areas to support the Ministry of Education with a response plan by proposing creative solutions and realigning their ongoing efforts to support children learning. This is consistent with The Ministry’s “Alternate Education Service Delivery COVID-19 Emergency Response Plan,”

This will be further enhanced by replicating and contextualizing the best models from similar situations in other parts of the world, particularly related to home-based learning opportunities for kids.

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