Overcoming learning barriers in Afghanistan requires close partnership

By Natalie Lovenburg

A Q&A with education in conflict expert Mamdouh Fadil

Despite the tremendous gains made in education in Afghanistan since 2001, more than 40 percent of Afghanistan’s school-aged children are out of school.

The Afghan Children Read program aims to lower this percentage and ensure children throughout the country learn how to read and write – and lead successful lives. Working in more than 200 communities, the program has reached more than 375,000 children, teachers and families.

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the program works to ensure quality education service delivery through an evidence-based early grade reading program in four provinces throughout Afghanistan: Herat, Kabul, Nangarhar and Laghman. Creative implements the program with the International Rescue Committee, the Afghan Holding GroupEqual Access and SIL LEAD.

In this Q&A, Mamdouh Fadil, Ph.D., who serves as the Chief of Party for the Afghan Children Read program, highlights the importance of a collaborative, strategic partnership with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education in delivering a quality education program in the highly complex crisis and conflict setting of the country.

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Mamdouh Fadil speaks at an Afghan Children Read workshop. Photo by Susan Ayari.

With a doctorate in social anthropology and global education, Fadil has a deep theoretical and practical understanding of development policy and education issues around the world. He has worked in international education for more than 22 years, with an emphasis on emergency education environments.

Having led programs in Egypt, Iraq and Turkey, among other countries, Fadil brings his global expertise of working in conflict and post-conflict situations to his leadership role in Afghanistan.

What happens to schools, teachers and students in times of conflict and crisis?

Fadil: In times of conflict and crisis, schools, teachers and students encounter different circumstances and challenges that are unique to where they are located and their ethnicity.

Schools have become one of the most convenient and effective venues for supporting children in building hope for a better life and peaceful future. When it comes to Afghanistan, most of the schools are running double or triple shifts with scarce or no resources.

Ongoing conflict disrupts learning and this results in schools being closed and a high-level of absenteeism among teachers and students. Schools that are located in insecure districts suffer due to the lack of qualified teachers and administrators.

The most serious situation is when schools are specifically targeted or situated close to a location targeted in a violent act that then compromises the lives of children and school staff.

Insecurity also affects the delivery of resources required for schools, especially textbooks.

What are some of the biggest challenges for Afghan Children Read?

Fadil: Afghan Children Read staff often face an insecure working environment. With the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan over the last few years, staff continue to struggle with their own personal safety and the protection of their families, while working hard to achieve the goal of improving education for young Afghan learners.

To continually be on the road to reach hundreds of communities in harsh condition, requires a significant amount dedication and strength. Despite security risks, our program staff continue to show resilience in the work that they do every day.

Despite the difficulties of the conflict context, what are some of the bright spots you see through the project?

Fadil: Afghan Children Read has integrated the innovative Track and Trace technology system to help solve textbook delivery barriers. Implemented by the Creative Development Lab, Track and Trace is identifying and resolving distribution system gaps for the program in all four provinces.

And despite these challenges, there are many examples of communities stepping in to support schools and surviving the ongoing pressure by engaging in the School Management Shura (Parent Teacher Association.)

It also is encouraging to see that majority of early grade teachers are female. They are playing a critical lead role in supporting Afghan Children Read’s primary goal of delivering quality education to schools and communities.

What support from the government is needed to implement an education program in a crisis and conflict-affected country?

Fadil:  In a crisis and conflict-affected context, the government must exercise a sense of ownership. From the inception of the program to now, the role of the Ministry of Education has been essential to the design, application, delivery and ongoing learning of Afghan Children Read’s literacy activities.

The Ministry’s feedback and voiced concerns have been critical to the program’s successful implementation. An effective early grade reading program in a fragile environment requires flexibility and trust among program staff and government officials.

The responsiveness and open communication with one another has built a strong commitment to the end goal: improved reading education delivery to Afghan children.

To institutionalize the program, Afghan Children Read has worked with the government to reform strategies, practices and innovations. The objective is for these three key practices to become normalized, adopted and supported by the official Afghan educational system and society for the long term.

What makes Afghan Children Read’s approach to early grade reading successful and unique?

Fadil:  To ensure that learning and adaptation of project implementation is a collaborative effort, Creative is using a learning laboratory approach. This aims to ensure the sustainability and institutionalization of education outcomes through ongoing collaboration with government partners.

The program’s early grade reading pilot is the learning laboratory. The lessons we learn through program implementation feedback up to the Ministry is evidence to be used in developing their national early grade reading policy, as well as inform adaptations to the pilot as we continue to implement it. This approach is founded on USAID’s Collaboration, Learning and Adaptation model.

Focusing on improving children’s literacy, the program has incorporated and continues to assess how young learners improve their reading skills with mother tongue language instruction in the classroom. The program has worked closely with the Afghan government to identify the two languages of learning: Dari and Pashto.

What are some of Afghan Children Read’s results to date?

Fadil: In close partnership with the Afghan government, the program has distributed more than 314,070 teaching and learning materials in the two languages, providing some 188,500 early grade students in Afghanistan the opportunity to improve their reading skills.

During the last decade, reconstruction of the country’s educational system has slowly improved, opening the door for educators to sharpen their teaching skills.

The Afghan Children Read program has supported more than 9,500 teachers and administrators will ongoing professional development support on teaching early grade reading and social emotional learning with trainings, coaching and mentoring.

Additionally, the Afghan government has drafted an early grade reading policy, which lays the foundation for the eventual scale-up of the program, reaching even more students, teachers, parents and communities.

What motivates you to work on an education program in Afghanistan?

Fadil: As an anthropologist of education, it is truly rewarding to be part of an education program in the post-conflict, Afghan context. Unfortunately, the ongoing conflict in the country has resulted in children being among the most vulnerable when accessing quality education.

Despite the challenges, my work with the program is enjoyable and important to me. The ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversities in Afghanistan, and the assignment of improving the quality of education for early grade children under these circumstances and conditions, inspires me every day.

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