Since 2001, when the Taliban were dislodged from power in Afghanistan, the international community has spent many billions of dollars toward the nation’s reconstruction. Yet not much progress can be seen. Poor management and lack of coordination among aid agencies are the major reasons for this dismal record, but another very simple problem has been a failure to make sure that the Afghan people have access to books and other printed materials with the information they need to move forward.
This is a serious flaw that affects health care, education and government itself. Now, as fighting intensifies in eastern and southwestern Afghanistan, it is especially important that we address the problem.
Afghanistan’s high mortality rates among infants, children and mothers have fallen in recent years, thanks in part to the deployment of trained community health workers to remote provinces. It is unrealistic, however, to expect these workers to remain for extended periods. Because most deaths are caused by preventable illnesses, it is important that written materials are left behind to remind patients of health workers’ oral instructions. Only then can health messages be strengthened and improvements sustained.
Afghanistan’s enrollment of four to six million children in primary school is also something to be proud of. And much money and effort is spent on adult literacy programs.
But these achievements obscure a quality problem: the lack of basic reading materials needed to make education effective. Rural students have little or no access to books for supplementary reading on farming, household management and other subjects germane to their lives. And graduates soon lose their newly won literacy because they have nothing to read.
The introduction of democracy in post-Taliban Afghanistan is also considered to be a major success story. For the elections in 2004 and 2005, thousands of newly trained election workers, both men and women, traveled the countryside, sometimes by horse or donkey. Posters urging citizens to vote appeared in almost every bazaar. There were daily radio messages. And voter turnout was unprecedented.
Yet most voters were, and still are, unaware that for democracy to work, they must go beyond simply voting and participate in the decision-making of provincial councils and community groups. The Afghan people need basic information about how democracy works, and especially about their own nascent democratic institutions, to transform their budding political structure into a system for good governance. This is especially urgent because national elections are scheduled for 2009.
Afghanistan’s radio network is growing, and an estimated 70 percent of the population listens at least three days a week, but radio messages are ephemeral. Some people scoff at the idea of distributing books to a population that is barely 28 percent literate. But 28 percent amounts to nearly 9 million people out of a population of 32 million, and that is certainly a worthy beginning.
It is important that a high government body like the Ministry of Education endorse the concept of distributing books to the population. Money is needed, too, ideally from both foreign governments and the Afghan government. And experts are needed to write the simple, accurate texts that Afghans need — on subjects from health care and household management to science, culture, history and the environment.
A pilot project called the Box Library Extension, which we operate at the Afghanistan Center, has placed more than 100,000 books in 160 libraries in 32 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The communities have welcomed the books with enthusiasm.
Afghans possess a remarkable inner strength that has carried them through two decades of war and displacement. If they are given the knowledge they need to fully participate in reconstruction efforts, their country will move forward steadily, to the benefit of all.
Nancy Hatch Dupree, the director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University.