Iain Guest

Iain founded AP in 2001 after many years of writing about and working with civil society in countries in conflict. He was a Geneva-based correspondent for the London-based Guardian and International Herald Tribune (1976-1987); authored a book on the disappearances in Argentina; fronted several BBC documentaries; served as spokesperson for the UNHCR operation in Cambodia (1992-1993) and the UN humanitarian operation in Haiti (2004); served as a Senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace (1996-7); and conducted missions to Rwanda and Bosnia for the UN, USAID and UNHCR. Iain recently stepped down as an adjunct professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where he taught human rights.

The Work Plan

13 Oct

Kabul, October 13, 2005. My first visit is to the suburb of Kart-i-char, where Omid shares an office with another organization, the Noor Educational Center. Jamila Afghani, who heads the Noor Center, is on Omid’s board and a strong supporter. She also runs a very good organization.

When I heard that Sadiqa planned to study in the US, I was frankly worried. Sadiqa gently pointed out that Omid will not be sustainable if it becomes too dependent on her, and quickly recruited two qualified women to take over form her. Still, Omid is a very young organization and much in need of her dynamism and leadership.

I need not have worried, because Sadiqa’s new recruits are both very capable. Both are former refugees and steeped in the importance of education. Farzana taught refugees for seven years in Peshawar. Shabnan lived and studied in Iran as a refugee. The third member of their team is Janadgur, Sadiqa’s father, who probably knows more about Wardak than anyone else in this business.

I need some help…


With 1,200 girls now receiving an education in the four Omid schools, there is a lot to be proud of. Still there are some rather daunting challenges ahead. Our job is to develop a plan for Omid, and report back to Sadiqa and donors.

The four of us start start planning a field visit. As Omid’s field officer, Farzana should be coming with us, but her father has forbidden it. It would be completely inappropriate for her to travel with a foreign male.

As we discuss the issues. I realize that I’m not really sure how we measure success. The exam results in all four schools appear to be as good, or better, than the national average. But this is not necessarily a guarantee of a good education, and Farzana is quite scathing about the quality of teaching at the Godah school, which she recently visited. She also found the four Godah teachers (all men) to be lacking in motivation.

But perhaps we need to broaden our criteria for success. Godah is the first girls’ school ever in this valley of Wardak, which is so isolated that the Russians only visited it once during their decade-long occupation. In this context, the Omid school is truly revolutionary. Creating a culture of education here may be more important than producing honors students ? although of course the two are not mutually exclusive.

Perhaps what really matters is that the students come to school regularly, and complete their education. Most of the schools offer classes up to grade 12 (aged 18). There is tremendous pressure on girls to leave school early – to get married, help in the house, or simply because their parents don’t like them to go out in public. How many students started in the school and have made it all the way through to the top grade? Absenteeism and retention rates are important indicators of success.

But this underscores the importance of getting the community on board, and the recent fires at Noor Khel and Godah have made us all nervous. The Godah school was burnt down in June, and the culprits have still not identified. Now the Noor Khel school has been burned. Donors will be hesitant to invest in these schools until they are sure the community really wants them.

And money is a worry. Thanks to a generous private donor, Omid has money through to the middle of next year, and now needs to start planning for the future. Otherwise Omid may have to pull out abruptly, leaving a lot of disappointed people.

This happened in June when another NGO suddenly withdrew its support from the Fatima Zahra school in Jalabad because it too had a funding crisis. This left six women teachers without a salary. Omid picked up two, but the school’s program was seriously disrupted. Farzana and Shabnan tell me that the Godah school is so new and isolated that no other NGO or funder will take it over.


Right now there appear to be three options, and none of them will be easy. The first is to raise more private money for the Omid program beyond the middle of next year. Even if this is possible, Omid cannot rely indefinitely on the goodwill of foreign donors.

The second, preferred option, is for the government to take over the schools. Two of the four schools are registered with the government and Sadiqa has tried repeatedly to get the other two registered with the government, only to be told that the registration of all new schools has been frozen. Moreover, government registration will not solve everything. Government registration did not save the Noor Khel from arsonists.

As a result, we are thinking that the most realistic option is for some combination of continued private support and some form of government oversight. We’ll try and work out what form this could take over the next few days.

We also hope to weigh up the importance of women teachers. The two Jalalabad schools are the only ones with women teachers, and we hope to find out from them whether it makes a real difference. When I visited Godah last year, I was quite taken aback to find men with long beards teaching girls.

I’m also unclear about what makes the Omid “model” so special. When our group started working with Omid in early 2004, we assumed that it was Sadiqa’s work with the communities. But again, the two fires have given me pause. And I’m a bit concerned about the reports of unmotivated teachers at Godah.

This is a long shopping list of issues to get through in just ten days. It is not made easier by the recent murder of Sadiqa’s cousin in Kandahar. Janadgur is now reluctant to allow me to stay overnight in Wardak. But this could create a real logistical headache, because the Wardak classes begin at 7:30 a.m. and end at 11:30. Wardak is a good four hours drive from Kabul. It’s hard to see how we could visit both schools on day trips.

This is shaping up to be a tough mission!

Posted By Iain Guest

Posted Oct 13th, 2005

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