Alison Long (Afghanistan)

Alison Long (Omid, Afghanistan): In 2000, Alison earned her B.A. in Anthropology from Princeton. She spent a year in rural Vietnam teaching English. Alison returned to the U.S. and taught at a small school in New Jersey before relocating to DC. At the time of her fellowship, Alison was pursuing her master’s at School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC, in Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs, with a concentration in women's rights and gender issues. While at American University, Alison interned at Disabled Persons International (DPI) and served as a research assistant for human rights professor Julie Mertus. Alison is also the 2006 recipient of the School of International Service's Brady Tyson Award for Excellence in the Area of Human Rights.

The World of an Afghan Ministry: Through the Looking Glass

20 Jul

Officially, when the Afghan government agrees to register a school, the former becomes responsible for providing the salaries of teachers, purchasing desks and chairs, students’ stationary, building maintenance, etc. This, of course, does not actually occur since the Ministry of Education (MoE) has been working on a development budget of 0.00$ since 2002. That means that the 140,000 teachers of Afghanistan have rarely received their salaries and that no new schools have been built in the last four years. Consequently, the Ministry has begun to permit another kind of school registration: an NGO (e.g. Oruj) may formally submit an application, pledging that full financial backing for the school will be provided by the NGO; in return, the Ministry of Education will promise to provide “technical support,” or at the very least, that the government will not interfere with the construction or functioning of the school. In the future, when (if at all) funds are disbursed by the Ministry of Finance to the Ministry of Education, all of these registered schools will be eligible for government funding.

Therefore, this morning, Sadiqa, her father, and I traveled to the offices of the Ministry of Education in De Afghanan, hoping to begin this process of registering the girls’ school in Godah by promising full funding from Oruj for the project. We shuffled out of the blazing hot, mid-morning sun into the cool, cavernous lobby of the MoE. Sadiqa’s father was waved hastily past a metal detector, while Sadiqa beckoned me into a small room off to the left. Inside, an obviously disgruntled woman searched our bags… thoroughly. The woman opened up every container, flipped through every page of each notebook, confiscated a camera (temporarily), squeezed all our lotions and lipsticks, and made us turn on our cell phones to prove they were not explosive devices. However, even as she was delving into the furthest chasms of our bags, another Afghan woman came in, perfunctorily waved her bag a meter in front of this gloomy government employee, and then departed from the tiny room without ever being searched. Interesting approach to security, I thought to myself.

We then proceeded to climb seven flights of stairs, encountering a flurry of voices and activity on each floor. As usual, I immediately noticed a male-to-female ratio of approximately 30-to-1. I continued to ascend the spiraling staircase with my eyes down-turned—partly so that I didn’t trip on my long skirt, but partly so that I wouldn’t have to observe the staring, the glaring, and craning of the necks that indubitably occurs whenever I walk into in a “man’s world” (i.e. streets, office buildings, marketplaces, etc.).

We wove our way around the Afghan men, who were loitering on the landing of each floor, and through several hallways before we entered a large, non-descript office. Although I initially had no idea where we were or who exactly we meeting, it soon became clear that we were in the “Monitoring and Evaluation” office. There were ten middle-aged and elderly men, scattered around fifteen large desks and settled into cushy, brand-new chairs. There was not a single piece of paper, nor pen in sight. Two men were smoking, and three were drinking chai. One was reading a novel with a drawing on the cover of a woman who bore a striking resemblance to Sigourney Weaver. There was not a lick of discernable work being done. In fact, these men were not even pretending to do work! It was bizarre.

When I turned to Sadiqa, she leaned in and with a controlled anger, whispered, “Look how nice this office is! There’s electricity 24 hours a day. These men who work here come in, eat breakfast, sit, drink chai, eat lunch… and then they go home. They do nothing. It’s all so wasteful. Also, they lock the rooms and close the offices early so even if someone wanted to work later, he could not.” What exactly were these men being paid salaries for? I wondered, especially since there are no financial resources with which they could be performing their work.

A man who had been speaking with Sadiqa’s father walked us down a flight of stairs, around another obstacle course of men clustered in small groups, and into the office of the Deputy Minister of Education. Surrounded by three young male assistants, this well-dressed, middle-aged man sat on a plush, overstuffed couch, focusing almost all of his attention on creating a proper knot in a man’s tie that was secured around his knee—all while Sadiqa and her father were speaking to him about registering the Godah school. I’m not sure exactly what was said, but we ushered back across the landing, forced to zigzag around the loitering men, and into another huge office with ten men sitting around talking—again, no paperwork to be seen. A form materialized, was signed, and words were briefly exchanged; then once again, we were escorted back toward the staircase. That’s when I was informed that, after one hundred-and-ten minutes of negotiating our way through this bureaucratic maze, the only tangible evidence of our endeavors was that we had scheduled an appointment to return on Wednesday at 2:30pm.

All I could think to myself was, How in the world could this “governmental body” provide technical assistance and guidance to NGOs and/or Afghan communities, which are working to improve education, when they run their office in such a way? Being shuffled from one room to the next, gaining access to the Deputy solely because the Evaluation and Monitoring officer thought Sadiqa looked like his eldest daughter, men being paid to sit and eat two three-hour meals, while not doing any work—it all felt a bit like the absurdist musings of Lewis Carroll. I have no doubt that every government’s bureaucracy is bound to suffer from some amount of inefficiency and illogical structures and procedures. However, after visiting the MoE, I now understand how little support—financial or ideological—the national government in Kabul is able to offer girls’ education. This, of course, makes Oruj’s knowledge/advice, fundraising, and project execution all the more valuable to the development of girls’ education in Afghanistan.

Posted By Alison Long (Afghanistan)

Posted Jul 20th, 2006

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