Please stop building schools in Iraq and Afghanistan by mattsteinglass
May 12, 2009, 9:18 am
Filed under: Afghanistan, Development

BruceR, just back from a research tour of Afghanistan, has many fascinating insights (via Kevin Drum). Among them:

Well-meaning people have built a whole ton of schools in Kandahar Province over the last few years. As far as I could tell when I was there, none out in the rural areas were actually being used as schools during our tour.

Here’s a general rule that applies to basically every development program in every poor country in the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan: want to do something nice and useful for these people? Don’t build them a school. Believe it or not, people in poor countries actually have buildings. And they are capable of building more of them. They know how to do it, and it usually, for fairly simple economic reasons, does not cost more in any country to build a building than local people can afford. You know what they don’t know how to do? Teach science and math and English. And often, employing a trained teacher does cost more than they can afford in a small village, because such people are scarce, and it’s hard to spare extra labor in subsistence economies. If you want to spend your money on education, don’t build them a school; pay to train some teachers, and then pay the teachers’ salaries.

Development is not about buildings. It is not about objects. It’s about people.


38 Comments so far
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Your logic is impeccable but you’ve failed to notice that the military/industrial complex makes no money off of training teachers or paying existing teachers. Therefore it will never happen, though buildings will continue to pop up.

Comment by Devin

That is so true. Its all about that money I guess.

Comment by Daud Ahmad

so..then it’s all about the money?? not the people?? so money comes from…?? people or the buildings? If so, afghanistan will be full of building , with no people know how to use it..

Comment by mudahrezeki

Not always the case… several defense contractors are teaching English in Afghanistan, and I worked for one training teachers in Iraq.
The military needs educated people too.

Comment by Alison Jones

I see where you’re coming from – Greg Mortenson seems to be doing ok:

Comment by dss

Good point.

Comment by chris

Yes! This is the age-old rule of development: It has to be their idea, not yours. The third world is littered with abandoned monuments to the egos of well-meaning rich folks with neither the humility nor the patience to “Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves.'”

Comment by Adam

“School Is Open”, based in San Francisco, does exactly as you say – they send teachers to train teachers in science in Afghanistan and also send the necessary supplies for the local teachers to use in their classrooms.

Comment by Lisa Wentz

I love this idea – and frankly, it’s something I’d never thought of. Of course, they need people to teach people. So obvious. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Comment by On a limb with Claudia

You may be right about Afghanistan, but Iraq has plenty (well, had plenty) of capable teachers before 1) we bombed their school buildings or 2) created a situation in which they bombed each other’s school buildings.

Comment by BobN

I’m sorry but I don’t think you can blame anyone but the bombers for bombing the buildings.

Sure Sadam’s oppressive regime was removed but the indigenous Muslim leaders didn’t have to use their new freedom to kill each other.

Comment by pbhj

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You are right about Afghanistan. Good intentions aren’t enough, we need long-term plans. Security is part of it, how many teachers and students are going to make it to the schoolhouse if it’s a choice between life or death?

Comment by mariamsultana

Perhaps we could use those schools for all our “alternative ed” students. That takes care over overbuilding in both the US and Afghanistan.

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I agree with a prior post, we need teachers to teach because it starts with them. I am going to create my own foundation to assist in this matter. I am moonlighting with a few ideas because I want to take my business acumen and use it in the area of helping humanity by education.

Comment by Nelson Nigel

What you say is true, though after the success of “Three cups of Tea” your conclusion will probably be as welcome as a proposal to cull pandas. “Capacity building” is mostly about giving people skills and leveraging people who are in positions to make change happen. It is rarely about a building a building. But, most elites ask for buildings. It is something that they can control that will not threaten the status quo that they have mastered. Development usually means altering the status quo. It is subversive, though no one wants to admit that or all deveopment efforts would be closed down. Sometimes we have to build a building or two to be allowed to train a bunch of science teachers. It is worth the price.

Comment by Robert La Mont

Sometimes we have to build a building or two to be allowed to train a bunch of science teachers. It is worth the price.

Good point. Though I understand the best negotiating strategy varies with the place and the counterpart. People in some countries say you’re better off standing firm and refusing to grant goodies until they work with you anyway; or, if not, you drop them and move on to someone who will. Then again, building a school isn’t the world’s worst goody, and the process could be a collaborative one that lays the groundwork for doing better work together when it comes to training the teachers.

Comment by mattsteinglass

Returned Peace Corps volunteer here. I now work in international development.

What you say is absolutely true. A “school” can just as easily be a thatched hut as a brick-and-mortar institution. People all over the world know perfectly well how to build buildings – but *staffing* clinics, schools and so forth is the tricky part.

No only do you need qualified, trained people available to staff them, but you need administrative systems in place to pay, equip and support them as necessary. Even the poorest developing nation has plenty of folks who could (and probably would) be teachers – but often, their governments are unable or unwilling to stop officials from stealing their salaries.

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C’mon! We can build 20 schools for the cost of 1 US soldier stationed in Afghanistan for a single year. For the cost of an additional 10 soldiers, we could fund the teachers, and resources required for schooling the people who attend, for several years. The Afghan people are peasant farmer’s for the most part. I don’t care if they learn English!

When did we get so pious that if you don’t know English you are bad (count how many Americans?)? This whole conflict wouldn’t even exist if we built and funded schools after we made sure the Russians got their ass’s kicked out of Afghanistan!

Comment by Get real

I agree that there needs to be a focus on providing teachers and teacher training rather than buildings- but we need buildings, too!
I just returned from a year of doing teaching and teacher training in Afghanistan at a public Afghan university through a partnership between a US university and universities in Afghanistan funded by a grant from the World Bank. We had some success working with students and teachers but it would have been much easier if we could have had classrooms with air conditioning when it was 116 out or heat when it was 32 or at least reliable electricity to run the ceiling fans and space heaters?? And wouldn’t it be great if they could have reliable and fast internet at universities so they can access resources and training?
And the local teachers we were working with lacked basic skills in math and writing because most of them attended elementary and secondary school for only 3 hours a day, because they use one building for the school, so kids attend school in shifts.
The grant funding the work we were doing was not continued, but I am still doing some curriculum and training work remotely. I’m looking to apply for a grant to support this work. Anyone have any ideas?

Comment by Alison Jones

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In Afghanistan help needed every where: security, education, job finding, health ….you name it. To educate Afghans again you need many things: books, teachers, schools, food for students and everything else. We should know that there is no a single school has been built by people without help from NGOs or Afghan government. I agree with Allison. Situation is much worse in rural area. Tens of thousands of students are using unsafe-abundant home as school. Thousands of them are using tent or open air which climate can disturb their education any minutes. They need school building.
I agree that teaching teachers are very important but if you do not have building, where are you going to teach them. The need is enormous and please do not stop building schools. We are working toward peace. There are regions which are safe and building school and training teachers would be very beneficial. The Afghans have been struggling with ware and warlords for more than 30 years. Do everything you can to help them. They deserve better life and better education. Fight terror with books,pen and knowledge; army, tanks and airplane is not enough.

Comment by Noor Aaf

I agree, you can build a school and feel pretty damn good about it. After that, who knows what happens. In fact, it may become a safe haven for terrorist.

If you teach people there “how to teach” and you leave… well, what then? This would have be to a LONG TERM INVESTMENT in the people. That community becomes a part of you- I would hope that the Universities out there would be a part of your “unselfish plan.” Everyone has to buy into this. There can be programs with the Universities that partner up with this sort of organization. A small salary to teach, etc.

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Comment by Brent

Of course there should be money to pay to teachers. Teachers must be trained, it costs money too. But, if there are no school buildings? you suggest to teach in the tents as they do in afghanistan now. In Afghanistan there are over 6000 schools without any buildings, they study under trees, tents etc. There should be balance. You can not forget one side completely to implement another. This is very narrow thinking, but sounds very attractive, I am sorry to say that.

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I found that article very insightful.

Comment by Riadh

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