Many Afghans who grew up during decades of war and repressive rule are now in their twenties, struggling to find their footing in a dramatically altered and rapidly changing country. Deprived of the opportunity for schooling in their early years, many are unable to read; some can’t even recognize letters of the alphabet. In rural areas, about 70 percent of heads of households cannot read or write.
Still, optimism pervades the country, says EDC’s Cornelia Janke, a project director for the $10.6 million Literacy and Community Empowerment Program, which is managed by EDC in partnership with UNHabitat. Begun in 2004, the project is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
“People in Afghanistan are really hungry for learning and development,” Janke says.
The program, which Janke calls “an integrated model for rural village development,” reaches more than 25,000 Afghans in 190 villages, focusing on literacy, income generation, and local governance. Project employees are nearly all local Afghans, with more than 100 involved in the literacy work alone.
Working with locally elected councils, project employees provide tools to expand literacy and numeracy, develop local governance, and increase economic opportunity— such as helping community members learn how to organize local savings and credit groups and microenterprise activities. The program also makes a special effort to ensure that village women have the opportunity to fully participate in the activities.
“Because of the years of war, this country is faced with two big problems: illiteracy and poverty,” says a district manager in the Zindajan district. “A program that offers skills development and literacy is obviously attractive. People know the value of education and getting out of misery.”
“The ripple effect of increased literacy on people’s level of activity and community connectedness is surprisingly wide,” says EDC’s Janke. “We’ve seen young people who have a new sense of purpose and an ability to devote their energies toward betterment of the community.”
Janke recalls a young woman who used her newfound skills to help her mother, a seamstress, learn numeracy skills to make better-fitting garments. “Or,” says Janke, “youths can use their new literacy skills to write up the village newsletter or engage in village clean-up instead of sitting around indoors feeling isolated or vandalizing cars.”
Now completing its second year, the program has conducted a progress report that will help staff develop and refine the basic model and create a plan for expanding the activities.
Originally published on April 30, 2006