The dilapidated building beyond the wire gate screams bombed-out barracks or abandoned prison.
Layer upon layer of Afghanistan’s ubiquitous brown dust cakes its chipped whitewashed walls. Rusted metal girders – all that was left of the roof over the main hallway – dull Persian rugs carpeting the floor and grey, featureless rooms add to the air of menace that pervades the place.
A handful of tatty tents pitched off in the distance and gleaming whiteboards affixed to the walls in some rooms are the only hints that the building is in fact a school.
Tunika Hassan Tabin High School has deteriorated so badly over the past 33 years that local residents want to demolish it and plant a garden in its place.
Before that can happen, though, they need a new block of classrooms to house close to 1,000 students.
Tunika Hassan Tabin High School has plenty of company when it comes to a classroom deficit. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education estimates less than half of the 360 schools in Jowzjan province in northern Afghanistan have enough classrooms for their students.
Eric Rajah would love to satisfy the overwhelming needs of all Jowzjan’s schools. Instead, security concerns, the willingness of donors to back projects in Afghanistan and the politics of international development force the co-founder of A Better World to pick and choose the projects he pursues carefully.
“I’ve come to the realization that every little bit makes a huge difference,” said Rajah, adding that it’s important to avoid getting overwhelmed.
“If you get overwhelmed and emotional at meeting all these needs, you’re going to get discouraged, and sometimes depressed . . . coming to a country like this, seeing the effect of 30 years of war.”
Before arriving in Afghanistan, Rajah and Azalea Lehndorff, an intern with A Better World and founder of the 100 Classrooms for Afghanistan project, asked its local partner in Jowzjan to identify schools that would benefit the most from new classrooms.
Jowzjan’s ministry of education whittled down the list to 11. Five of them are located in unsecured districts.
Abdul Karim Fahimi, ADRA Afghanistan’s project manager for Jowzjan for the past four years, visited all of the schools on the ministry’s list by taxi. At some, he met secretly with the principals. If the wrong people found out he worked for an international development agency, his safety would have been in jeopardy.
If it’s difficult for a local to reach the schools safely, it’s impossible for A Better World, said Fahimi.
“You could go every day with a police escort,” he joked.
If some of the schools on the list are unsafe, why would the ministry recommend them in the first place?
Tinistry expects development organizations to work with local construction companies that are willing to bribe the Taliban and local leaders to ensure the project is completed safely, explained Fahimi.
ADRA Afghanistan doesn’t have the luxury of corruption, he added.
Tunika Hassan Tabin High School was the No. 1 priority on the ministry’s list. Kinara Secondary School was No. 2.
Located on the outskirts of Sheberghan, Kinara serves about 700 students. Some classes are held in a rented building; other meet in the shade of the trees at the local mosque.
The level of teacher-student interaction at Kinara impressed Rajah and Lehndorff, as did the community’s involvement. The head of the village donated land for a school, and the community chipped in with a water pump and power.
“I don’t know where they get this hope from, but they’re anticipating there is going to be a school there,” said Rajah.
Tunika Hassan Tabin is the provincial government’s top priority for political reasons too. The school is located in a predominantly Pashtun community. Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, but they are a minority in Jowzjan, which is mostly populated by Uzbeks. Building a school in the community would go along way to mitigating accusations that development in Jowzjan favours the Uzbeks and, perhaps, guarantee a few votes on election day.
Abdullhay Yasheen, provincial education minister, made no bones about the school’s importance. He arranged for a member of his staff – who was accompanied by an Afghan intelligence official and a heavily-armed police escort – to join to Rajah and Lehndorff on the needs assessment.
Rajah said he gets very nervous whenever a politician says, “I’m going to take you to this school.” Rejecting a politician’s pet project could jeopardize the future of all of A Better World’s projects in the region.
In the case of Tunika Hassan Tabin, the structure was dilapidated and dangerous, and the schools’ tents were some of the shabbiest yet, he said.
“I started thinking to myself, ‘What is the self-worth of the students who go there?’”
A Better World’s local partners have pet projects of their own they would like Rajah to consider.
Zahir Aslamy, an independent building contractor and director of Rostahi Agency for Rehabilitation of Afghanistan, attempted to persuade him to support a project at Fathemi Balkhy Girls High School in the city Mazar-i-sharif.
By Afghanistan’s standards, Fathemi is a palace with a pink dome and ornate green and gold pillars.
But head to the back of the school, and Fathemi loses some of her lustre. A half dozen tents have been set up in an area normally reserved for drainage. In the absence of desks, girls sit on green plastic chairs or whatever else they can find at home.
Aslamy favours investing in Fathemi over rural schools because it is larger and offers only two shifts. A girl attending a two-shift school may study for four hours daily, while a girl attending a three-shift school may study for two. Teachers at two-shift schools have more instructional time, he said.
Aslamy added it’s difficult to persuade good teachers to work in rural village schools, which lowers the standard of education.
A three-shift school, coupled with poor teaching qualifications, is bad news for students who hope to attend university, he said. Of the 62,000 students who recently wrote the university entrance exams, only 38,000 passed.
The only alternative open to the 25,000 students who failed to make the grade are private universities, which are prohibitively expensive for most Afghans, said Aslamy.
“There are so many Grade 12 graduates working as day labourers because they don’t have the money to attend private universities,” he said.
Larger schools give students from poor families the best chance to attend university, concluded Aslamy.
Rajah said Aslamy’s points are valid, but building more classrooms at Fathemi is a tough sell to his donors when there are so many other schools, such at Tunika Hassan Tabin and Kinara Secondary, that have nothing.
“Sometimes you make these visits to satisfy your local partners,” said Rajah.
Rajah and Lehndorff would also like to build on the relationship they’ve formed with previous recipients, including Niswan II Girl’s School and Arabkhana High School.
After his 2009 visit to Afghanistan, Rajah gave Nisswan II $50,000 to build six new classrooms and refurbish 12 others. Now the school is looking for another four classrooms.
Rajah said he is aware of the risk of A Better World spreading its funds too thin with each completed project.
“The idea is to put a little bit every year so that we can come back and make sure something has happened,” he said. “But the bulk of our money will go towards new projects.”
Lehndorff said it’s challenging to set realistic goals when confronted with so many options.
“I know our priority is to build classrooms, but can we not be building capacity in the schools that are functioning well?” she asked. “It’s very hard to weigh your priorities . . . . I wish I could do both.”
Tunika Hassan Tabin and Kinara Secondary will be A Better World’s top priorities in Afghanistan for 2011-12. Both are in desperate situations and both are considered important by Jowzjan’s ministry of education. If A Better World receives donations for its 100 Classrooms in Afghanistan project, that’s where they’ll be headed, said Rajah.
“I read a statement just before I came: ‘You cannot do everything at once, but you can do something at once.’
“It’s a good quotation when you come to a place like this. If you want to do everything at once, it’s impossible. But maybe we can do something at once, and that’s what we’ll move on.”