[Opinion] One drop in the ocean

By Safida Begum

A boy who had completed grade 10, making him the only educated child in Sarhad, said “The Government Education Department has not allowed us to use the facility so we cannot use it.”

Later on I met with the provincial education director of Badakhshan, who told me, “Dr. Mortenson did not get our permission before constructing the school. So we do not allow the community to use it until we get permission from the ministry of Kabul.”

I had to advocate to the provincial director saying, “What if Dr. Mortenson has not taken permission, does it mean that the building should be spoiled? Don’t you think the poor children and the community would be happy if you allow them to use the facility?”

This discussion seemed to be working. He agreed to write to the Ministry of Education and bring this issue to their attention. I also reported to my organization and recommended it intervene as a third party to resolve the conflict so the children could benefit from the school.

When I met the provincial director again after two months, he said he had written about the issue to the ministry in Kabul and it was under consideration. In my recent discussion with colleagues from Afghanistan, it appears the Sarhad school is being used and CAI has constructed more schools in the Wakhan Corridor.

Unfair Attacks
Then I came across the news about a special investigation into Mortenson’s work. Well, the word “investigation” made me very uncomfortable and I felt it a little harsh. It seems there is no recognition of anybody’s good work. I really feel sorry for Mortenson because it seems unfair to a good human being, a philanthropist and a dedicated and hardworking person who started building schools based on his emotional attachment and personal financial contributions to poor people in Korphe. When he came back to the United States empty handed, broke from giving it away, he had to sleep in his tent. Yet he is punished for creating schools and blamed because he chose the hard pathway in constructing schools for poor people in poor communities.

I wish that every human being could demonstrate that kind of performance in these harsh areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. If they did, we would have created peace, care, love for human beings, harmony, respect, tolerance and acceptance of each others’ good work. We would have built and strengthened each other. These countries would not have remained poor. And the world would better understand the pain of those of us who walk the hard pathways of life.

In recent years, 157 schools have been blasted in Pakistan. We need to ask those communities and those children how they feel without a school building. A school building secures children from the harsh weather conditions (extreme hot and cold) and provides social and emotional security that enables children to concentrate on their learning with a peaceful mind. We must salute this one man, for enabling thousands and millions of minds to focus on meaningful tasks — education in schools. Why we are always focusing the negatives and becoming suspicious?

There also seems to be a debate about CAI staff being less educated. It reminds me of an experience in my own village. At a social huge event, a well-educated young woman spoke English well. Others appreciated her language skills and scolded the old teachers for their lack of skills. One of the older teachers spoke (he was the first teacher in our village), with tears in his eyes: “If we had not initiated, struggled, faced difficulties with the traditional myths to educate girls many years ago, these men and women today would have not this quality and capability today. Need changes according to the time and realities, so if you cannot appreciate our work, please, do not dismiss us.”

I learned a lesson that day. We cannot bring quality change all of the sudden without experimentation and change. The first step to change is accessibility, then quality and sustainability. Mortenson must have selected his staff according to the needs of the time. They must have worked hard and it must have worked well for them. Maybe he was not sure he would be so successful. Now CAI has expanded, so instead of blaming them, they should be told how to bring about further improvement in areas that are lacking and what strategies and approaches might be used.

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  1. Safida, this is a moving and powerful piece of writing! You make me feel better about the CAI. Your point is persuasive, because of course it will not be perfect – teachers, hostels, employees – but they do their best in very difficult areas in which to operate.
    Nevertheless, CAI must be subject to audit and transparency. A key learning for the organization is that they have grown large enough to need professional business management to ensure efficient use of funds. I recently read that they are undergoing a full audit now and will report near the end of the year.
    Thanks for writing your perspective as someone who has seen the ground realities, and for sharing with the donors.

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