Volume 15 Number 4
Afghan Refugees Gain Learning for Life
01 August 2002

In recent years LFL has turned its attention to 3,500 Afghan refugee children - girls and boys - living in and around Peshawar. As the two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan begin to return home - a process which is expected to take at least two years - LFL aims to expand into Afghanistan itself.

As Afghan refugees stream back into their homeland, following the overthrow of the Taliban regime last year, a critical issue for the nation's reconstruction is education. 'Afghanistan's education system is in a state of total collapse,' reports the World Bank. Only eight per cent of Afghans complete primary education. The Taliban so marginalized women and girls that education for them went underground and only 13.5 per cent of women can read and write.

An immediate priority, says the Bank, is to 'expand primary education rapidly through all means' - including non-governmental and community based schooling.

A small UK charity, Learning for Life (LFL), (See FAC Dec-Jan 1999), aims to do just this. Over the last decade it has focused on providing basic education, especially for girls, in remote areas of Pakistan and India, some of the world's most illiterate regions.

In recent years LFL has turned its attention to 3,500 Afghan refugee children - girls and boys - living in and around Peshawar. As the two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan begin to return home - a process which is expected to take at least two years - LFL aims to expand into Afghanistan itself.

Cut to London's salubrious Notting Hill, where LFL has its offices in two small first floor rooms above a church - keeping its overheads to a minimum. LFL was founded in 1993 by two British women, merchant banker turned journalist Sophia Swire, whom FAC profiled, and Charlotte Bannister-Parker, who had previously worked for eight years on women's development issues in south Asia.

Swire had reported from Pakistan for the BBC World Service. On a visit to Chitral, in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains, she was urged by a local district commissioner to help him set up schools for illiterate children.

Since then, LFL has helped to fund the education of over 30,000 children in some 200 village schools - paying for teachers' training and salaries, support staff and school equipment - in collaboration with local NGOs (non-governmental organizations). They do this in areas where the state education system fails to function. 'LFL sees itself investing in local skills to achieve longterm benefits,' says LFL's Director, Felicity Hill. This has been so effective that the Pakistan government has now incorporated aspects of LFL's work into its five-year education plan at a provincial level.
And the Save the Children Fund has commended LFL as an example of good practice.

In the last seven years LFL has collaborated with a local charity, Afghan Relief and Rehabilitation, in setting up and funding six schools for the 3,500 Afghan refugee children, aged six to 18, in Peshawar. The Pakistan government refuses to take responsibility for their education, so they are utterly dependent on outside aid. 'The government doesn't favour refugees having access to education,' Hill says. 'Fortunately the children benefit from the brain drain from Afghanistan amongst the adult refugees.' Afghan teachers are paid by LFL, and a little funding goes a long way: £250 covers a teacher's training and salary, while £50 covers a year's schooling for a child. The charity raised £250,000 last year, from the UK's Department for International Development, the national lottery's Community Fund, businesses and fund-raising events.

The Afghan schools are makeshift: in rented buildings, under tarpaulin and even in stairwells. 'We don't support construction costs,' says Hill. The children follow the national curriculum developed for Afghanistan by the University of Nebraska in the mid-1980s.

Pakistan's curriculum and teacher training has to be heavily supplemented, Hill says. Some available course work is repeated several times. So studies are also tailored to local needs, including languages, history, culture and farming skills.

Above all, says Hill, education is 'developing the children's self-respect and self-confidence in the community'. Visiting Pakistan each year, she sees the changes in the children. The parents tell her: 'They are more respectful, neater, they pray, they know what is going on in the houses around them.' In educating young women in particular, Hill says, 'you have direct access to the community. Women give birth, look after the family and its health. A mother who can read the instructions on medicine knows whether it is going to kill or cure her child.'

Trained as a primary school teacher, Hill came to her post as LFL Director in 2000 having worked for two and half years with the UK's Voluntary Services Overseas programme in Pakistan, running urban and shanty town schools. 'Each individual has a different place in the world and a different role to play,' she says. 'In LFL we all have a driving motivation to make it a success for this region that has been deprived of so much.'

'We can make a significant impact on a neglected area of the world,' adds Angus Broadbent, LFL's Chairman of Trustees and owner of Broadbent art gallery in London. The son of a headmaster, he 'bought into the vision' of the founders. It isn't a question of a money transaction between rich and poor worlds, he insists, so much as sharing the benefits of a good education. 'It is about enabling communities. The passion and commitment is very special in our organization. The people who get involved in LFL have a tremendous sense of ownership.'

LFL's publicity quotes UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan: 'There is no higher priority, no mission more important than that of education for all'. It breaks the cycle of poverty and Learning for Life is helping to fulfil that mission.

Michael Smith