Interview: Catholic Relief Services in Afghanistan

CRS distributes lambs to impoverished farmers and trains them to care for their animals. Photo: Laura Sheahen/CRS Read more:

Afghans face a daily struggle against poverty. The basics of food, water, medicine, education and shelter are hard to reach for millions in the country. It is the war against poverty in Afghanistan which is often overlooked.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is trying to make a difference and help lift Afghans out of the poverty trap. Laura Sheahen, CRS Asia information officer, helped coordinate the following interview with the CRS Afghanistan team. They offer a look inside daily life in Afghanistan.

Tell us about some of the families you met in Afghanistan and the struggles they face.

CRS sees all kinds of families really struggling just to stay warm and fed in winter, and to grow food in the summer. The weather can be quite extreme and finding water is often an issue. Afghans also struggle to get to market-either to buy or sell food-given the road system, which is bumpy and rocky at the best of times. In some areas, roads are often completely impassable during the long, snowy winters. So just getting staple foods is a huge challenge, as is getting medical care.

What effect has the increase in food prices in Afghanistan had on the communities there?

When families can’t afford food, what happens in rural areas is that they sell livestock, which is basically their insurance policy against even bigger disasters. If they sell their goat to buy flour, for example, they have nothing to sell when they need money for an urgent trip to the far-off hospital. And, of course, some families with nothing to sell are simply going hungry.

Malnutrition is a problem for at least a third of children in Afghanistan, according to World Health Organization statistics.

In some areas, needy families are sending their teenage or young adult sons to places like Iran and Pakistan to work, which is not something they want to do.

What are some programs CRS is running to help tackle poverty in Afghanistan?

Since water is such an issue, CRS helps farmers improve irrigation systems, dig canals, and so forth. CRS also builds water systems so that remote villages have tapstands. CRS links farmers to local markets and businesses, teaching them how to grow, transport, and sell produce effectively. For example, we taught farmers how to grow strawberries under plastic-tarp greenhouses in winter. They get a high price for their berries in spring.

CRS organizes groups of women and give them the basics they need to start small businesses, like baking snacks or sewing curtains. So for the bakery we’d build them a special clay oven and give them a stock of flour to start with, for example. When women can make a little money, it helps the whole household.

What are the great challenges in terms of education for Afghan children?

After decades of war and the repressive rule of the Taliban, Afghanistan’s education system has been left without an adequate number of schools and qualified teachers. Literacy levels in Afghanistan are extremely low, with only 28% of the overall population estimated to be literate–meaning that finding teachers can be extremely difficult, especially in the most remote and rural parts of the country.

Distance is a huge factor. Out on the plains of Afghanistan, or in the mountains, people might live dozens of miles away from any town, much less a public school.

In some cases families are concerned about their daughters going to school. It’s not just a cultural issue-they could be worried about their daughter’s safety as she walks 4 miles of uninhabited territory to get to school.

What is CRS doing to help improve the education system for Afghans?

CRS works with villages to create schools, especially in remote areas where girls cannot easily reach public schools. CRS trains the teachers, provides the books and supplies, and does whatever it takes to get a school going.

To start a school, CRS meets with parents and community members to discuss their interest in education. Community members then commit to providing a space for a classroom– typically a room in a villager’s house–and help identify a teacher.

CRS also provides a class kit (e.g., blackboard, chalk, water cooler), a student kit (e.g., notebooks, textbooks, pencils) and a teacher kit (lesson plan book, pens, etc). We also work with the Ministry of Education to receive government textbooks and use this government curriculum.

By creating the village schools close to home, and by talking with mothers and fathers, we get community buy-in and support. It’s a large factor in overcoming the barrier of distance which ensures that girls can attend.

That’s one reason we think we have so many girls studying in CRS-created schools. We always talk everything through with the villagers and discuss their concerns.

The teacher training we provide is really key. Teachers learn to teach using interactive methods, instead of asking children to do rote memorization. Teachers learn how to prepare lesson plans and learn basic classroom management. We offer a series of workshops to build their teaching skills, especially for reading and math. CRS staff visit the teachers on a regular basis to follow up and ensure that teachers are able to apply these new teaching methods in the classroom.

We provide textbooks and supplies like a blackboard and chalk. The schools would founder without some of these basic materials, due to cost and due to the distance villagers would have to go to get the materials.

Another thing that’s making a huge difference is our “box of books” library system. Basically, we give each school we create a metal lockbox full of several dozen educational books-stories about animals, for example.

The children treat these books like gold. They borrow them from the box and read them to their families at home.

CRS helps form Parent-Teacher Associations which monitor the class to make certain it has the necessary supplies and to check on teacher and student attendance.

With this strong focus on community participation and quality of education, CRS has made education available to 13,500 children (64% girls) in 340 communities in remote and rural areas of Afghanistan. We’ve also supported over 700 teachers with training and mentoring services.

Because we work closely with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, we’ve ensured that children enrolled in our schools are recognized as part of the formal government system.

How can someone get involved with the work of CRS in Afghanistan?

You can learn more, or donate, at Catholic Relief Services

Article first published as Interview: Catholic Relief Services in Afghanistan on Blogcritics.

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