Sunday, July 13, 2008

Schools or Missiles?

I haven't read Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea - but I've only heard great things about it. Nicholas Kristof in today's NYT writes about the phenomenal effort of Mortenson in building schools in the tribal areas of Pakistan (and Afghanistan):

Mr. Mortenson found his calling in 1993 after he failed in an attempt to climb K2, a Himalayan peak, and stumbled weakly into a poor Muslim village. The peasants nursed him back to health, and he promised to repay them by building the village a school.

Scrounging the money was a nightmare — his 580 fund-raising letters to prominent people generated one check, from Tom Brokaw — and Mr. Mortenson ended up selling his beloved climbing equipment and car. But when the school was built, he kept going. Now his aid group, the Central Asia Institute, has 74 schools in operation. His focus is educating girls.

To get a school, villagers must provide the land and the labor to assure a local “buy-in,” and so far the Taliban have not bothered his schools. One anti-American mob rampaged through Baharak, Afghanistan, attacking aid groups — but stopped at the school that local people had just built with Mr. Mortenson. “This is our school,” the mob leaders decided, and they left it intact.

Mr. Mortenson has had setbacks, including being kidnapped for eight days in Pakistan’s wild Waziristan region. It would be na├»ve to think that a few dozen schools will turn the tide in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Still, he notes that the Taliban recruits the poor and illiterate, and he also argues that when women are educated they are more likely to restrain their sons. Five of his teachers are former Taliban, and he says it was their mothers who persuaded them to leave the Taliban; that is one reason he is passionate about educating girls.

This is a remarkable story and an incredible effort. Though I should point out an irony here too. "Talib" means students - and the Taliban movement, in the mid-1990's, grew out of madrassas (schools) located in the Afghan refugee camps in the northern areas of Pakistan. The problem there was that the madrassas were/are using curricula designed in the medieval times (yes--really).

But even in the remote parts of the country, there is very positive attitude towards education - the trick is to get the right education there, and I think Mortenson (and some others) is doing that.

So I have this fantasy: Suppose that the United States focused less on blowing things up in Pakistan’s tribal areas and more on working through local aid groups to build schools, simultaneously cutting tariffs on Pakistani and Afghan manufactured exports. There would be no immediate payback, but a better-educated and more economically vibrant Pakistan would probably be more resistant to extremism.

“Schools are a much more effective bang for the buck than missiles or chasing some Taliban around the country,” says Mr. Mortenson, who is an Army veteran.

Each Tomahawk missile that the United States fires in Afghanistan costs at least $500,000. That’s enough for local aid groups to build more than 20 schools, and in the long run those schools probably do more to destroy the Taliban.

The Pentagon, which has a much better appreciation for the limits of military power than the Bush administration as a whole, placed large orders for “Three Cups of Tea” and invited Mr. Mortenson to speak.

Intriguing...establishing schools in these areas instead of bombing them. Hmm...lets see which strategy will be more effective. Read the full article here.


Epiphenom said...

Thing is, there's more aid money going to Afghanistan than can be spent. It's chicken and egg. 30 years of war by proxy destroyed the country. You can't put it back together until there's peace. And you won't get peace till it's put back together. If only they had focussed on getting Afghanistan right,rather than invading Iraq!

Salman Hameed said...

Completely agree with this. That is why I really appreciat the efforts of Mortenson - in some ways, showing the way forward.

Anonymous said...

Islam have greates system of Education.

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