Despite all the troubles, Afghanistan is an amazingly young country. According to Index Mundi, Afghanistan’s latest demographic data suggests that 63.5% of the population is under age 24. Just imagine, if you take the age group from 10-19, there are 7.6 million young Afghan boys and girls who are poised to enter higher education. If you look at average age in Afghanistan today, it is about 18.6 years. This is an amazing opportunity for Afghanistan because it’s happening at the time when the rest of the world is aging.
According to some estimates, by 2020, the average age in India is going to be 29, in Pakistan 25, in China, it’s going to be heading well past 40, Europe 46, the United States also 40, and Afghanistan’s average age is going to be 20. So, Afghans are potentially the people who are youthful, productive, dynamic, ready to work and transform the faith of their country and that of the world. Afghanistan will have about 12 million people in the age group of starting work, 20–24, while most other developed countries will have a serious working force deficit. The opportunity is available for youthful Afghans to grab, however, the question is whether Afghanistan has the ability to equip its people to take advantage of this golden chance.
If Afghanistan gets it right and equips its young generation with the tools they need, educate, and train them, it will transform not only the Afghan economy and society but the world. If Afghanistan misses the opportunity, the demographic dividend that’s discussed here will become a demographic disaster. We’ve seen in Afghanistan and around the world what happens when unemployed, frustrated, undereducated young man become prey to the propaganda of the Islamic State, the Taliban, the gun and the bullet. Therefore, education is not just a confined social or economic issue for Afghans, but a national security issue on the global scale for Europe, and for the United States, as we saw what happened on 9/11.
Here’s what needs to happen:
First, the Afghan government needed to expand the higher education system right after the Taliban regime collapsed. The three decades of war and ravage followed by the oppressive regime of the Taliban left Afghans in 2001 with a 17% literacy rate, according to the World Bank. There were only 7,800 students enrolled in the higher education system in fewer than 7 universities. Therefore, expansion was essential. Afghanistan went right from the 17% to 58% in 2015. Also, the number of universities went up from 7 to 76 universities, and the student enrollment went up from 7,800 to 174,424 in 2015. So, expansion took place – incredibly in the last decade and a half after the Taliban. However, there are still 1 out 3 students out of school. The expansion of the system hasn’t gone far enough and has failed to put everyone through school.
Second, initially after the Taliban, the government had to strive for equity. That is to include the excluded from the education, and try to reach out to the unreached. The people who didn’t get a fair shake in education for reasons they couldn’t help, gender, an obvious reason. During the Taliban, the female literacy rate was zero. There were no girls enrolled in school. The government and the international donor agencies did a lot of work to encourage girls back to school. However, there are still parts of Afghanistan were the enrollment ratio for girls is zero. The government needs to reach out to those rural pockets and provide girls and deprived students with educational opportunity.
In getting the Expansion and the Equity side of the formula more or less right, how has Afghanistan done on the third E of Excellence?
Obviously, the education system needs better quality and a number of universities that were established after the Taliban that provide quality education. A couple of them that come to mind are the American University of Afghanistan, and Kardan University. They have been islands of excellence, floating on the sea of mediocrity. However, the average Afghan higher education institution is simply not of the quality that one would expect. Students graduated from most of these institutions are not employable. They lack sufficient skills that are useful in the job arena. Some companies and ministries run their capacity building training to make up for the deficiencies of what they’ve learned or not properly learned in college. Improving the quality of tertiary education is an essential task for the government.
In sum, Afghanistan needs to get its younger generation well-trained, and ready for the next century challenges. In the era of Google where one can find facts with a click of a mouse, they need not only newly graduates with their heads filled full of facts, but a workforce that is well-informed. A mind that reacts to unfamiliar facts and details that can actually synthesize information that it hasn’t studied before. A mind that can react to bigger examination called ‘life,’ and a mind that doesn’t just ask why, but why not. There are no doubts that the challenges are enormous. There is simply no question that Afghanistan has bigger issues. However, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel and Afghanistan’s beaming shining star is its youthful population that could change the destiny of this nation. So, the future looks good if we can get all these pieces in place and get the future generation the education they need.
Abid Amiri is the Director for Monitoring Development Programs of the Policy Department at the Ministry of Finance. Prior to joining the Policy Department he was advisor to the Minister of Finance. Mr. Amiri has worked as Economic Affairs Officer for the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington and has worked for a number of non-profit organizations based in Washington, and Afghanistan.
Abid Amiri holds a Master’s degree in International Development Economics from The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University, Washington. Previously he earned a double bachelor’s degree in Economics and Global Studies from St. Lawrence University in New York. In addition, Mr. Amiri has a number of publications including his work on Road Reconstruction in Post-Conflict Afghanistan published in the International Affairs Review, and his article on unemployment in Afghanistan in the Global Journal. Abid Amiri is fluent in Pashto, Dari, English and Urdu.