Billions of dollars in Western aid have been pouring into Afghanistan since 2001. Accompanying that aid have been tens of thousands of Westerners, primarily from North America and the European Union. These Westerners, rather than learning Dari and Pashto and seeking to seamlessly fit into Afghan society so as to help rebuild Afghanistan, have their own agenda. That agenda includes the promotion of English at the expense of Dari and Pashto- the dominant Afghan languages. They have disrupted the local wage scales such that becoming a translator for a Westerner has become one of the best paying jobs in the country. BBC reporter Dawood Azami, in his January 12, 2009 article entitled: “English takes hold in Afghanistan,” writes that: “The penetration of English is now influencing
nearly all sectors of Afghan society.”
He went on to conclude that:“English is not only a requirement to work for a foreign NGO but it is also required for many government jobs.”
Ann Jones, in her excellent book “Kabul in Winter,” recounts that she met a USAID contractor who was being paid almost $1,000 a day to work with the Ministry of Higher Education to promote English. Ms. Jones tells the story of a Deputy Minister who quit his job working for the Afghan government in order to make a higher salary as an interpreter for a Western aid group.
The Voice of America, in a May 30, 2006 broadcast on teaching English in Afghanistan, reported that English is now being taught in Afghan primary schools beginning at the 4th grade (i.e., nine-year-old children). It found that learning English and obtaining a “high salary” were becoming synonymous in Afghanistan.
With an 85% illiteracy rate in Afghanistan, one would think that Western education aid would be geared toward teaching students to read and write in Dari and Pashto, but that is not the case. There is no problem with foreign education programs that promote English as a second language, but as will be detailed in this article:
. . . there are efforts underway to promote English
as the primary language in Afghanistan.
Westerners rationalize their promotion by arguing that learning English is beneficial for all Afghans. However, it is only beneficial because Western officials are too lazy to learn Dari and Pashto. They therefore dangle aid, lucrative translator jobs, education scholarships and other benefits, with the condition that host country personnel learning English. There is an old American saying called the Golden Rule, which holds that those with the gold make the rules. In Afghanistan, those with the gold are pushing all others to learn English. It is disrupting the fabric of life due to the lure of riches associated with learning English. It is also validating the warnings voiced by Usama bin Laden about why Western intrusion and culture need to be opposed.
On June 27, 2007, at the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Press Center, Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes boasted that Muslims who learn English have “a future” and “hope” (and those Muslims who do not learn English apparently have no future). She went on to claim that knowing English “helps improve their lives.” It gives them “better employment opportunities.” The speech is posted on USAID’s website. As there are tens of millions of English-speakers who live below the poverty line, merely learning English, by itself, does not provide anyone with a future.
In the web site www.UsingEnglish.com, in the section entitled: “Teaching English in Afghanistan” it states: “[Afghans] need to be exposed to the modern world through media and the Internet”
It goes on to state that learning English will “bring meaningful changes into the lives of Afghans.” The rhetoric being employed is similar to that which the West has been using for centuries to justify its colonization of “backward” cultures. There is almost a religious fervor to the teaching of English. This insistence, that the Western world knows what is best for "poor ignorant Afghans" and that a bright future requires learning English, is a philosophy which had led to countless cultures being destroyed by colonial powers.
U.S. Department of State, on 12/14/06, published its “U.S. National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication.” It concludes that
“English language teaching is a priority program and should be
expanded. Learning English provides a skill that helps young
people improve their lives and job prospects, and helps counter
extremism by opening a window to a wider world of knowledge.”
It is insulting for the official position of the United States Government to be that foreign languages such as Arabic, af-Soomali, Farsi/Dari, Pashto, Hindi and Urdu are narrow, limited languages which do not provide access to the full world of knowledge.
Enlightenment (apparently) is only revealed in English.
Also, there are no data that supports the premise that learning English will reduce anti-Americanism. The terrorists who staged the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks in the United States all reportedly spoke English. Sayyid Kutb lived in the United States for a period of time and his exposure to America helped to convince him that Islamic society must not follow America’s path. The American national strategy has a view of the world which is jingoistic, simplistic and based on ignorance.
As Americans travel abroad, it is reasonable for them to speak proudly about the accomplishments of their country; but to promote America and to act too precipitously in fostering America onto Afghans, risks a nationalist backlash which favors the Taliban and al-Qaeda. An external threat to the very languages that people use to communicate will bring together many elements of society against that common foe.
Promoting English as Afghanistan’s primary language is contrary to the NATO war strategy. The Taliban is using this very emotional issue to rally support against the foreign presence in Afghanistan.
Ruhullah Khapalwak and Carlotta Gall of the New York Times, wrote on July 4, 2006 about the Taliban retaliating against English language students. In 2007, the Taliban executed an English language teacher in the Sayed Karam district of Paktia and in 2009, they executed another English language teacher in Daikundi.
In UNESCO’s 2008 press release “Promotion and Protection of Languages” it said that: “safeguarding and defending their indigenous language
is a people’s fundamental right.” Oddly, this UN’s position might actually cloak some of the Taliban’s efforts with the mantle of international law.
Western governments, the British Council and NGOs from Care, the IRC and even the San Diego-Jalalabad Sister Cities Program have all been sending English teachers into Afghanistan. The latter, in its October 30, 2008 press release, stated that it was teaching English “at Nangarhar University and an orphanage.”
Afghan orphans, who probably cannot read and write Dari and Pashto,
are being taught English.
This appears to violate Afghanistan’s Education Law. Article Thirty-Two states: “Learning Pashto and Dari languages in the schools and educational institutions is compulsory.” It goes on to define Afghanistan’s third official language as either Uzbiki, Turkmani, Pashai, Nooristani, Balochi etc., depending on the area of the country. English is never mentioned in the law. Article 32 concludes by stating that all foreign language instruction will be taught in conformance with this law. Afghan law seems to require that English only be taught to those who can already read and write in Pashto, Dari and their own local language. The 1949 Geneva Convention (Article 50) requires that orphans in a war zone “be educated in their native language.”
Afghanistan is a country which already has to deal with fractures along ethnic, tribal and religious lines. The West has introduced a new fracture, which is to separate those who speak English and are part of the new Establishment, from those who only speak Dari and Pashto.
Afghans who only speak Dari and Pashto are being relegated to second-class status.
While NATO seeks to bring Afghans together to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, the EU and others are working at cross-purposes, by promoting English-speaking Afghans and discriminating against those who have not embraced English. They are creating the same type of subservient ruling class that the British created in India with the Sikhs and in Nepal with the Gurkhas. Those who embraced everything British became prosperous.
When the French provided aid to the America Revolution in the 1770’s, the French did not insist that Americans learn French.
Rather the French Government sent representatives to America who spoke English. In contrast the preferences of the U.S. Embassy, USAID, World Bank, IMF and United Nations are for everyone to speak English, and they richly reward all those who do. Language can unify a country or divide it. The West’s under-publicized language scheme is poorly coordinated, with no thought apparently being given to its potential consequences.
The effort is not limited to simply teaching English in Afghanistan’s primary and secondary schools. American University of Afghanistan teaches only in English as do other private universities. The U.S. Embassy is fostering efforts to increase English language training at Kabul University. Fulbright and Chevening scholarships are being issued to Afghans to study English abroad so that they can return and teach others. The road to higher education now virtually requires proficiency in English.
The Western world has made many important contributions, from the pure democracy of the early Greeks to the beauty of Italian art and German opera, to the melting pot of American where all people are supposed to be equal. However, today, when the West enters a country such as Afghanistan, all it seems to promote are get-rich-quick schemes.
Western governments and NGOs are now promoting education
by linking it to the idea of material wealth.
Their aid programs are geared toward making a small percentage of foreigners literate in English and also rich, regardless of the impact that may have on the rest of the host country.
This effort is not simply in Afghanistan. Beginning in 2004, USAID awarded a $4,000,000.00 contract to American contractor Research Triangle, Inc. and several others under the “Primary Education and Literacy Program” to teach science, math and English in Balochistan and the FATA. Under USAID’s education criteria, literacy has begun to be synonymous with learning English, when it is supposed to mean the ability to read and write in ones own language.
The West’s English language scheme is polarizing and therefore fraught with danger for Afghanistan. There is an old saying that a rising tide lifts all boats, but it is also true that a sudden flood will cripple, destroy and cause havoc. The uncoordinated flood of Western aid into Afghanistan and the emphasis on learning English as the only pathway to wealth and importance, has done just that.
In researching this topic, three issues were discovered which merit further investigation:
1. Western efforts to promote English language proficiency among Afghans may be having an unintended side effect, which is that those who learn English are better equipped to emigrate out of the country. Last year it was reported that 600,000 Afghan fled their country. This raises a crucial question, which no one is studying: “Do English language programs encourage emigrants to flee Afghanistan?”
What percentage of Afghans who have learned English are currently refugees or emigrants? Are American taxpayers funding a program which is counter to the President’s goal of building a safe, prosperous and democratic Afghanistan? Are the English language programs actually damaging Afghanistan’s efforts to build a broad middle class?
2. The Western education programs appear to also have a religious component. Colum Lynch of the Washington Post wrote an article on July 30, 2009 in which he revealed that 98% of USAID funds paid out to faith-based organizations went to Christian groups. The balance may have gone to Jewish groups. Mr. Lynch reported that Islamic groups were virtually excluded. The USAID programs are not only slanted toward English, but also toward Christianity. USAID cannot continue to operate in Afghanistan if it has a religious agenda and an aversion to Islam.
3. A memo dated November 12, 2005 has surfaced from USAID. It was written by Dawn Liberi, USAID/Iraq Mission Director and was addressed to Nancy Lawton, Regional Inspector General/Iraq. In the memo, regarding an audit of USAID’s Basic Education Activities in Iraq, Ms. Liberi reported that USAID had trained 16,000 teachers in English and English as a Second Language, but only 12,000 teachers in Science. This data seems to reflect USAID priorities. Those priorities are not geared toward improving education regarding core subjects such as science, but are more geared toward developing a class of Iraqis who can work for the Americans.
The scale of the USAID effort to promote English can overwhelm a Third World country. To USAID, one cannot have a “basic education” without first learning English. USAID needs to make public it priorities so that the Afghan Parliament can decide whether those priorities are consistent with the interests of Afghanistan.
As a first step toward correcting its errors, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should abolish the position of English Language Officer (ELO) at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and appoint a Dari/Pashto Language Officer (DPLO) to promote literacy in Afghanistan in accordance with the Afghan Education Law, by embracing native language literacy in Dari and Pashto. That same officer should be overseeing a program under which all American diplomatic and USAID officials in Afghanistan would learn Dari, Pashto or both.
The U.S. State Department must cease deploying personnel ad hoc,
with no Dari/Pashto language skills, for short one-year tours to Afghanistan.
It must begin to make a serious commitment to Afghanistan by establishing a professional training program under which no employee is deployed to Afghanistan without the requisite Dari or Pashto language skills. Diplomatic and aid officials should be seamlessly entering Afghanistan by fitting into the culture, instead of importing their culture into Afghanistan and insisting that Afghans adopt it. The United Nations, the EU and all NGOs must follow suit.