Cheerful and confident, 18-year-old Benafsha offers encouragement to a classroom of 22 young women in Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest and most troubled province.
“When you finish this class, you will also be a teacher,” she says.
Her optimism is grounded in her own experience. Benafsha graduated first in her class in a vocational education program and now teaches computer skills to other students.
She is just one of 19,500 young men and women in Helmand to have completed the “INVEST” program--Introducing New Vocational Education and Skills Training. Mercy Corps launched INVEST in March 2011 with support from the UK’s Department for International Development. Eighty-four percent of its graduates have found work at good wages in carpentry, construction, plumbing, repair of machinery and household appliances, tailoring, handicrafts, tinsmithing and other sectors of the local economy.
These results seem to defy all odds. After years of war and instability, Afghanistan’s economy and education system have suffered. It ranks 164th of 185 countries in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index. Just 4 percent of females and 8 percent of males are literate, according to UNICEF.
Helmandis face the greatest hardship. Mired in poverty and tribalism, the province is a stronghold of the Taliban insurgency and the world’s biggest producer of poppies for the illicit opium trade. Past efforts to promote alternative, legal livelihoods have found little success because poppy farming is often more lucrative. In fact, most international NGOs no longer work in Helmand.
How has the INVEST Program helped young people earn good livelihoods in one of the world’s toughest places?
“Training in technical and social skills and informal mentoring are at the heart of the program model,” says Tara Noronha, economic and market development advisor at Mercy Corps. “But a range of supporting functions ensure that youth gain the right skills and can put them to work.”
Through a market-based approach, INVEST builds skills that are needed in the local economy, helping to ensure that graduates find good work.
Program staff work with business leaders to carry out regular informal research on the labor market, which is constantly changing in the unstable environment. Findings guide decisions about which courses INVEST offers and how many students enroll in each. The private sector also helps develop training and manuals that are relevant, up-to-date and appropriate for illiterate students.
The linchpin of the program is teacher quality, often a weakness in vocational education. INVEST is able to attract masters in their field, in part because it pays good salaries. Most teachers also run profitable businesses in local communities. They impart the skills, experiences and contacts that have made them successful.
INVEST teachers also have a contractual obligation to mentor students informally beyond the classroom. They provide job referrals and sometimes hire or outsource work to students to meet customer demand in their own shops. Even after students graduate, they can contact their instructors for advice about challenges they encounter at work.
While providing teachers good salaries and access to young talent, INVEST also inspires them to create a better future for the province. Benafsha believes that helping her students to gain skills and incomes will improve the fortunes of all Helmandis.
“It’s important for girls to have an education,” she says.
INVEST has successfully negotiated sensitive cultural beliefs that restrict education, mobility and opportunities for women and girls.
Though separate schools for boys and girls have long been the norm in Afghanistan, the Taliban banned girls’ education when it came to power in the 1990s. The gender gap in education has steadily improved since 2001. Still, just 66 percent of girls attend primary school as compared to 92 percent of boys, according to government data for 2012. In secondary education -- when girls reach puberty and, according to tradition, marrying age -- their participation drops to just 26 percent.
Community partnerships and transparent communication have won acceptance for the five INVEST training centers -- of 14 total -- that serve female students. These centers are perceived as safe environments since they are staffed by female principals and, for the most part, female teachers. Because young women can’t enroll without the permission of their parents or husbands, program staff reassure families by providing information about course content, instructors and students’ time commitments. And district-level leadership committees called shura help to select students and to monitor the program across all 14 centers.
To date, 5,500 young women have graduated from the program. Most earn income by working from their homes or save money by producing goods they would otherwise have to buy.
In the end, local support for INVEST depends on the quality of the graduates it produces. The program shows it’s possible for young people like Benafsha to tap their potential even in very difficult circumstances -- when the public, private and nonprofit sectors come together around a culturally sensitive program model that matches education with real needs in the local economy.