"Only when a woman makes her own money does she have her rights”: The importance of digital literacy in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, girls are treated as second-class citizens. Access to technology could be a road to independence

By Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown - Jason Brooks Brown

Published May 10, 2015 1:00PM (EDT)

Afghan girls work at an internet cafe for women in Kabul, March 8, 2012.   (Reuters/Mohammad Ismail)
Afghan girls work at an internet cafe for women in Kabul, March 8, 2012. (Reuters/Mohammad Ismail)

Down a dusty side street and behind walls crowned with razor wire, a roomful of girls huddle around the blank screens of a dozen desktops. The power outage—a frequent occurrence in Kabul and in much of Afghanistan—seems to faze no one. The painted outline of a computer keyboard on a blackboard serves as a reminder of the students’ determination to continue their digital education even when access to the technology temporarily vanishes. Today they will not have to wait long for the computers to power up. The Women’s Annex.com and the Digital Citizen Fund, who sponsor the class, have purchased a generator. The head teacher rushes out of the room, and moments later the distant rumble of an engine and the flickering of the overhead lights sets the girls in motion. Hands reach out from under robes and the computers chirr to life. Excel spreadsheets and paint programs appear on screens. The girls have been learning English language skills and basic computer literacy, including social media, Excel and various Office programs. Some girls work on blogs they will share on social media sites, and one of them writes: “English and computer skills are very important for us. We learn about the Windows program and Word. We can go on to teach other women the computer and Internet. English is an international language, so it is very important that we know it. And with English we can go to other countries or communicate with people from other countries.”

Why Digital Literacy Matters

Globally, Afghanistan suffers from the digital divide: Only a small percentage of the population has access to and use of information and communication technology, a factor that increasingly determines (and serves as a measurement of) economic success.

Internally, Afghanistan suffers from a gender divide: Men and boys have greater access to education and technology. Prevented in most cases from driving, from being seen with men outside their immediate families, from holding positions of authority, and in many cases from moving freely within their own communities, women often never work outside the home. More than 50 percent of girls marry or become engaged by the time they are 12, and when women marry they usually leave school forever. Too often they find themselves isolated and cut off from communicating with the outside world.

Former Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann frames the digital and gender divides in terms of the economic welfare of Afghanistan. “No country can succeed if half its workforce is not utilized,” he said in an interview. “As a country without a lot of natural resources, Afghanistan is going to have to develop intellectual resources, and it will be vital to bring women into the educated workforce.”

According to the Copenhagen Consensus Center Think Tank, a 2009 study showed a 10 percent rise in broadband penetration increased GDP growth by 1.34 percent in low- to medium-income countries. A McKinsey report for the World Economic Forum in 2010 estimated that bringing worldwide mobile broadband penetration to emerging markets to the levels of penetration of mature markets could add $300 billion to $400 billion to world GDP and create 10-14 million jobs in emerging nations.

Roya Mahboob—a pioneering social entrepreneur from Herat, Afghanistan, Time 100 person of the year in 2013, and co-founder of the WomensAnnex.com and the Digital Literacy Fund that runs computer classes in girls schools in Herat and Kabul—says that “if a woman wants to be independent, first she needs an education, second she needs a skill, and then she needs to make money. Only when a woman makes her own money does she have her rights.”  According to Mahboob, digital literacy not only gives women and girls access to information and educational resources, it connects them to an international community and trains them in technology. The restrictions imposed on women in Afghanistan’s conservative society make digital education (which they can learn and potentially access from home, school and other safe spaces) a likely route to employment in an emerging economy where technology will play an increasing role.

As in many other places in the developing world, growth of technology in Afghanistan has skipped over intermediate stages of infrastructure modernization to adopt contemporary innovations. The rapid construction of cell towers after 2002 has led to 90 percent mobile broadband coverage across the country. The World Bank and the Afghan government funded a 4810-km national fiber-optic backbone project that has connected more than 23 provincial capitals, several principal cities (including Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif), as well as linking Afghanistan to Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The new infrastructure creates a direct digital path through the region, often called the “Digital Silk Road,” and positions Afghanistan to become a Central Asian transit traffic hub. The region needs alternate and additional fiber routes to carry the vast amount of data currently traversing the globe. Having attracted $2.2 billion in private investment and established itself as the second largest tax revenue source for the Afghan government, the technology sector promises to be one of the driving forces behind Afghanistan’s economic independence, a prospect that depends on educated women joining the workforce.

Obstacles to Digital Literacy

According to the Afghan Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, only about 3 million people, or 10 percent of the country, have access to the Internet. Despite the promise of the fiber optic infrastructure, about 75 percent of Afghans live beyond the reach of the new infrastructure in rural areas with little or no access to a reliable electricity supply. And even if women could access the Internet, UNICEF estimates 2014 literacy rates for women at 22 percent. As of 2013, 38 percent (4.2 million) of children (most of them girls) do not have schools where they might learn the language skills that would allow them to make use of connectivity. The Taliban regularly attack girls schools. Many existing schools lack buildings and books, and few schools provide computer education. There are too few female teachers, and as funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development shrinks or ends its grants in the region, many schools may no longer be able to pay teachers at all.

Increased competition in the market has caused Internet prices to fall in recent years, but because the fiber optic backbone has yet to reach most of the country, connectivity relies too heavily on expensive satellite-based communications. Even though five mobile networks operate 5,835 base stations providing coverage to 90 percent of the country with increasing 3G and 4G mobile broadband service, most Afghans cannot afford smartphones or tablets. According to the Afghan Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, only 380,000 out of 21.7 million mobile subscribers use mobile Internet. With World Bank Gross National Income Per Capita level at $690, 36 percent of the country living under the poverty line and 35 percent unemployment, few people in Afghanistan can pay for conventional or mobile broadband access. Women rarely have access to money of their own, so they cannot choose to allocate resources to Internet access. In urban areas Internet cafes have emerged, but most restrict use to men.

According to the Afghanistan Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, “hundreds of towers,” particularly in the southern and eastern provinces where the Taliban are most active, face threats. The Taliban extort money from the telecommunications companies and frequently demand that the towers shut down at night for 12 hours so citizens will not report on Taliban movements when they are most active under the cover of darkness. In addition to concealing their own activities, the Taliban seeks to disrupt the communications of the Afghan army, which also relies on the towers for communication. The Afghan government collects $300 million a year in tax revenue from the five companies that operate the towers, but the companies may not be able or willing to continue operating in Afghanistan if they have to pay off the Taliban, shut down their towers for half the day, and pay taxes to a government that cannot provide security.

Despite the many challenges to positive change in Afghanistan and the persistence of fundamental ideological conflicts, reasons to hope abound. That the Taliban now relies on the very same technology they decried in 2002 speaks to the power of technology to serve as a common ground. Chris Fabian, co-head of UNICEF Innovation Labs, recalled a recent incident in which a mobile company’s employee was kidnapped by the Taliban from a tower station. The Taliban contacted the CEO and demanded payment. The CEO replied, “If you don’t give my dude back, I will turn off your tower. They didn’t give the guy back, so the CEO turned off the tower. The employee was returned in an hour.” For Chris, the incident speaks to the power of technology and market solutions and serves as an example of the kind of common interest inherent to most compromises.

NGO Approaches to Digital Literacy

Since 2002 the World Bank, USAID and the Afghan government have worked hard to lay the groundwork for an adequate national telecom infrastructure, which has allowed NGOs, private corporations and the Afghan government to work toward connecting greater numbers of young Afghans to the rest of the world. Since 2003 scores of governmental and nongovernmental organizations have worked to improve the circumstances of women and girls by promoting digital literacy. The vast majority of programs have sought to provide computers (existing technology) to schools and women’s centers.

Among the many dangers associated with delivering new or used technology in the developing world are the following: 1) no one in the host country can train people how to use the equipment, and 2) no one can fix or troubleshoot the equipment once it breaks. Recent stories abound of companies earning tax write-offs for donating old computers that soon wind up in toxic heaps polluting impoverished communities. An additional problem, according to Chris Fabian at UNICEF Innovation Labs, arises when the technology is not open source, or does not promote universal access through free license to the product’s design. The One Laptop Per Child’s project has fallen prey to this problem. The XO computer not only remains expensive, but also is not compatible with some essential software for educating adults.

The most successful programs provide appropriate, versatile technology, together with support and training. The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in partnership with the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs has established 11 Women’s Development Centers whose trainings and services (in technology and other forms of education and support) have helped thousands of women since the first centers opened.

Help the Afghan Children, a traditional 501(c)-3 nonprofit started by an Afghan-American woman, Suraya Sadeed, has established schools in Kabul, Laghman Province, Paghman District west of Kabul, Kandahar Province and Kapisa Province. Since 2003, they have trained 29,286 girls in Windows, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint and other forms of basic digital literacy. In a similar fashion, Fary Moini, an Iranian-American woman, helped raise money through the La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary Club to start a school in Jalalabad. She also helped to establish a computer lab at the Nangarhar University in Jalalabad. Both ventures have been successful in training thousands of girls and boys because her efforts included infrastructure and support. Not long after starting the school, she discovered that, by custom, girls must be taught by women. Because of a scarcity of female teachers, she worked to establish a program for training teachers. Despite a number of threats to her life and the lives of her students by the Taliban, she persisted. Global Partners, the Afghan School Project, Trust in Education, Aid Afghanistan for Education—too many organizations to enumerate—have worked hard to provide digital literacy in centers and schools for students of both genders.

Most of the challenges to digital literacy and education in general exist in the remote villages and areas of Afghanistan where the bulk of the population resides. When individual families or communities live at a distance from schools, children (particularly girls) stop attending. In some areas no schools are available at all. In partnership with the Afghan government, UNICEF created the Community Based Education Initiative and the associated Accelerated Learning Centers, which provide education for students who were forced to drop out of school or never attended school in the first place.

In response to the isolation of students and teachers in remote areas of Afghanistan, program manager for UNICEF innovation in Afghanistan Richard Stanley introduced the EduTrac system. Students and teachers might not have access to computers and conventional land-based connectivity or be able to afford expensive 3G smartphones and tablets, but USAID estimates that, as of 2013, 80 percent of Afghan women have some access to mobile technology either through their own phone or a shared phone. The EduTrac system allows teachers to coordinate and share knowledge with each other, share data and needs with UNICEF, participate in educational group chat with students, and conduct surveys in order to provide important data and information so that organizations can best meet the needs of students.

“We began a pilot in June last year to obtain real-time data from teachers of adolescents in Kandahar and also created a small social network using a simple SMS chat group with them as well,” Stanley reports, though he laments that “unfortunately, we have not begun scaling up nationwide as there has not been a minister in six months and the political transition continues. We will scale hopefully in the second half of this year.”

UNICEF Innovation Labs has also experimented with the community computer portal in Uganda, which they call the Digital Drum. Katrin Macmillan, founder of Projects for All, has made more extensive use of the approach. Her Hello Hubs in Nigeria are based on the “Hole in the Wall” research of TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra, who demonstrated that, given unsupervised (“minimally invasive”) access to technology and connectivity, children will make great strides in literacy, computer literacy, and math and science skills all on their own. Like UNICEF’s Digital Drums and the Learning Stations set up by Sugata Mitra in India and Africa, the Hello Hub is a rugged, solar powered, mobile connected computer kiosk loaded with software.

According to Katrin, the Hello Hub is an example of technology “leapfrogging the bricks and mortar” infrastructure that many communities cannot afford. Rather than wait for schools to be built, Projects For All can provide off-the-grid connectivity at low cost “in places where few people want to go” and where the needs are urgent. They hope to work in Pakistan and Afghanistan next. The Hello Hub is not only an educational tool for schoolchildren, but also a source for valuable information. “People are able to use the Hub to take note of current information about Ebola and Boko Haram’s movements. If people are missing, you can broadcast that. You can warn people about mines,” Katrin says. Because the Hubs are built in areas where journalists fear to tread, community-based reporting and storytelling often serve as the only source of information from an area. “The Hello Hub is as much about creating a safe space of nonpartisan community journalism as it is about allowing access to education,” Katrin says.

That the Hubs have never been vandalized or intentionally damaged in any way may result less from what Katrin calls their “scruffy” and “unglamorous” appearance than the collaborative nature of their construction. “We build a partnership which we view to be an equal partnership with every community.” Katrin and her team don’t stay in a hotel on the other side of town or drive armored vehicles. They live with the community in people’s homes and use whatever transportation their hosts can make available. They ask the community to feed the team, provide some building materials, and help choose the site for the Hub. According to Katrin, it is essential that “people understand that they are going to be asked to make an investment.” When the Hub is complete, Projects For All trains a paid community support officer who can troubleshoot problems at the site.

The Projects For All approach reflects the principals developed by UNICEF Innovation Labs.

According to Chris Fabian, experience (i.e., “constructive failure,” he points out) has led them to create “a checklist of questions to ask before deployment: Is there content in the local language, do people know how to repair it (the technology) if it breaks, is there enough electricity? and other questions that are shockingly still stumbling blocks for a lot of educational projects. Be open source. Design with user in mind. These principals don’t ensure that the project will work, but they do ensure that when it doesn’t work at least it’s not a totally stupid failure.”

“It is their resource,” Katrin says of the Hello Hubs and the community. Though the Hub can become a barometer of internal conflict, Katrin sees issues that arise around use of the Hub as opportunities for community engagement. At the site in Suleja, Nigeria, the community support officer reported to Projects For All that children who lived in the sewer were emerging after 10 p.m. at night to use the Hub because it was the only time they could do so without feeling they might be bullied. Projects For All responded by asking the support officer to make himself available on some nights so he could help the children with the technology. Katrin says she wants to return to build another Hub closer to the sewer so the children there can have better access.

The women of the patriarchal Muslim community in Nigeria praised the Hub but declared they would never be able to use the resource because men would dominate access. In typical fashion, Katrin met with the women and asked them: “Well, what are you going to do about it?” At first they wanted Katrin to tell the men to let the women use the Hub. “Do you think that will work?” she asked them. Of course they didn’t. Eventually, the women came up with a solution: They would propose “women’s hour” at the Hub while the men prayed and slept after eating in the middle of the day. In a few minutes, they could fulfill the purported aim of the hour (to study how to become better Muslims and better wives to their husbands) so they could then spend the remaining 50 minutes using the Hub to communicate with distant relatives, conduct business or educate themselves.

“They solved it, they cracked it,” Katrin says.

Social Enterprise Approaches to Digital Literacy

Even people who work for nongovernmental organizations will often acknowledge the limitations of aid in transforming the economies of the poorest nations. At its worst, aid can be like planting a tree in a place where it never rains and then feeding it with water from elsewhere. Eventually, when the person who owns the watering can and the water grows bored or distracted (or simply runs out of water), the tree dies. For Afghanistan to achieve independence, governments, NGOs and businesses must work together to build infrastructure and seed promising enterprises. Social enterprise often relies on aid to seed projects, but the trees have to be planted where they can eventually grow on their own.

Chris Fabian of UNICEF Innovation Labs declares he is “not a big fan” of charity, though he concedes that there is a place for it. His organization tries to incubate innovations that companies can implement and scale. The most productive forms of assistance plant innovations that can eventually become self-sustaining. Given that cell service reaches 90 percent of the country and most Afghans have access to rudimentary cellphones, much of the current exciting innovation finds ways to advance digital literacy through hardware people already own: the $25 cellphone.

Richard Stanley of UNICEF Innovation Labs in Afghanistan points to the work done by Paiwastoon CEO Mike Dawson with Ustad Mobile, a “learning platform for basic phones that tracks learners’ progress so that any number of delivery platforms can be integrated.”  Paiwastoon specializes in creating software and communication innovations for Afghanistan. Ustad Mobil (developed with $80,000 in U.S. aid) uses an interactive version of Afghanistan’s national literacy curriculum and can be purchased online and all over the country at affordable prices. The program can run offline and then later sync with a cloud when the user has access to mobile service. In 2013 the program was distributed to 200 female police officers as a pilot to improve literacy in Dari and Pashto. Ustad programs include applications for other languages, including English, math, and statistical tracking programs that build on Richard Stanley’s EduTrac. Most important, Ustad Mobile programs do not require smartphones or tablets but can be run on inexpensive cellphones already in widespread use across the country.

Though innovations like Ustad Mobile and the Hello Hub do not supplant the need for traditional infrastructure—schools, teachers, electricity, computers, reliable connectivity, etc.—they supplement traditional infrastructure where it exists, compensate for infrastructure where it has yet to arrive, and, in the meantime, help individuals and communities build toward a more stable future. Without fail, the successful proponents of digital literacy in Afghanistan and other developing nations are careful students of the cultures where they work, and they are pragmatists. “Everything we build in New York fails,” UNICEF’s Chris Fabian says. “That’s why we have these labs and country offices.”

When Ncomputing observed that efforts in the developing world to offer one computer for every child (the One Laptop Per Child model) were falling short because of expense and the ongoing issue of providing consistent and adequate electricity, they created technology that allows multiple screens and keyboards to utilize the “unused” space on a conventional PC. According to Ncomputing, “PCs are so powerful that the vast majority of applications only use a small fraction of the computer’s capacity. Ncomputing’s virtualization software and hardware tap this unused capacity so multiple users can simultaneously share the PC” without reducing the speed and performance of the technology for the individual user.

By the time they began working with Ncomputing, the Afghan Canadian Community Center and the Afghan School Project, schools in Kandahar, had stopped accepting donations of used computers because the maintenance and the cost of shipping had exceeded the value of the computers. Struggling to offer computer access to a growing number of students, the schools also faced high energy costs. At the Afghan Canadian Community Center, where the school operates without an external electricity supply, the cost of fuel and repairs on its multiple generators equaled the cost of two teachers’ salaries.

Now with 24 stations hooked up to four PCs through the Ncomputing device, the Afghan Canadian Community Center and the Afghan School Project have been able to lower their PC acquisition costs by 60 percent and greatly reduce their fuel costs. While a conventional PC consumes 115 watts per hour, the Ncomputing device only consumes 1 watt per hour. Ncomputing has sold nearly 1 million devices (at a cost of $70 a device compared to $180 for the One Laptop Per Child XO laptop) to 20,000 organizations in more than 90 countries. Reduced carbon footprint and e-waste is one of the many positive byproducts of Ncomputing’s innovation.

Though Ncomputing is a social enterprise working to offer technological innovations that will benefit digital literacy in the developing world (while also benefiting Ncomputing, a Redwood city LLC), its technology depends, at the moment, on government and nongovernment charitable funds to purchase its equipment. The company's innovation does not, in itself, create self-sustaining revenue—it does not (to return for a moment to an earlier metaphor) directly provide water for the tree—but it does lower the cost of education.

In Afghanistan, one of the most corrupt countries in the world, it can be unsafe to use a bank, especially for women, and even more unsafe to travel with currency. The lack of security can have a devastating effect on economic growth for communities and for individuals, especially for women. Mobile company Roshan (an entrepreneurial arm of the Aga Khan Development Agency) and British Vodafone have developed mobile banking technology called M-Paisa uniquely designed to thrive in Afghanistan. Mobile subscribers purchase airtime, make money transfers, and conduct electronic bill payments. Government employees are paid via cellphone accounts. The service now includes person-to-person payments, point of sale payments and microfinance loan disbursements and payments. Western Union has joined Roshan to allow international money transfers through the program. Roshan also created a service called Malomat that gives farmers and agricultural traders daily, real-time market prices for a wide variety of goods by mobile phone.

In a related technology, Etisalat, seeded by funding from USAID, has created an electronic system that hires women as “mHawalas" (mobile money agents) who work from home to offer mobile money services (inward- or outward-bound cash transfers, electricity bill payments, new customer registrations, and sales of electronic top up cards) for a 7 percent commission. To date 1,500 women have taken mobile agent training.

In a challenging environment like Afghanistan, seed-funded social enterprise ventures often forge their own territory within the economy. The introduction of one innovation can quickly lead to opportunity for other innovations and growth in other areas. NGOs, governments, companies and educational organizations and institutions find success when they overcome the conventional boundaries formed by their different frameworks and strive together toward the same aims.

Social entrepreneurs Roya Mahboob and Francesco Rulli believe that the end goal of education, digital or otherwise, in a country like Afghanistan is economic independence for women and for the nation. No one understands the power of digital literacy better than Mahboob, who began her education in technology with little more than a picture of a keyboard in a used textbook. Before the Taliban were ousted from Afghanistan in 2003, she lived in exile with her family in Iran and could not find access to computers or other technology. She bought a used book describing the physical characteristics of the computer: hard drive, keyboard, monitor, mouse. When she moved back to Herat with her family, she at least knew what a computer looked like, and the United Nations Development Programme was there to offer free classes in how to get online. She learned English through Yahoo Messenger and used the Internet to teach herself much of what she needed to know to start her own company, Afghan Citadel, when she was just 26.

According to Mahboob, all forms of personal and social advancement for women follow from a strong foundation in skills that provide economic independence. In an effort to close the digital and gender divide, Mahboob and her business partner, Francesco, have established computer classes in 11 girls schools and two women’s centers in Kabul and Herat that have directly trained 7,000 women and girls and connected 55,000.

When the girls in the schools in Herat and Kabul are asked what they want to do with their education, hands shoot up:

“I want to be a doctor. I want to help children and old people.”

“I want to be in computer science.”

“I am working with the paint program. I want to plan houses with stores.”

“I want to be a politician. Women can be active in the world. They can show their talents. They can do everything like men.”

“Women and men have the same human rights. Women also have a mind.”

The women and girls write blogs on a social media site founded by Francesco called Bitlanders, a venture he describes as Facebook upside down. Bitlanders, which generates revenue through advertising, pays the women and girls in bitcoin for blogging on the site.  Francesco points out that Facebook leverages user content to make itself and its shareholders wealthy. Bitlanders believes in paying the women and girls, who often serve as witnesses of a world they understand better than any journalist, for providing valuable content. The more people click on their blogs, the more the women and girls make. Using Bitcoin’s virtual currency allows the women and girls to circumvent the dangers associated with traditional currency. They have online accounts they can use to travel and purchase computers or other goods for themselves. The women and girls in the schools advance in verbal, design and digital literacy as they learn, usually for the first time, how to join the emerging technology economy. Because of the taboo against posting pictures of themselves or expressing themselves online, the girls use pseudonyms and avatars as profile pictures when they publish their thoughts.

“There was a time when I had to disappear in the society and be visible only on the Internet,” Roya Mahboob says. Many people still don’t know if I am in the U.S., in Kabul, in Dubai. We created a digital world for the girls so they can become digital citizens.” For women and girls in Afghanistan, who often live in isolation and are treated as second-class citizens, access to technology and the Internet can become a pathway to digital citizenship. As women and girls access information and educational resources available online, both the digital and gender divides will begin to close as the possibilities for the future begin to open.

Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown

Elizabeth Brown is a frequent contributor to many publications, speaker on the subject of women’s empowerment and social entrepreneurship, and founder of several successful businesses. With degrees in Anthropology from Columbia University and Design from Parsons, Elizabeth represents a brand development vanguard uniting global, technological and social concerns. Publishers of her work include the Guardian, Forbes Women, Daily Beast’s Women in the World, Fast Company and Entrepreneur. She has spoken at the 92nd Street Y, Harvard University School of Business, and Columbia University. Elizabeth currently advises the United Nations on the formation of public/private partnerships around the world.

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Jason Brooks Brown

Jason Brown is a fiction and nonfiction writer. In addition to two collections of short stories—"Driving the Heart and Other Stories" (Norton) and "Why the Devil Chose New England For His Work" (Grove)—his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the Atlantic, Harper’s, NPR, London Review of Books, the Guardian, Fast Company, Huffington Post, Best American Short Stories and elsewhere. He was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and is currently an associate professor in creative writing at the University of Oregon.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Afghanistan Computers Digital Literacy Roya Mahboob