Inspiration for the future in Afghanistan

AUAF students
By Tim Phillips
Tue 5th June 2018 | Blog

When Omar Joya joined the faculty at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul in 2017, he realised that the economics in the standard introductory textbooks he started to teach often had little to do with the lives of his students. “The textbooks I was teaching were a long way from reality in countries like Afghanistan. I had to contextualise the lessons, as the textbooks were primarily written for students in the US.”

To create a more relevant curriculum, he switched to teaching CORE’s The Economy as the source text for his students, who study in English for a bachelor’s degree in business administration. “At the moment it is working very well. The level of contextualisation I need to do now is much less. Unit 1, The Capitalist Revolution, in particular works well with our students because it gives them a background in economic history. In other textbooks you don’t get a sense of how countries have evolved, or how we came to have the institutions that economies need to develop.”

AUAF is the only private, not-for-profit, independent university chartered under the Afghan Constitution. The “American” in the title is not about ownership. It comes from the course structure, which echoes that of a US liberal arts college. It was founded in 2006, and aims to prepare its Afghan students “to be tomorrow’s leaders”. Currently just over 1,000 of them are taking degrees, including a large number of female students (there is a female dormitory too). Competition for places, some of which are subsidised by government grants, is fierce.

When he joined the faculty, Joya was already familiar with the country’s economy and culture. He had relocated to Washington DC after five years as the World Bank’s country economist for Afghanistan, a job in which he was working intimately with the government on policy issues and analysis. But he decided he could do more for the future of the country as a teacher than analyst. “Previously when working on policy reforms with the government and the challenges we observed in policy implementation, I sometimes lost my hope. But now I enjoy the teaching, and teaching makes me optimistic for the future of my country.”

Challenging assumptions

Joya studied in France, and the contrast with the classroom culture he found in Kabul surprised him. “In France, students were very quiet. You would only ask a question if it was relevant to the lecture, and you would leave out other questions to after the class. In Afghanistan I expected students to react the same way, but here they ask a lot of questions, which is a good thing.”

What sort of questions? Students would challenge the simplifying assumptions of traditional economic modelling, he says, for example the concept of a perfectly rational, selfish consumer. “They would ask ‘why do we assume this? We don’t see it in reality’. In our lives we consider ethics, altruism and many other factors, which are not taken into account in the standard economic models.” The switch to using The Economy meant that Joya could introduce concepts like inequality and fairness to his teaching –although he still likes to add local context to the examples to make them relevant for Kabul’s students.

His colleague Lutfi Rahimi agrees that more local context helps AUAF students. Rahimi teaches the microeconomics section to first and second years, says that it “covers all aspects that most traditional textbooks miss. All those who had taken beginners economics modules beforehand found the book easier to grasp.” But those who were new to economics found some of the material later in the course harder to understand. His feedback is the same as many of our teachers in developing countries: more localisation helps the students to understand and to learn. (We agree, and we’re working with local teachers in some regions to help develop this type of feature.)

Studying and working in Kabul often presents bigger challenges than the next lecture. “This is a country in conflict, and everyone is at risk,” Joya says. This was brought home to staff and students at the AUAF in August 2016, when suspected members of the Taliban stormed the campus and killed eight university students, three policemen, three security guards, and two university professors. “Life for our students can be difficult,” he admits, “but no one stays at home saying ‘I won’t go to university because of the risks’.”

Afghanistan needs more university education, and more teachers to deliver it. “Transferring my knowledge to others could make a positive impact on the economy,” Joya says, “The biggest challenge for Afghanistan is to have efficient institutions, and therefore we need to have well-educated people working in them. But I see the ambition our students have. It makes me feel inspired for the future.”