Fulbright For Smart Villages

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Afghan Fulbrighters pose for a photo at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville in April 2017. Photo source – U.S. Dept. of State.

by Krishna Sharma* 10 March 2020

American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) is a U.S.-supported institution in Kabul which has produced the most Fulbright Scholars in the world in recent times, according to Department of State records. Since its inception in 2006, more than 32 AUAF graduates have secured the coveted scholarship. However, records also reveal that only a very few of them return to their country after completing the studies, to translate their knowledge and wisdom into action for the greater benefit of their countrymen.

Government records also state that most AUAF-Fulbright Scholars have benefited twice from the US taxpayers’ dollars: first, when they won a scholarship at AUAF, and second, when they earned the Fulbright for further studies in the U.S.

Fulbright’s history is witness when it comes to justifying the importance of these scholars for the overall development of the least developed nations. However, it is time the Fulbright Commission reviews its impact, closes the loopholes and rationalizes the program based on a country’s specific needs. Fulbright Program’s (FP) overarching policies may not work well in countries like Afghanistan where almost everything is centralized to Kabul. At a time when Afghan Peace Process is inching towards the positive direction, FP in Afghanistan also needs to move towards the villages.

‘Fulbright Scholars for Smart Villages’ should be a new approach if taxpayers’ dollars are to be spent prudently and meaningfully and the scholars are to be made change agents in the real sense.

In the following paragraphs I will try to shed light on why Afghanistan needs more Fulbrighters in rural areas.

When I served as a Fulbright panelist for Afghanistan last spring, we were convinced by then FP Chair at U. S. Embassy Kabul’s Public Affairs Office that the panelists’ concerns in the process would be respected and reflected. She also added that she was open to constructive ideas that give a fresh perspective to the program, including the selection criteria.

When asked if  the FP was only for the best and brightest from Kabul and AUAF alumni, or if it was also for those from rural areas with fewer opportunities, but who are equally competitive, and are obliged to return to their communities to engage and contribute upon graduating in the U.S., the FP chair said “I can’t speak about the past, but records will speak for themselves: if we discover candidates from rural areas who are equipped with new ideas and who can convince the panel that they would return to their communities to invest their expertise obtained in the U.S.”.

As it turned out: the candidates from rural areas were equally bright. They possessed thorough knowledge of the problems of their local communities and had solutions in their mind. In addition – and most importantly – they seemed committed to return home to be change agents.

Among the candidates we interviewed one was a woman who suffered from caste and gender-based stigma and from bigotry based on her maternal family’s economic condition.  She was discriminated because of how outspoken she was at her husband’s house when it came to pursuing her dream of continuing higher education. 

“After marriage, as I told them my passion of going to college, they bit me until the time I passed out. They thought I was dead when I had collapsed,” the tearful candidate (name withheld for privacy) said during the interview. “When I got to sense it was dusk and I was outside all by myself. I left for my mother’s home. My parents didn’t accept me, either. They insisted that I give up on my dream and return to where I belonged for the rest of my life. I contacted my high school friend and came to share her rented room in Kabul. I have made a promise to myself that I would return to my birthplace only after I am able and qualified to open a community health center on my own.” Her resolve was extraordinary.

To a question as to what would propel her to return to her community, she replied that she would return to show her relatives that she was always more than what they saw in her. “To the villagers, I will fight for basic healthcare for free which they deserve as human rights,” she added.

Time will tell whether she and other candidates will abide by the written consent to the FP and return home to serve their communities. Let’s hope these scholars respect the policies of encouraging the return migration and do not become a ‘brain drain’ of the sending countries.

The more the FP offers opportunities to these committed youths from the hinterlands of Afghanistan, the faster these youths can launch the human-centered social entrepreneurship which in the long run can help deradicalize the youths and mitigate the confusion among rural Afghans that the U.S. is all about the cities and the rich Afghans living in them.

FP was reenacted for Afghanistan in 2003, after a gap of over 24 years. The program was suspended indefinitely following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Programs like Fulbright Scholarship are vital for U.S. in its engagement with Afghanistan to help rebuild the war-torn country’s civil society, which has suffered long enough from home-grown terrorism.

At a time when Taliban has claimed over 70 percent of Afghan territory and the USAID has limited presence in those areas, one of many ways to help the people of those areas to escape the clutches of extremists is to offer them educational opportunities. And it is very urgent at a time when Afghanistan has become the third unhappiest country on earth: 80 percent of its people suffer from anxiety and stress due to unending violence, economic hardship and the other maladies that still exist in the Afghan society, according to a recent BBC finding.

Instead of following its conventional guidelines, the Fulbright Commission could address Afghanistan’s education problem differently, altogether. It can strike a new balance for Afghanistan by rationalizing the program for the best and brightest of the cities with the vision, it can also champion a new slogan for Afghanistan: Fulbright Scholars for Smart Villages.

The best way of helping rural Afghans to fight against the twin challenges of poverty and terrorism is by making villages become smart with the help of these returning scholars.

* Krishna Sharma is a linguist, analyst and subject matter expert on South Asian politics, history and culture. Before joining the government service, Sharma reported to The Washington Post, BBC Nepali Service and The Rising Nepal. Mr. Sharma also worked for Random House as on-call copy editor. He can be reached at mediaandmatters@gmail.com

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