From Afghanistan to Australia, the journey of an UNESCO-trained educational planner

27 April 2023

Children in Helmand, Afghanistan.

Rauf Abdulhaq, a former UNESCO trainee of the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP-UNESCO), is just a few weeks into his new job as a Senior Policy Officer for the Queensland Department of Education in Australia. He has been busy not only adjusting to a new role but a new education system - and a new country.

Shortly after the Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, Rauf left his country – and the education system he had spent years working to improve.

“I was involved in the development of education policies and strategies, including for girls’ education, community-based education, and early-grade reading,” he says, reflecting on his years in the Ministry of Education in Kabul. “All of those policies are so close to my heart, and it is such a shame that they are not being implemented today.”

Before the Taliban takeover, the education system had opened to millions of young Afghans, including girls. From 2001 to 2021, the country saw a tenfold increase in enrolment at all education levels from around 1 million students – all boys –to around 10 million, out of which 39% were girls, with the support of the international community, including UNESCO.

“All these efforts are actually in reverse now,” Rauf says.

Since March 2022, 1.1 million secondary girls have been blocked until further notice. Women are also denied access to universities, sparking worries of a lost generation.

Now, more than 11,000 kilometers from Afghanistan, Rauf says he is adapting to a new life and vows to keep fighting for quality education for all. He’s also applying what he learned at IIEP, and all that he accomplished in Afghanistan, to his new role in the Schools and Students Support division in Queensland.

Rauf started his career in education in Afghanistan at the National Institute for Educational Planning, which IIEP-UNESCO helped establish in 2015, back when it was known as the Department for Educational Planning within the National Institute for Management and Accounting.

He was a Master Trainer and an Educational Planning Specialist and helped grow the NIEP into a fully-fledged training centre, which trained hundreds of educational planners across the central and provincial levels, including through a dedicated programme for female high school graduates. 

After working with IIEP on developing the curriculum of the NIEP, Rauf pursued his first training course with IIEP – a short, specialized course on educational management information systems (EMIS). A year later, he joined IIEP’s master’s level Advanced Training Programme and spent six months in Paris, France in 2016.

“I met planners from around the world who brought different perspectives to what we learned at IIEP,” he says, adding that they keep in touch and regularly. “Today, they are all changemakers in their respective countries and contexts.”

When Rauf returned to Afghanistan, he had the opportunity to put his new skills to the test. The Ministry was developing its third National Education Strategic Plan (NESP), in collaboration with IIEP, and Rauf was tasked with reviewing and cleaning the data for a simulation model, which was used to cost different policy choices.

“That was my first exposure to the bigger picture,” he says. “After that, I was involved with the development of the NESP itself, and a year later, I was appointed the Head of the Section for Policy Development in the Planning Department.”

Rauf was also involved in the reform of the education system in direct collaboration with the then President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani and the Acting Minister of Education, which began in 2017.

“I give most of the credit to what I had learned at IIEP, in terms of coming up with ideas, policy directions, procedures, and processes that could guide the future of the education system.”

Soon after, Rauf joined the UNESCO field office in Afghanistan in 2018 as a Senior Programme Officer in the education section. “This was a great opportunity to revert back to educational planning with a new perspective,” he says. “I facilitated numerous discussions among development partners and donors to ensure alignment on priority areas like girls’ education, community-based education, and curriculum.”

“Every effort counts”

Today, Rauf knows many of these policies will never see the light of day. However, through a few universities in Australia, he’s trying to support remote learning opportunities for girls and women in Afghanistan who have electricity and Internet access. “It is the least I can do, but every effort counts,” he says.

While he was just a child during the first Taliban regime, Rauf says the consequences of blocking women from education remained palpable for years. “I saw the effects women faced after years of losing out on their education. My heart bleeds once again for the millions of children, particularly girls, back home who cannot have access to education and are forced to stay at home and not follow their dreams.”

But he tries to remain optimistic. “Even though there are new restrictions with each passing day, I hope all of us will be able to pave the way for that generation to have a better future.”

Looking back on the events of the past few years, Rauf says education is perhaps more needed than ever. He also believes that education – and planning – need to evolve with the changing dynamics of today’s world.

“We need education to build a peaceful world, tolerance, resilience, and to share awareness with future generations,” he says. “But this cannot be done without proper, efficient planning and policy-making, and by integrating resources across the world so that education is of quality, accessible and equitable.”


Reflections on IIEP’s commitment to Afghanistan

In the years after the 2001 fall of the Taliban, IIEP-UNESCO implemented three large successive technical cooperation programmes with the planning directorate of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education with long-term, sustainable funding from Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.

Morten Sigsgaard, country team lead at the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Secretariat and former manager of IIEP’s collaboration with Afghanistan, reflects on his work with Rauf and the impact of this long-term engagement. “Rauf, who possessed a set of extraordinary personal and professional qualities and boundless intellectual curiosity, was the product of a unique capacity development ecosystem at the planning department of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, which IIEP was fortunate to support over a decade.

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"Led by an exceptionally capable and smart Director-General for Planning, his department had more than a dozen staff trained at IIEP’s Advanced Training Programme and through other programs, where they gained international exposure and a shared approach to educational planning and management.

After IIEP, they notably returned to their Ministry jobs, working hard, and as a team supporting each other. Many were promoted and become resource persons, within the Ministry itself, in the international policy-making circles in Kabul, and by training hundreds of provincial-level planners at the home-grown National Institute for Educational Planning.

IIEP’s programme in Afghanistan was a fine example of successful capacity development, with Rauf and his colleagues’ achievements as the concrete manifestation.”