Literacy Programs for Afghan Police Under Threat Because of USA Pullout From UNESCO

The State Department today announced that it is halting a $60 million payment to UNESCO that is due in November because of decades old prohibition against funding any UN entity that accepts Palestine as a member.

These cuts will hit the agency hard. UNESCO is not exactly a cash flush institution and it depends on the United States for 22% of its budget.

Some commentators have shrugged off any implications of this cut to American interests because they figure UNESCO is just a cultural organization. The Heritage Foundation’s Brett Brett Schaefer recently told NPR, “There are very few things that UNESCO does that are central to U.S. interests around the world. They are, in essence, nice-to-haves rather than must-haves.”

Well, here’s one way this cut may undermine a very specific American interest: building competent Afghan Security Forces so the United States and NATO can responsibly pull their own forces from the country.

You may have heard that one of the big obstacles to training Afghan Security Forces are low literacy rates throughout Afghanistan.  In fact only about 14% to 18% of Afghan Security Forces are functionally literate. 

Now, we say “Afghan Security Forces” we actually refer to two separate entities: The Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. NATO runs a big literacy program for the Army. But can you guess who provides literacy training for the Afghan National Police?


A report from the Special Inspector General for Afghan reconstruction says that some 20% of the Afghan National Police have some level of literacy. When that is the threshold for  literacy is defined as “third grade level” (which counts as functionally literate) the numbers are much, much lower. According to the Inspector General’s report, only 2.24% of 7,771 new ANP personnel passed a November 2010 literacy test. If only the elite “front line corps” are counted, the number jumps to about 5%.

That brings us to a partnership between UNESCO, the Afghan National Police, the Japanese government, and NATO inked in June

UNESCO and the Japanese Government agreed on commencing “Literacy for Empowering Afghan Police (LEAP)” programme worth about USD 3 million. The programme aims to provide literacy opportunity to 3,000 Afghan National Police (ANP) officers in Kabul and seven provinces across the country in next 20 months…With UNESCO’s technical support on ensuring high quality literacy provision, the programme will be jointly implemented by the Ministry of Interior (MoI) and the Ministry of Education (MoE)’s Department of Literacy in close collaboration with literacy stakeholders such as NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan (NTM-A)…The programme aims to develop better literacy skills among police officers and further improve their peace-building skills, thereby contributing to peaceful and sustainable nation-building in Afghanistan. As part of the programme a comprehensive national literacy curriculum for ANP will be developed.

“I believe, through LEAP, UNESCO with Ministry of Interior as well as Ministry of Education and the Government of Japan will greatly contribute to building peace in Afghanistan and ensuring security and stability throughout the country.” said Mr. Shigeru Aoyagi, UNESCO Kabul Director.

The Japanese government underwrote this specific program. But a 22% cut to UNESCO funding (starting with $60 million cut off next month) means less money to pay for general costs of running an office in Kabul. There will soon be a sharp decrease in funding for basic things like hiring support staff, paying the utility bills, paying translators, and security. Other UNESCO programs in Afghanistan, like a literacy campaign targeting 600,000 people; building an education system that respects the fundamental rights of girls; and supporting the development of a free and independent media will also take a big hit — all because of some laws from the early 1990s that prohibit the United States from contributing to any UN agency that lets Palestine join as a member.

This is just ridiculous.  Congress needs to change these prohibitions and fast. It makes no sense to hinder the world of a UN agency trying to teach Afghan police how to read..all because most countries in the world support Palestine’s bid for membership to UNESCO.