The statistics are stark: Over 50% of girls in Afghanistan are denied access to a full education. Poverty, harmful gender norms, political unrest, poor infrastructure, and the Taliban’s systemic abuse of women keep them from going to school. While education in Afghanistan is not mandatory for girls or boys after the ninth grade, according to a UNICEF report, 40% of school-aged children do not go to school — 66% of which are girls. Among adolescent girls, only 37% are literate compared to 66% of boys, and 19% of adult females cannot read compared to 49% of adult males.
Without access to school and economic opportunities, rural communities in Afghanistan are vulnerable to violent extremist recruiting, and girls have little hope for a bright future. But even as the U.S. military prepares to leave the country this fall after 20 years of war, many — including one group led by military veterans and recent MBA graduates — are committed to long-term, permanent change for the children of Afghanistan.
The surprising catalyst for that change? Renewable electricity.
“During my time serving in the Middle East, I saw the extent we have used military solutions to combat terrorism,” says Alexander Emmert, an MBA grad from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Using economic means and education to empower women can be far more effective in stopping a problem before it starts.”
MAKING CHANGE AT THE VILLAGE LEVEL
John Gerlaugh is the founder and executive director of Team Afghan Power (TAP), a nonprofit that enables development in Afghanistan’s remote communities. He says rural villages are where the Afghanistan war will be won or lost. That’s where the Taliban recruits and it’s where the majority of the population lives.
“If you elevate students early on in their education, you’ve created people who can navigate more effectively throughout the rest of their lives. But if they’re kept in the house, married early, and only tend to their crops, they can’t see beyond the local horizon. Sustainable electric power changes all of that,” he says.
By co-designing and building renewable energy power sources with local village residents, TAP can help boost the local economy and create electricity-powered schools using organic energy resources.
So far, over 250 volunteers — the majority of which are veteran MBAs — have helped with TAP’s microgrid projects, including The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania’s Emmert and Georgetown University McDonough School of Business’ Ryan Schubert. By combining their military experience and business knowledge, they were able to help Gerlaugh develop a logistics plan, fundraise, and partner with start-ups to bring the first project to fruition in April 2021.
Thanks to their help, Shah Qalandar girls’ high school in the Yakawlang district of Bamyan Province in Afghanistan has five kilowatts of sustainable electricity, providing the school with lights, electricity for computers, and internet access — a small step towards the massive change needed for the future of Afghan girls.
COMBATING THE ALLURE OF EXTREMISM
Poverty and a lack of education can result in the temptation to fall into extremist narratives, Gerlaugh says.
“The men who had ill intent towards us when I was in Afghanistan were young, military-aged males. They’d either been educated in Pakistan, Madrasas, or not educated at all and were very vulnerable to the extremist narratives the Taliban provided,” he explains. “It was the same thing in Peru with the Shining Path guerrilla movement, and in Colombia with the FARC; most of the young men who fought in those endeavors were poorly educated. They came from impoverished communities with no hope of moving forward.”
Education requires electricity, and Afghanistan is an ideal location for renewable energy, Gerlaugh says. On average there are over 300 days of sunlight, strong winds, and large rivers for hydro. “Locally generated renewable electricity allows those in rural villages to connect to the outside world, which makes a huge difference in their awareness. This makes it less likely that they’ll buy into the false narratives of the Taliban,” he says.
“Education is the future,” adds Emmert. “It makes the allure of extremism a lot less strong. Beyond that, TAP’s renewable energy projects will create jobs for participating communities as they learn to design, build and operate the renewable energy generators.”