Afghanistan in 2016 has a population of over 34 million spread over 34 provinces, with considerable variability in standard of living among them. The country's area and population density are comparable to those of Texas.
The geography of land-locked Afghanistan challenges rural inhabitants and NGO personnel working and traveling in the country. The Hindu Kush rises in the east to over 24,000 feet, large areas of desert dominate the landscape, and only 12% arable land supports agriculture. Winters are cold and dust storms are frequent. In the area around Lashkar Gah agriculture is supported by water from a dam on the Helmand River.
The social/political context in which Green Village Schools and other NGOs do their work is important. On the United Nations Human Development Index (based on life expectancy at birth, adult literacy, school enrollment, and GDP per capita with a spending power adjustment) Afghanistan was ranked 168th out of 189 countries listed in 2017. Life expectancy in Afghanistan is 64 years for both men and women. Infant mortality in 2011 was the highest in the world, among nations ranked, and children have close to a one in four chance of dying by age five. Maternal mortality in 2008 was the highest in the world. Literacy over the age of 15 years is about 50% for men and less than 25% for women nationally. In rural Afghanistan it is rare for women to read and write at all.
GVS operates in Helmand which in some ways is almost a country apart from other provinces, despite having the sizeable capital city of Lashkar Gah with a population of over 200,000. A summary of 39 provincial socio-economic indicators was published in June 2011 by the Australian Government (AusAID) and the World Bank (Economic Policy and Poverty Sector) based on information collected by the Ministry of Economy and the World Bank for the National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment 2007/08. Population data in the publication was based on the most recent statistics from the Government of Afghanistan (2010-2011).
A look at the statistics for Helmand reveals an interesting dichotomy of well being. Afghanistan's largest province is ranked #2 in food and non-food consumption and lowest in poverty (likely because of home grown food and opium production). Yet its school enrollment (ranked #33 at 4%) and health care indicators (full immunization rate # 32 at 0.6%, no immunization rate #33 at 43.9%, access to skilled antenatal care # 31 at 1.6%, and households with safe drinking water #34 at 3.3%) are abysmal. Although Helmand has the best access to drivable roads (ranked #1), it has very poor access to electricity (ranked #31 with only 11.8% of households on grid). Construction of dams on the Helmand River in the 1950s for irrigation projects and electricity may explain the access to roads. Thirty years of war destroyed much of the electric grid and the focus of the current conflict in Helmand has prevented its reconstruction. Unfortunately the irrigation projects intended for vegetables have been diverted to poppy growing for opium production.
When we started the school in Shin Kalay, a village of 11,000 people in Helmand, none of the women in the village knew how to read and write. Schools are few and far between in this southern province outside of its capital, Lashkar Gah. In Shin Kalay GVS has offered a unique type of education that is local, coeducational, and free, with English added to the usual government curriculum. Over 2,500 students have been taught in the school. In Lashkar Gah, GVS operated an Advanced Education Center where English and Computer instruction was provided to 250 male and female students.