Knowledge is easy luggage to carry,” we were told when I grew up in Norway, a peaceful little land, and not then as affluent as it has become today. For poorer children and youth in the rural and remote areas, including the indigenous Sami people in the north, education became a key to social mobility. That was also true for working class children and for girls and middle-aged women in general. The education opportunities have contributed markedly to social and economic equality.

Today, it is the immigrants that use education as a tool for integration and success. Young women do particularly well at exams thanks to hard work and a will to become independent. Pakistanis are generally amongst the most successful immigrants in the US. In addition to education, the new land gives the immigrants opportunities to compete and get into well paying jobs.

The Afghan refugees in Pakistan don’t shy away from hard work. But often the young and older men have to undercut locals to get day labour jobs. Since they rarely have much education, the pay is low. It won’t take them anywhere; it just keeps the hunger away. Those who have relatives as foreign workers in the UAE or Saudi-Arabia, or refugee-relatives in the West receiving remittances, can send their boys to school, and perhaps even the girls.

This is part of the transnational nature of the Afghan migration, forced and voluntary, including economic migration, even human smuggling. The money the men send home has for long been essential for the survival of their families at home. It was so even before the wars began in 1979, but became more important when over one-third of the Afghan population became displaced.

The American-led NATO invasion of 2001 is finally coming to an end this year. If the West had focused on peaceful development, not war which mixed destruction and development, then Afghans, the Taliban and others, would have been supporting the government more (but not the invasion). The various groups of the Afghan people should have had a much greater say during the years of occupation. Adult education and livelihoods training and creation should have been provided, in addition to primary and other education, which has been quite good.

I would like to draw some comparisons to South Sudan, the world’s youngest state, which broke away from The Sudan, Africa’s largest country in 2011. The main reason for the current conflict is that the new leaders, administrators and people do not have much education and livelihoods training. The men know fighting, but they don’t know how to live a normal everyday life.

In Pakistan, the foreign community has also not fully understood the essential importance of education and training for the Afghan refugees. They should have provided a more general education that included decision-making and building a democracy. After all, we live in a time when the UN slogan is Education for All (EFA) by 2015.

I worked in Kenya in the 1990s when there were large refugee camps for South Sudanese in Kakuma, Turkana. I coordinated a group which included the three MNAs from the Turkana, along with key civil servants, researchers and some donors.

There was not a single secondary school for South Sudanese refugees in Kenya at the time. We told the Western donors that even if peace would come, the South Sudanese would not know how to run their land. But the donors didn’t listen; they didn’t take time to understand. Sadly, to restore peace and get back on track will be far more costly.

In Pakistan, only about a quarter of the Afghans have any education at all – and they are to go back and try to make a living at home. There have never been any massive literacy campaigns for Afghans (or for Pakistanis, for that matter), and not much other adult education and skills training programmes. The 12 secondary schools for Afghans that the Government of Pakistan ran until 2005 have closed due to lack of funding and some other problems.

UNHCR has mostly supported funds for six-year primary school cycles for children in the camps, although that was against the organization’s own guidelines, which says that basic education should be eight years. In the last years, UNHCR has finally begun introducing secondary classes, but only for a tiny percentage of those who complete Grade 6.

In the camps, just about a third of the Afghan refugee girls go to school, and about two-thirds of the boys. In the cities and other settlements, education opportunities are very limited and the quality is poor.

A very small percentage can go to college or university. UNHCR administers a German-funded university scholarship programme, DAFI, but not even a hundred students benefit from it annually. Vocational training, which was a corner stone in the foreign support in the early 1980s, has dried up – both for the refugees and for the affected people in hosting areas.

What is it we are doing – or rather, not doing? We all know that education, at all levels, but especially basic education, is a ‘win-win situation.’ You cannot go wrong and it is certainly not rocket science to provide education.

Let us not make the content controversial; let us make it generally acceptable for all, based on common sense and good and peaceful attitudes. Since people are generally logical and forward looking, agreement can be reached in most fields. It should be noted too, that a school is neither a church nor a mosque. A school is also not a factory, a shop, or farm; skills for the working life should be learnt at work and in skills training centers later.

The school is the foundation that children need to become good adults. They should learn values and tolerance, obtain information and orientation about local and foreign issues, learn to reason about issues, and develop an interest in further learning. Most importantly, children should learn to be confident; they should accept who they are and have a positive opinion about others. The school should be an extension of the home and the community, but it should also be a universal and tolerant institution.

Let me at the end of this article repeat that all research shows that to give education to all refugees is the best ‘luggage’ we can give them – in addition to protection, food, shelter and health, which are the other basic components when assisting refugees in exile.

I hope the new government in Afghanistan after the elections this Saturday, will not only continue the great efforts of educating Afghans at home, but will also cooperate with Pakistan and the international community to expand education for the refugees. Then the refugees have a real chance to do reasonably well – even return home; otherwise they will all stay on. Let us get on with the simple and important task of doing what should be our first priority. It has drifted for far too long.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.

Email:atlehetland@yahoo.com