Interview with Zahid Hussein on communication strategy on girl’s education
By: Navid Paya
Navid: Thanks for your time. Can you tell us a little about the aims and missions of your journey to Iran?
Zahid: Basically I came here to devise a people-centred communication strategy for UNICEF which would help the ministry of education in promoting rural based girl’s education in less developed provinces of Iran like Balochistan, Hormozgan and West Azerbaijan. I’ve been in Iran for 50 days now and I’ve done great explorations both professionally and culturally.
N: Can you tell us a little about communication strategy? What does it do, what is it good for?
Z: You see, communication strategy is basically a program implementation tool, it helps giving voice to people’s problems, it helps put various stakeholders in contact, then it helps the program managers focus on the activities that people want done. So communication strategy, typically with UNICEF or any development institution has got to be based on what people think. I can’t make a communication strategy sitting in this office, unless I know about the people who I am to talk to!
N: So you have been to Sistan Balochistan and the other regions?
Z: Yes, I’ve been to Sistan Balochistan and Hormozgan and in both places I found a lot of cultural affinity. Quite a few of the target population in the two provinces are the people who move across the Iran-Pakistan border. This gives them mobility across the border. They have almost an identical culture with Pakistani Balochs and so to a fair extent the problems are the same as the Balochis in Pakistan have. Meeting people and discussing things with them was a great experience and the ministry of education provided me full freedom to talk to the target groups in both provinces.
N: So what do you think are the most prominent problems girl’s education is facing in Iran? Are there many?
Z: Not many we must say when I compare Iranian system of education with others. Luckily you have got an education system where there is a lot of cultural affinity. The educational discrimination in regions like Sistan Balochistan and some parts of Hormozgan is to some extent cultural but it has very solid economic base. In these areas cultural problems are interlaced with very hard economic problems. These areas normally don’t have rains, scanty means of livelihood so for these people the major economic activity is cross-border trade which in certain cases could be dangerous. I partially believe it’s not strictly a cultural problem. It is a cultural problem but at the same time it has very solid economic and financial roots.
N: What are your suggestions to remove the obstacles?
Z: I am very lucky that I’ve had very close cooperation from my Iranian counterparts and I think it was just a coincidence that the people I met in Sistan and Balochistan and Hormozgan, the Baloch people, at least 50 percent of them were able to communicate with me in Urdu. So I can say I have a very good idea of their problems. I think the best thing is to start a dialogue with the communities, with the NGOs, community-based organizations and a dialog between the literate and the illiterate. You see, absence of dialog is a major problem so unless we start talking to people I’m afraid problems will remain. So the biggest thing is to start strategic social mobilization, establish a dialogue because people in the area are proud of their culture so just a little push will bring them closer and provide them equal access to educational and economic opportunities.
N: So who can be the best help in your view?
Z: To some extent it’s a pity that in the less developed world, like Pakistan and Iran and a couple of other south Asian countries health, education and social welfare is thought to be the sole prerogative of the government while it’s not. Education is multi-tiered, multi-lateral; it involves the parents, the society, the community-based organizations and the government. I guess the best strategy is to involve the communities, the private sector and the NGOs so that each one of them understands that in order to get the best out of the system they also have to contribute. Providing education is of course the job of the government and the government, I must say, is doing well. I’ve also had the opportunity to take a look at some of the health facilities and I must say they were all very good, well-stocked and had good contact with the community. The problem is that the NGOs are scarce in Iran. I believe we have to lay the foundation of a public-private partnership, which would not entirely blame the government but also provide the society a tool for self-analysis through which they can analyze the problem and start a dialog with the government and their contacts and their service providers.
N: Have you had similar experiences in other countries, especially in girl’s education?
Z: Yes, right across the border in Pakistan, there is a huge project going on that is still funded by the WFP. It is a project based on incentives. The WFP gives one tin of oil to any family sending their girls to school. The value of the tin is not more than 7 or 8 dollars but at the same time it is an incentive for raising the nutrition status of the family, making girls important. The program has had huge success for the past ten years and I would recommend the education planners in Iran to take a look at that particular program. There are many programs going on in India, south Asia, South America but I think the best strategy is that there is no model to follow. Each country has its own specific economical and cultural constraints and I think the best strategy is a communication strategy and a development strategy that reflects the social and economic realities of the target groups and the countries.
N: So do you think Iran has done a good job compared to other countries?
Z: Well, Iran has certainly done a good job. There is no advertent or designed obstacle to girl’s education. For the past twenty years, the revolutionary government has instilled a spirit of resilience among people. Iran has thousands of years of civilization and people are proud of it. It gets expressed in their daily attitude, their conversations. You have done a good job and I’m sure with the kind of leadership you have and with the responsible individuals who are both community members and can act leaders, you can go at a galaxy speed.
N: How do you expect to see Iran ten years form now?
Z: The job of UNICEF is to assist the Government of Iran. We do believe right communication strategies, jointly owned by UNICEF and MoE would go a long way in improving the girls’ education in lesser developed provinces. However, in my view, education is not strictly going to school, it’s a whole lot more than that; it’s a holistic social phenomenon. In education, one has to work on multi-sector initiatives to bring about the change but certainly there is a tremendous potential for improvement in this sector.
N: Is there anything you want to add that we didn’t ask about?
Z: I would just like to add, there should be a lot more emphasis on social mobilization. The status of NGOs in community-based organizations is still weak and needs to be strengthened, it needs policy reforms. Both the NGOs and the government of Iran have to work toward the direction where the NGOs become more self-confident and the system becomes more responsive and the NGOs are able to contribute significantly to national