Community-Based Education: Relationships between the Local and ‘Beyond the Local’

By Bibi-Zuhra Faizi

Supermarket and other buildings in Kabul

Kabul, Afghanistan is the fifth fastest-growing city in the world. The population of the city multiplied from 1.5 million in 2001 to six million by 2014, spurred by insecurity in rural areas, forced repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Iran, and both economic and educational opportunities found in the city. 

According to the United Nations, more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban spaces (and over the next few decades, this number is projected to increase to two-thirds of the global population). Amid this largest wave of urbanization in history—which is concentrated in the Global South—governments and international NGOs increasingly turn to community involvement in education to widen access for excluded and marginalized children and address central capacity limitations. 

Kabul’s rapid expansion has placed a strain on Afghanistan’s fledgling Ministry of Education to provide education for the city’s children. To address these capacity limitations, the Ministry—in partnership with international NGOs—has extended community-based education to include urban centers. Providing educational opportunities within the community is a long-used strategy based on the country’s own history of local schools as well as trends in international education, but in previous decades was implemented in mainly rural areas. 

Across the Global South, most community-based education opportunities are designed as complementary models that feed into central education systems by the middle or end of primary school. These low-cost community-based schools (CBSs) consist of clusters of classrooms located within homes, places of worship, or other community centers, yet they remain part of the public system—local teachers teach the national curriculum and students are enrolled in the central education system. This solution alleviates government fears of the creation of a parallel system while also buying them time to absorb more students into formal public schools. In Afghanistan, CBSs are satellites of nearby public schools, or “hub” schools. In theory, hub schools are intended to provide support to CBSs. In practice, this relationship is ill-defined and distant. 

Conceptions of community

Within complementary education models, community assets and participation are leveraged to support education. Yet policy makers rarely grapple with what the contours of community look like in places like Kabul, which is marked by urbanization, displacement, and insecurity. Moreover, ideas of community are too often conceptualized through romanticized notions of self-sufficiency, homogeneity, and harmony. 

Academic literature shows progression in the conceptualization of community. Early conceptions envision community as culturally homogenous, geographically bounded, and apolitical entities.1 More nuanced notions recognize that individuals belong to multiple communities based on their identities, not just geographical location or kinship ties. According to sociologist Hill Collins, community is “always in the making” and includes processes of inclusion and exclusion, and is defined from within and outside.2 

Scholars also emphasize the importance of examining community through the lens of power to move away from static and romanticized ideas of community. Some scholars point out how community is utilized by governments to “re-present persistent structural problems as local problems susceptible to local or individual solutions.”3 

While academic ideas regarding community have advanced, education policy lags. This lag has significant implications for the sustainability of complementary education models.

Roshan Street community-based school

A group of 3 friends walking down the road next to a small body of waterIn my dissertation, I move away from static conceptualizations of community to examine both the promises and challenges of community-based education. 

I focus on the experiences and perspectives of community members—teachers, students, families, school council members, and representatives from partnering NGOs and the Ministry of Education—at one CBS in the peripheries of Kabul province through in-depth qualitative research. 

To examine the perspectives and lived experiences of participants in context, my research design brings together ethnography, case study, and portraiture—a qualitative methodology that takes the position of strength, in “search for goodness,”4 instead of the usual tendency of social scientists to focus their inquiries of marginalized communities on pathology, or “what is wrong.” Given that most public discourse on Afghanistan is deficit-based, blaming the country’s lack of progress in education on culture—rather than war and poverty—as an Afghan American, it is vital for me to center the experiences and perspectives of Afghans to capture complexity and nuance.  

The school, located in a neighborhood I call Roshan Street, consists of two classrooms with two teachers. The Qari, a religious title for someone who has memorized the Quran, is a thirty-eight-year-old man who teaches the Pashto language instruction class. Ustad Yusra (Ustad is the formal term for teacher), eighteen years old, teaches the Dari language instruction class. The school is located within the Qari’s home. Moreover, the Qari has a long family history in the neighborhood and is connected to native residents and new residents through the mosque and the community council—laying important foundations for trust. 

Trust, belonging, and relationships

The relationship between education and community is transformational, that is, as educational opportunities open and strengthen, new layers of community emerge and strengthen, and vice versa. My findings indicate three mechanisms—trust, belonging, and relationships—explain these connections between community and education more fully. 

Trust begins broadly to document elements, old and new, that form the foundation of community in a context of instability and insecurity. Belonging looks closely at the classroom space to document how a new community forms through education and its messages about connection to society. Relationships focus on both the local—connections within the community—and what I term ‘beyond the local’—connections between the community-based school and the state and international actors. 

For this article, I highlight some key findings about relationships. After all, community does not exist in isolation. Communities constantly interact with other actors. Within complementary education systems, there is a concerted effort to ensure community goals are aligned with central education goals, yet there is little in-depth research about this relationship.

Benefits of international NGO involvement

A classroom at the Roshan Street school with several children sitting on the floor talkingInternational NGOs play a significant role in community-based education. Individuals who demonstrate a strong degree of trust are selected by NGOs to teach at CBSs. In Afghanistan, this often means either men with religious training or women from the neighborhood. Some of these individuals might be highly educated but they don’t necessarily possess pedagogical skills. NGOs fill this gap by investing resources and time to train locals via in-service teacher professional development. NGOs offer mandatory training seminars and lead school oversight efforts. 

In the school on Roshan Street, while the Qari had many years of teaching experience in the madrassa system (schools that focus on Islamic sciences), Ustad Yusra had recently started college. Despite their different teaching experiences, both teachers expressed a positive attitude toward NGO training. Ustad Yusra shares, “At first I thought [preparing a lesson plan] wasn’t that important but when I went to the seminar I learned a lot of things. When you first enter the class you should say salaam, then check the rows, take attendance, cleanliness, ask students how they are, then review the previous lesson.” For the Qari, teaching a first-grade classroom was different from teaching at the madrassa. He explains, “The first [training seminar] one was beneficial because I wasn’t very familiar with [first grade] teaching before that. Lesson planning, keeping track of attendance, plans for classroom management were new to me and because of that it was very useful.” 

In addition to both the commitment of local teachers and their relationships in the neighborhood, part of the success of community-based education can be attributed to ongoing NGO oversight of schools. NGO staff visit classrooms and provide additional pedagogical training to teachers on site. The involvement of NGOs at the school level is particularly important as many CBSs do not have a staff or administration. NGOs provide some support and train community members to participate in the school council. This arrangement further cuts costs associated with traditional public schools.

Tensions beyond the local

According to the Ministry of Education’s Guidelines for Community-Based Education, Ministry provincial and district representatives are also expected to visit classrooms on a regular basis. Yet, in practice this does not always happen. During the nine months I conducted research at Roshan Street, these representatives visited the school only when the school was first established in the spring. Conversations with other teachers at teacher training seminars showed similar trends across schools—NGOs are far more involved than the Ministry of Education. 

However, while both teachers at Roshan Street believe that NGO training and support are instrumental, in practice, relationships between CBSs and NGOs are not free from tensions. At times, NGO overreach can get in the way of connecting with national education structures. For example, when midway through the academic year the Ministry of Education announced an unexpected break due to rising temperatures and deteriorating security conditions, the NGO instructed teachers to continue holding classes. 

Ustad Yusra, whose mother is a veteran teacher at a formal public school, voiced her frustration: “My mother said the Ministry made the decision so it applies to all schools. The break begins today. We are part of the public school.” CBS teachers from across Kabul joined hands and demanded that the break be recognized. The NGO eventually acquiesced, yet small moments like these raise questions for community members about whether the school is indeed part of the public system—whether their children’s education is officially recognized. 

Relationship to hub schools

My study shows that romanticized notions of self-sufficiency often misrepresent community ideas of their role and the role of the state. Representatives of communities, such as teachers, actively seek support from the central education system particularly around administrative duties, such as enrolling students in the hub school. 

Families also seek assurance that their children’s education is accredited so that their children can transition to other schools once the CBS ends. As a researcher, I was surprised to hear parents ask me if the CBS was a public school. While families value the CBS—both because of the high quality of learning as well as the security it provides by being situated in the neighborhood—questions about its relationship with the central education system could have implications for trust in local structures. 

The implications of the relationship between CBSs and NGOs on sustainability are especially troubling. CBSs close when NGO funding ends. In theory, students should transition to the hub school before funding ends. In practice, this is more complicated. Firstly, funding sometimes ends abruptly, such as in the case of Roshan Street, when funding ended after the first year of the school. The ramifications of a premature closure of CBSs on trust in community and religious leaders—the conduits between schools and community—could have potentially long-term negative effects on community relationships. Secondly, students are expected to transition to hub schools even when the same structural conditions that hinder access in the first place have not been addressed. For example, a number of Pashto-speaking students noted that classes at the hub school are taught only in Dari. A more widespread concern is the security conditions on the long walk to the hub school. Constraints on sustainability are connected to both CBS dependence on NGOs as well as the lack of involvement by the Ministry of Education. 

A mosque in a rural area against the mountains in the backdrop

Moving forward

CBSs are remarkably successful in absorbing marginalized students who have been left out of the education system in rural and urban areas. Trust in local teachers alleviates concerns about personal safety and physical security. The success of CBSs demonstrates that when we modify educational structures and content to address community concerns and values, possibilities for educational progress and new opportunities expand for marginalized populations. 

Education policy makers must think critically about the responsibilities of the community and the responsibilities of the state. Local teachers and central locations are strengths of CBSs. The central education system can do more to support local teachers with administrative duties, strengthen ties between CBSs and hub schools, and decrease dependence on international aid. To sustain the achievements of CBSs, we must think about sustainability beyond funding. The question is what are we seeking to sustain?5 If it is educational progress, then more needs to be done to strengthen connections between community-based education and formal public schools.

Bibi-Zuhra Faizi is a 2020–2021 Graduate Student Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and an affiliate at the Refugee REACH Initiative at Harvard. She recently received her EdD (’21) from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research focuses on international education policy; community-based/nonformal education; education in Afghanistan; and in-depth qualitative methods. 


  1. Tönnies, F. (2001). Community and Civil Society. Edited by J. Harris. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Hill Collins, P. (2010). “The new politics of community,” American Sociological Review, 75(1), 7–30. doi:10.1177/0003122410363293.
  3. Shaw, M. (2008). “Community development and the politics of community,” Community Development Journal, 43(1), 24–36.
  4. Lawrence-Lightfoot, S., & Davis, J. (1997). The Art and Science of Portraiture. San Francisco Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  5. Paris, Django, & Alim, H. Samy. (2014). “What are we seeking to sustain through culturally sustaining pedagogy? A loving critique forward,” Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 85–100.


  1. Kabul today is a vibrant, diverse metropolis that connects various regions in Afghanistan as well as more broadly in Asia. Credit: Bibi-Zuhra Faizi
  2. A group of friends stroll near Band-e Qargha, a popular place of gathering for friends and families in Kabul. Credit: Bibi-Zuhra Faizi
  3. Students at the Roshan Street CBS chat before their teacher arrives. Credit: Bibi-Zuhra Faizi
  4. Community-based education has its roots in mosques in rural areas such as this one south of Kabul. Even in urban areas, mosques remain central to cultivating a sense of trust and safety in community. Credit: Bibi-Zuhra Faizi