WASHINGTON — Attendees at a closed-door United States Agency for International Development meeting with faith-based organizations last week expressed concern about language in a proposed U.S. Government Basic Education Strategy that links international education funding to reducing violent extremism.
The education strategy would prioritize some U.S. education funding for countries where “there is the greatest opportunity to reduce childhood and adolescence exposure to or engagement in violent extremism or extremist ideologies.”
The U.S government strategy document is being led by USAID and was mandated by the Reinforcing Education Accountability in Development, or READ, Act, which was passed last year with bipartisan support and signed into law by President Donald Trump in September. The bill mandates “the development of a comprehensive, integrated U.S. Government Strategy to promote basic education.”
Public comment was accepted on the draft until July 22, and USAID consulted a host of stakeholders for feedback. A final copy of the U.S. Government Basic Education Strategy, which will include an annex for each of the 10 agencies involved in U.S. education efforts abroad, is due to Congress by Sept. 7.
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According to the draft strategy, every year of education reduces by 20 percent an adolescent boy’s risk of becoming involved in conflict. But a few of the attendees at the July 23 faith-based organizations feedback session raised concerns about the language used in the draft around achieving this goal.
According to attendees, some of the participants in the meeting asked that the wording in the READ Act be broadened to not only include contexts where violent extremism is a concern, but other at-risk youth populations, including those that live in areas where gang violence is prevalent.
Several people present at the meeting said that a representative from the Aga Khan Foundation spoke out forcefully against using U.S. education strategy to single out communities where violent extremism is believed to be an issue. That individual did not respond to a request for comment, but Aga Khan Foundation CEO Aleem Walji told Devex the organization has long sought to reframe the language used around violent extremism.
“We prefer language that recognizes ‘marginalized and vulnerable populations’ or ‘at-risk communities,’” Walji said, adding that “pluralism is the indispensable foundation for human peace and progress, so it is an important value in education.”
Islamic Relief USA also voiced concerns about the language. Christina Tobias-Nahi, the director of public affairs at IRUSA, said that the goal of reducing violent extremism would be better served by focusing on the desired outcome of education. She said examples of this include creating positive environmental conditions — jobs, infrastructure, and social services — while teaching students the skills to live in cohesive communities.
Other invitees to the meeting, which some joined via teleconference, included World Vision, Georgetown University, SIL Lead, Hardwired Global, Catholic Relief Services, and Notre Dame University; it’s not clear if all these organizations had representatives in attendance.
In addition to prioritizing countries where there is an opportunity to reduce violent extremism through education, the READ Act states that U.S. education assistance should be “aligned with the foreign policy and economic interests of the United States.” It goes on to state that, “subject to such alignment, priority is given to developing countries in which: (A) there is the greatest need and opportunity to expand access to basic education and to improve learning outcomes, including for marginalized and vulnerable groups, particularly women and girls to ensure gender parity in basic education, or populations affected by conflict or crisis; and (B) such assistance can produce a substantial, measurable impact on children and educational systems.”
Because the language in the education strategy originated from the READ Act, USAID told participants in the meeting that should they wish to change it in the education strategy, they would need to lobby Congress to amend the bill from which the wording had been lifted, according to multiple attendees of the meeting.
While USAID declined to comment on what was said inside the closed-door meeting, spokesperson Clayton McCleskey said the agency has held dozens of consultations with hundreds of organizations and individuals for feedback on the basic education strategy. Eleven consultations took place during the public comment period in July, bringing the total held since April to 45. According to USAID, more than 400 people attended such sessions.
“We are taking all feedback seriously,” McCleskey said. “USAID is committed to listening to and working with our partners and stakeholders while also ensuring we meet the READ Act’s legislative requirements.”
“USAID believes in the importance of helping to ensure children, youth, and adults are acquiring the education and skills needed to be productive members of society. Education creates pathways for greater economic growth, improved health outcomes, sustained democratic governance, and more peaceful and resilient societies.”
The bill was first introduced as the Education for All Act in the House in 2004 by Representative Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York. It was introduced each session thereafter in the House, but faced challenges in the Senate. The bill was renamed the READ Act and had undergone many substantive changes in language over the years, as well as becoming budget neutral.
Earlier drafts had allowed for appropriated funds, and eliminating those appropriations helped gain support for the bill from some Republican offices, according to several people involved with its passage who spoke on the condition that they not be identified by name in order to speak freely on the behind-the-scenes negotiations.
The READ Act passed the House of Representatives in 2017. A separate version was passed in August by the Senate, which was then sent back to the House for repassage. That version was signed by Trump in September.
One of the changes made by the Senate was an amendment proposed by Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican of Florida, which inserted the language regarding countering violent extremism to which organizations present at the USAID feedback section objected.
Rubio’s office did not respond to a request for comment on why that addition was made to the bill.
Aga Khan Foundation was not able to confirm by time of publication if the organization had raised any concerns regarding the CVE language at the time of its inclusion in the READ Act.
Those involved with the passage of the READ Act also said that tying international education programming to national security helped get some Republicans who were generally skeptical of foreign aid to support the legislation. Multiple people said that because the overarching outcomes of the bill were so positive for global education — the creation of a senior coordinator of U.S. basic government assistance, ensuring targeted U.S. government efforts for increasing access to basic education around the globe — they did not get bogged down in semantics surrounding CVE and national security.
“We were fine with that language at that moment in time. For us, going back to what was the most important part of this, it was passage and implementation,” said Kevin Rachlin, previously of the Basic Education Coalition, which advocated for the READ Act. “CVE language, which is national security language, which is a part of the Foreign Assistance Act and had also been a part of the bill off and on for several years, was just kind of normal to us at that point.”
People involved with passage of the bill said that connecting international development policy with national security has become more prevalent in recent years, but Brian Callahan, who worked on the bill at the Global Campaign for Education-US, noted that even in the 2004 original version, there was a reference to the tie between education and countering violent extremism.
“I think there was some concerns about saying education prevents terrorism — the 9/11 hijackers were educated,” Callahan said. “But there are direct links between investing in education and increasing economic opportunity and that being an alternate path for folks in any country who are looking to provide for their families.”