One of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s signature achievements in Afghanistan is helping increase the number of students enrolled in schools from 900,000 in 2002 to more than 8 million in 2013. But were these figures falsified, as recent allegations claim?
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, an aid watchdog created by Congress to scrutinize U.S. programs in the country, has sent a letter of inquiry to USAID, requesting the agency to respond to recent allegations by the ministers of education and higher education that former officials falsified data about school and student numbers to obtain more funding.
“The ministers reported that there are no active schools in insecure parts of the country, and that former officials doctored statistics, embezzled money and interfered with university entrance exams,” SIGAR’s letter reads. “These allegations suggest that U.S. and other donors may have paid for schools that students do not attend and for the salaries of teachers who do not teach.”
Issues of “ghost workers” and “ghost projects” — those that appear on paper, but not in reality — have plagued other sectors of the Afghanistan reconstruction effort, including rebuilding the country’s police force. Now, SIGAR, a body known for its provocative statements on U.S. aid shortcomings, is raising the alarm on “ghost students,” “ghost teachers” and “ghost schools.”
“The data USAID uses to measure this progress came from the MOE’s Education Management Information System ... which USAID has said it cannot verify, and which it now appears that officials from the Karzai administration may have falsified,” the letter reads.
In a statement, Larry Sampler, assistant to the administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, told Devex, “USAID takes seriously any allegations of manipulated or falsified data. We have asked the Ministry of Education for more information regarding the minister's statement.”
Sampler defended the agency’s success in improving the education sector, and pointed to efforts to improve data reliability, citing joint efforts with the World Bank “to develop policies and systems to improve the reliability of data reporting,” and the placement of a full-time USAID official within the Ministry of Education to provide technical assistance.
“USAID will continue to work with the ministry to improve its reliability and safeguard U.S. taxpayer dollars,” Sampler wrote in response to an inquiry from Devex.
SIGAR’s letter asks USAID to address the following questions:
1. What actions is USAID taking to investigate the allegations of falsified education data? 2. Does USAID have an estimate of how much U.S. money may have been spent on ghost schools, ghost teachers and ghost administrators? 3. How has USAID sought to validate education and related expenditure data provided by the MOE and the World Bank? 4. Given the increasing evidence of problematic data related to whether schools are open or closed, and whether teachers and students attend, what steps is USAID taking — independently or in coordination with the World Bank and other donors — to verify the accuracy of education data prior to providing funding and to ensure a more accurate understanding of the state of education in Afghanistan? 5. To what extent will USAID adjust its approach to on-budget assistance or the type of education activities that it supports in Afghanistan in light of questions about the reliability of EMIS and other MOE education data?
USAID is preparing a response to SIGAR’s inquiry, which is needed by June 30. As of March 31, 2015, the agency has spent $769 million to help construct a nationwide education system in the war-torn country.
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Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.
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