Half of U.S. Education Aid to Afghanistan Disappeared in ‘Ghost Schools’
It’s a problem far older than the American occupation
by MATTHEW GAULT
Everyone loves to spend money on schools. Want to do some good in poor, embattled country? Donate money to a non-profit geared toward improving literacy, hiring teachers and building classrooms.
The same is true for governments. When Washington wants to point to all the good it’s done in a country it invaded, it points to the cash it spends on education. But people are so comfortable spending money on education they often overlook how often that money … disappears.
John Sopko — the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction — wants to know how the U.S. Agency for International Development spent $769 million in taxpayer money in Afghanistan.
The agency claimed the cash went toward education and that’s certainly how USAID intended it be spent. But Afghanistan is a systemically corrupt country and money often doesn’t go where it’s supposed to.
USAID has touted its Afghan education programs as some of its most successful efforts in the country. The truth is that many schools stand empty and corrupt Afghan officials have pocketed cash meant for teachers and facilities.
That’s not surprising. The unscrupulous have long taken advantage of people who want to build schools in impoverished countries. The region — and Afghanistan in particular — has a history of soaking up cash earmarked for learning donated by the well-meaning.
“The Ministry of Education, with support from USAID and other donors, has built more than 13,000 schools, recruited and trained more than 186,000 teachers, and increased net enrollment rates for school-aged children past 56 percent,” states the official USAID website about education in Afghanistan.
The agency claimed Afghanistan educated eight million students in 2014. In 2002, only 900,000 Afghan children went to school. Those numbers are incredible and it appears as if USAID is doing fantastic work in Afghanistan.
But it’s not the truth. Afghanistan’s news media and Asadullah Hanif Balkhi — its new minister of education — have started to ask questions about the state of the country’s schools. What it’s discovering isn’t good.
Balkhi has alleged that the government of former Pres. Hamid Karzai lied about the enrollment and progress of Afghan schools to keep American money flowing into the system. He alleged that the former officials tweaked enrollment database numbers and embezzled money. How bad is it?
“More than 50 percent of schools in Afghanistan lack a building or have access to one but it doesn’t meet the ministry’s standards,” reported TOLO News — a respected Afghanistan news site.
“It is a fact that there are no schools in some parts of the country, but all the expenses — including teachers’ salaries — are being paid,” Balkhi told Afghan lawmakers in May.
It gets worse.
“The Afghan Analysts Network sent observers to schools in Ghor Province, where 13 teachers and 767 students were supposedly engaged in education,” Sopko explained during a speech to Weill Cornell Medical College in May. “They found five teachers and some 20 students.”
He pointed to a litany of other concerns, including “fake schools for girls, teachers’ salaries being stolen by warlords, security threats causing interruptions in schooling, and parents sending children to religion-centered madrasa schools rather than public facilities.”
By SIGAR’s estimation, USAID’s assertion that eight million children now attend school in Afghanistan is false. Sopko thinks that number is closer to four million. How are the schools drumming up the fake numbers? Creative bookkeeping. “The ministry counts absent students as ‘enrolled’ for up to three years before dropping them from the rolls,” Sopko explained.
Sopko sent a letter to USAID on July 11. In it, he demanded to know the number of so-called ghost schools USAID is counting as open. The agency will reply by the end of the month.
But this isn’t the first time something like this has happened in the region.
In 1993, Greg Mortenson traveled to northern Pakistan with the goal of scaling K2 — the second highest mountain in the world. He got lost and wound up in the village of Korphe, where the local people were so kind that Mortenson promised to return and build them a school.
After he returned home, Mortenson founded the Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit that aimed to promote and support education in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mortenson and the organization built some schools, did some good and turned his experiences into two best selling books — Stones for Schools and Three Cups of Tea.
His books tell the story of a selfless man who fought for education in some of the poorest areas of the world. Mortenson even claimed the Taliban had kidnapped him in an attempt to put an end to his crusade.
It turned out his accomplishments were grossly exaggerated. Author Jon Krakauer and CBS exposed Mortenson on 60 Minutes in 2011. The philanthropist had lied about building schools, the Taliban incident and even wandering into the village of Kophe.
He also allegedly pocketed money from the non-profit to the tune of at least a million dollars, an amount a court forced him to return to the organization in 2011.
The problems are bad in Pakistan as well, where institutional corruption has led to hundreds of ghost schools where no students attend and teachers continue to draw a salary. Many of these schools rest on Pakistan’s Khyber border with Afghanistan.
“A teacher said that although she has been drawing the salary of a primary school teacher for a decade, she does not even know the location of the school she is supposedly employed by,” Reuters reported in 2013.
Education is the cornerstone of any society. An educated populace lives longer and more peaceful lives. During the reconstruction in Afghanistan, America focused on building schools and communities as well as fighting off the Taliban.
But cash corrupts and corruption in Afghanistan has been a way of life for Kabul’s officials for decades. Afghanistan’s government has long been willing to take American money, but it often pays lip service to the projects that cash is set aside for.
The schools are no different. It’s just that people want to believe that money goes where it’s supposed to. But it doesn’t. Kabul’s officials learned long ago that Western aid for education is a great way to make an extra buck.