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The United States has often touted the education sector as one of the major success stories of post-war rebuilding in Afghanistan, but it now appears that the numbers used to bolster that claim may have been inflated — and that some US taxpayer dollars may have gone to fund "ghost schools" that don't actually exist.
The US has spent more than $100 billion on development in the country, and USAID, the government agency that provides economic and humanitarian assistance, has cited a substantial increase in Afghan student enrollment, claiming that attendance climbed from 900,000 in 2002 to more than 8 million in 2013.
But when the Afghan ministers of education and higher education spoke recently to the country's Parliament, they claimed that their predecessors in the administration of Hamid Karzai had inflated enrollment statistics, Warren Ryan, a spokesperson for the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), told VICE News.
SIGAR released a report today that calls into question $769 million that has been disbursed in Afghanistan's education sector, and probes the reliability of the data that the US uses to oversee and fund education in the country.
Currently, there's no way to tell how much of the $769 million has contributed to legitimate programs and how much may have gone to "ghost schools," Ryan said. According to Afghan media outlets, the education ministers said that the data overstated the number of active schools in the country, raising questions about where American taxpayer dollars may be flowing. The ministers also alleged that former officials embezzled money, manipulated statistics, and tampered with university entrance exams, according to the SIGAR statement.
USAID spokesman Sam Ostrander told VICE News that the agency does not have any evidence that the numbers provided to them may have been inflated, but they are looking into the matter and have reached out to the Ministry of Education. Ostrander also suggested that the recent comments attributed to the education ministers may not have been translated accurately.
One of the main problems, Ryan said, is that USAID is relying on the Afghan Ministry's information systems. Either the system has errors in it or it's not reporting the right data, he said.
"USAID can't see all the information that they need to make that determination and that the money is being spent accountably," Ryan said.
USAID previously responded to questions from SIGAR about the Afghan education sector by saying they rely on the Ministry of Education to provide information on open and closed schools, and whether students or teachers are present, though USAID tries to verify this data through internal reports from officers, colleagues, and implementing partners.
Ostrander was unable to say whether the way metrics are tracked in Afghanistan is different from their systems in other countries, though he said it's "obviously a different situation."
"[It's] a more difficult environment to work in because of the rugged terrain and in the past there wasn't much infrastructure and just because of the situation on the ground," Ostrander said.
USAID and the World Bank have given technical assistance to the Ministry of Education to help develop policies and systems to improve reliability of its data reporting, Larry Sampler, assistant to the administrator in the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs at USAID, said in a statement.
"USAID will continue to work with the ministry to improve its reliability and safeguard US taxpayer dollars," Sampler said. USAID has two weeks to respond to SIGAR's inquiry.
"This would be a wasteful program if it turns out the US is paying for education that isn't taking place in Afghanistan," Ryan said. "We're just concerned that the statistics are telling the wrong story, that a large amount of US taxpayer money isn't being spent accountably."
The Afghan Ministry of Education did not respond to a VICE News inquiry on Thursday.
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