|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
21 - 27 June 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Learning prioritiesEducation needs money, and some of it has come from USAID. Omayma Abdel-Latif examines the impact of such funding
The budget of the Ministry of Education has increased thirty-fold in less than two decades, rising from LE600 million to LE20.4 billion between 1981 and 2000. Even with inflation and population growth factored in, such an exponential increase is indicative of the importance accorded to education within overall development plans. Yet the Egyptian student continues to lag far behind others in terms of the per capita share of educational resources. At an average of $170 per annum, it falls well behind the equivalent figure -- $3,500 -- in Israel, and pales into insignificance next to European and North American figures.
Senior officials, however, continue to repeat the mantra that education is the national project, and donors have continued to pump money into the sector. Controversy, too, continues to rage over the uses made of such outside funding.
While USAID's involvement in educational projects dates back to 1975, according to USAID documents, its real beginnings date back to 1981 when the Basic Education Project was launched. Lasting till 1994, its aim was to build up to 2,000 schools for primary grades 1-5 and end the practice of schools operating three daily shifts. As a consequence, 1,940 schools were constructed and instructional material and equipment provided. Yet according to USAID officials, capital expenditure on school construction has in some cases been undermined by the subsequent lack of maintenance.
The $185 million scheme also involved the controversial issue of curriculum reform. The Ministry of Education's 1988 decision to set up a curriculum development centre to provide training in curriculum design and development came at a time when USAID had shifted its priority to developing the content of the curricula being taught at school.
The shift was only logical, argue USAID officials, given the completion of the construction stage: once the space for teaching had been provided, it was natural for attention to be shifted to curricula and teacher training.
Initially, USAID agreed to provide a grant to help establish the new centre, which was mandated to tackle the "weak points" of the curriculum. And part of the grant, according to Kawsar Kouchock, head of the Centre of Curriculum Development since its inception, was devoted to technical assistance in the form of teacher training scholarships, and visits by experts from American universities.
The press had a field day, and the centre, Kouchock admits, become the butt of allegations about American tampering with the curriculum. Kouchouk, along with USAID officials, is dismissive of the charges. "There has never been any American interference in the process of curriculum development. Any change in the curriculum is carried out solely by a committee of Egyptian educationalists. Take the history curriculum -- Pharaonic specialists want to increase the space given to them in the curriculum, Islamic and Coptic specialists want more space allotted to their periods. Something comes at the expense of the something else, but in the final analysis it is all done by Egyptians," she explained.
The educational curricula stirred controversy, but the real challenge remained access to high quality instruction
photo: Barry Iverson
The selection of foreign experts who teach at the centre, moreover, remains Kouchock's prerogative. Foreign intervention in any project funded by aid, she insists, ends at providing the proposal. "We set our own priorities, they submit a proposal, and we change it in the manner which best serves our interests. This applies to USAID and all other funding agencies."
USAID eventually abandoned its involvement in curriculum development following the Ministry of Education's rejection of grants. And while USAID officials are adamant their programmes addressed only curriculum sequence and coherence and "never the content," few doubt the ministry's decision was one of political expediency given the vociferous criticisms the programmes had unleashed.
STOP-START: When the dust settled, USAID reduced its investments in educational projects in Egypt. "This growing lack of interest in education projects," explained one USAID official, "was not related to specific programmes in Egypt. The reason simply is that education ceased to be a priority concern for USAID."
Projects that remained operative tended to focus on higher education. They include the Development Training project (DT I-II), with $289 million funding, targetting long- as well as short-term professional and technical training. According to USAID statistics, more than 13,000 Egyptian professionals have been trained in US academic and technical institutions in a wide range of disciplines. In addition, 470 joint research projects have been undertaken by US and Egyptian universities.
The Peace Fellowships programme ($60 million) provided MA and PhD training for national university staff as well as some governmental trainees, while University Linkages I and II ($47 million) aimed to promote cooperation between Egyptian and US universities in the development and technology domains.
USAID investment in the education sector so far is estimated at $676,777,000. And though the US has renewed its interest in education, the stop- start history of such activities have proved inhibitive.
"To stop and start again was a bit difficult," admits one USAID official. "We would have had a better handle of what we wanted to do and who our best partners are had the flow been uninterrupted."
SHIFTING PRIORITIES: A major shift in the USAID agenda for education began to take shape following the International Cairo Population Conference (ICPD) when girls' education started to take priority over other projects. A series of programmes were launched targetting girls between the ages of six and 14 who had never enrolled in schools. They include: the New School Programme which began in 1999 and was designed to benefit, according to USAID documents, at least 28,800 girls in areas where girls' enrollment is lowest and PLAN International, which works in close cooperation with local Community Development Associations (CDAs) in five areas.
The latter represented a conscious effort to promote community participation and the areas were selected for inclusion in the programme were selected following a survey that identified villages with a high number of female drop-outs.
"We go to the local councils, invite community leaders and tell them about our projects," said one USAID official involved in the project. Funds are then directed to local NGOs registered with the government which then carry out the tasks.
MEASURES OF SUCCESS: According to a USAID document published on 3 July, 2000, follow-up USAID projects for basic education, responsible for the provision of instructional material and equipment for schools, were terminated due to irregular audit findings related to the maintenance of school buildings.
One girls' education project, furthermore, faced an initial rejection by the inhabitants of one village which made its consent to the project conditional on establishing a boys' school at the same time. Other projects, though, appear to have been successful, certainly if one of the criteria USAID uses to judge success -- ie whether or not the local community continues with the project once USAID pulls out -- is taken into account.
Most spectacular, perhaps, was the raising of LE100,000 from local inhabitants by one CDA to ensure the continued running of a community school, though the highest profile success story to date is probably the television programme Aalam Simsim (Sesame Street), designed to improve children's readiness for school and introduce basic literacy and numeracy skills. In partnership with a local production company, 130 half-hour TV programmes were produced.
A CRITICAL SECTOR: "Contracts (related to aid projects) are not accessible and we don't know how the priorities are being set. And at least 30 per cent of USAID money is spent in the US even before it reaches Egypt," Kamal Mogheith, a prominent education expert, told the Weekly. Mogheith's comments identify lack of transparency as one of the major causes of criticism levelled at USAID programmes, and it is something, many commentators insist, for which both the donor and recipient nation is to blame.
Mogheith stresses that the girls' education project, for example, was a much needed endeavour -- there is currently a 14 per cent gap between girls' and boys' enrollment rates in basic education. Yet the formula of girls-only classes and community schools adopted by USAID does not, he argues, represent the best solution, and tackles only the tip of the iceberg. In some villages the number of girls not enrolled or dropping out is in the thousands, requiring more than a one- class solution. A school that could be transformed into an evening school for girls who work in the daytime would present a more practical solution to the problem, he argues. "We are not dealing here with villages where there are 40 or 50 drop-outs. We are talking about thousands of girls and the one-class formula is a mere drop in the ocean," he says.
Mogheith says that foreign aid directed to education begs the question whether Egyptians have the ability to negotiate and make the best possible use out of such aid.
Mogheith believes that foreign aid will remain a necessary funding component in education for the foreseeable future. What is needed, though, is a radical overhaul in the ways in which the ministry uses such funds.
"Formulating project proposals that can best serve our interests is what is lacking in aid strategy. We do have a problem with negotiating with our foreign partners," Mogheith said.
A 1997 report prepared by the National Centre of Examinations raised fears about the low standards of education in Egypt. Despite the construction of almost 2,000 schools and despite assurances by USAID officials that the three-shift school day has come to an end, the report revealed that 77 per cent of the 3,000 schools surveyed continue to work a two shift day while schools remain in Cairo, Giza and Qalyiubya governorates working three shifts daily. The report also said that while 40 per cent of the classrooms surveyed were "in good condition," 20 per cent needed to be demolished due to structural faults while 10 per cent were currently "not fit for use." Eighty per cent of preparatory schools, in addition, lacked even the most basic library facilities.
Experts estimate that to combat these deficiencies and provide an acceptable standard of education will require an increase in expenditure of LE10 billion.
Whatever the politicking, then, it looks as if the flow of foreign funds in education will remain indispensable for some time.
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