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Published in Print: April 14, 2004, as Iraq Gets Approval To Control Destiny Of School System

Iraq Gets Approval To Control Destiny Of School System

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A year after a U.S.-led coalition took charge of rebuilding the school system in Iraq, the country’s Ministry of Education now has the freedom to call the shots.

But the U.S. government is not being forthcoming in providing evidence on whether the contractor it hired to help revitalize education in Iraq was effective.

See Also...

Read the accompanying story, "World Bank Joins School Rebuilding Campaign."

The U.S. Agency for International Development has rejected requests by the press for the monitoring and evaluation documents on the contractor, Creative Associates International.

The Coalition Provisional Authority officially acknowledged April 3 that the Education Ministry is autonomous.

"The Education Ministry is at the place where all the Iraq government will be by June 30—tending to its own affairs, seeking advice and counsel and support as it wishes to," said Leslye A. Arsht, a senior education adviser with the provisional authority.

As clashes between insurgents and coalition forces intensified last week, some American politicians and commentators were questioning the end-of-June deadline for the handover of sovereignty.

Whatever the wider uncertainties, Americans who have worked in Iraq are crediting the swift transition on the education front to Dr. Ala’din Alwan. The former World Health Organization official, who was named the minister of education for his native Iraq in September, is a natural leader, they say, who has brought order and vision to a government agency that was in chaos last spring and summer.

Dr. Alwan said in a phone interview from Baghdad this month that the USAID would continue to play an important role in rebuilding schooling in Iraq. But, he stressed, the education landscape has changed dramatically since the agency selected the Washington-based Creative Associates International to do that work a year ago.

Looking to the coming school year, Dr. Alwan said, "There’s one thing I can definitely say: Most of the work will be done by the Iraqi Ministry of Education." Already, he added, the ministry is making all its decisions independent of the provisional authority.

That power shift comes at a time when the first, one-year contract for U.S. involvement in restoring the school system in Iraq ends, next month, and the USAID prepares to choose a winner for a new, two-year contract for education reconstruction there.

The tasks required for the new USAID contract differ considerably from those in the first one. Under the first pact, Creative Associates distributed furniture and materials to schools, trained some 33,000 secondary teachers in student-centered instructional methods, and conducted a survey to determine the needs of secondary schools. ("U.S.-Led Effort Girds to Reinvent Iraqi Schools," April 23, 2003.)

Changing Tasks

The firm also operated accelerated-learning programs for more than 600 children who had dropped out of school, distributed grants for school repair, and set up an education information-management system for the Ministry of Education.

For the new contract, the request for proposals focuses on the establishment of 162 model schools across Iraq that will exemplify good teaching methods and on the development of a television program for early-childhood education. It also calls for the contractor to provide technical assistance to the staff of the Ministry of Education and direct a small-grants program for local communities.

The new education contract, expected to be signed by the end of May, will likely be worth $55 million, with another $95 million in funding possible, according to Dick L. McCall, the senior vice president for programs for Creative Associates.

In addition, the USAID has announced on its Web site that it will soon issue a request for proposals for a two-year contract for the construction and operation of 17 vocational- and technical-training centers and 28 employment centers throughout the country.

Americans working to rebuild the education system in Iraq since President Bush declared the United States and its allies had gained control there last May 1 say that such work has been challenging and politically sensitive. Schools in at least Fallujah and some individual schools in Baghdad reportedly were closed last week because of the escalating violence.

The USAID has not made it easy for the public to find out if Creative Associates did a good job in fulfilling the first contract.

Subcontractors to Creative Associates say they’ve been told by the USAID not to speak with the news media. In addition, the international-development agency won’t release documents showing how either Creative Associates or Bechtel National Inc., a San-Francisco-based company that was contracted to repair schools, performed.

In a March 25 letter, a USAID official justified the rejection of a Freedom of Information Act request for such documents filed by Education Week by writing, "Release of this deliberative-process information to the public could hamper the exchange of honest and open communications and thus adversely interfere with our agency’s contract- monitoring activities."

‘Mixed Verdict’

Williamson M. Evers, a research fellow for Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a senior education adviser with the provisional authority in Iraq from last July through December, disagreed with the USAID’s decision to withhold such documents from the public. "The taxpayers have paid for this [work]," he said. "They ought to be able to find out what this money has been spent for."

Mr. Evers is also the only person contacted for this story who has worked closely with Creative Associates in Iraq and was willing to talk in depth on the record about the company’s effectiveness there. Ms. Arsht and Jessica J. Jordan, the USAID official who supervised the education contract, offered only limited commentary, saying they didn’t want to provide details while the USAID was reviewing bids for a new contract. Dr. Alwan also declined to talk about Creative Associates while it is a candidate for a new contract.

Mr. Evers offers what he calls a "mixed verdict."

He said Creative Associates did a good job in getting schools up and running to start the new school year in October. The company, Mr. Evers said, was effective in procuring and delivering school materials and furniture to schools. It also conducted a needs assessment of secondary schools in a professional way, he said, and the teacher-training and accelerated-learning programs also turned out to be effective, despite some snags in planning the programs.

But that’s where Mr. Evers’ positive critique of Creative Associates ends.

"All the other things in the contract that had to do with the longer-term development of the Education Ministry—and what is called capacity building—were not done well," he contended. The work "was poor, sloppy, had a lack of follow-through, and a lack of perseverance and persistence," he asserted.

Ms. Arsht, who has been in Iraq since July, agreed that the company fell short in the area of improving management within the Ministry of Education.

She wrote in an e- mail: "There was some disappointment in many aspects, especially [in the areas of] changing their plans to respond to ministry objectives, recruiting staff for the ministry, and staying on the time schedule."

For example, Ms. Arsht mentioned that only recently did Creative Associates get a computerized management-information system for education operating; it was supposed to have been finished in October.

"We did a good job under very difficult circumstances," Mr. McCall of Creative Associates countered last week.

When the company started its work in Iraq late last May, the Ministry of Education had been looted of its contents, Mr. McCall pointed out. The education agency also lost most of its staff when the provisional authority removed workers from government jobs who had been high-ranking members of the Baath Party, the party of former President Saddam Hussein.

Education planning was complicated for months by the fact that Iraq had no minister of education, Mr. McCall added. "Quite frankly, from our standpoint," he said, "once we got the minister in there, it became easier for us. He was making decisions on what he needed. We weren’t being told by non-Iraqis what was needed."

Mr. McCall said the education management-information system had to be built from scratch because all the data from the former ministry had been destroyed.

Creative Associates fulfilled the requirements of its contract, Ms. Jordan of the USAID said in a phone interview from Baghdad this month.

She noted that building the management capacity of the Ministry of Education was the part of the contract that proved to be the most challenging for the company. It was an area that Dr. Alwan pointed out in November was a weakness with the company’s work, she added.

The inability of some Creative Associates personnel to speak Arabic exacerbated the issue, according to Ms. Jordan. In response to Dr. Alwan’s concerns, she said, the USAID replaced some of the international education staff with four local Iraqi advisers. They are on the contractor’s payroll.

Strategy in Place

In December, Creative Associates was told that it would not receive the full amount of $63 million that had been made possible in the contract. In the end, it got $57 million. Mr. McCall said the reduction in anticipated funding was demoralizing.

As a result, Creative Associates discontinued the grants it was making to local communities to repair schools—it had already given out $5.5 million—and withdrew its international staff from three of its four offices in Iraq. It also cut the two-person staff of a subcontractor, RTI International, which was helping to build the management capacity of the Education Ministry, down to the one person who was building Iraq’s education management-information system.

Ms. Jordan said the USAID experienced budget cuts. But Luke Zahner, a USAID spokesman in Washington, said that, in fact, "there were no cuts," but rather that the $63 million had been a cap on the amount Creative Associates could receive for its education work in Iraq, not a guarantee.

Creative Associates will continue working in Iraq at least until schoolchildren take their end-of-year exams next month. By then, the company should know if it will stay there under the new USAID contract.

It’s not clear whether Creative Associates’ bid is contested. A spokeswoman for the USAID declined to name any bidders until the selection process is finished.

Officials from several nonprofit organizations that have landed USAID education contracts before—the Academy for Educational Development, RTI International, the Education Development Corp., and World Learning for International Development— said their groups did not submit bids for the education contract in Iraq. One of them cited safety concerns.

Because the nature of the work in Iraq has changed, Mr. McCall said, his company has dropped three of the six subcontractors it used for the first contract. Thus, American University and the American Islamic Congress, which helped conduct the needs assessment of secondary schools, among other tasks, aren’t part of the new proposal. Nor is RTI International.

The Washington-based Iraq Foundation, DevTech Systems of Arlington, Va., and American Manufacturers Export Group, which is based in Katy, Texas, will continue working in Iraq with Creative Associates if the company gets the nod from the USAID. Several new subcontractors, mostly based in the Middle East, have joined the new venture, according to Mr. McCall.

Mr. McCall said he was relieved that none of Creative Associates’ employees had been harmed by violence in Iraq so far, though one harrowing incident occurred. A Turkish truck driver returning from delivering blackboards in Iraq was part of a convoy that was bombed. The man arrived home safe.

The Americans involved have only positive comments about where the Iraqi education system is heading under Dr. Alwan.

After taking the job as minister, "immediately he began to reclaim and re-establish this ministry with a sense of vision and purpose," said Ms. Arsht, who is returning to the United States this month. Seven additional international experts are expected to stay with the education team of the provisional authority until June 30, the date of the full transition to Iraqi rule. After that, the United States will be represented by a U.S. embassy. One person now on the education team is expected to stay in Iraq until next May, but it’s unclear if any of the others will, according to Ms. Arsht.

Dr. Alwan would not comment on whether he would remain as minister of education after June 30. Some say he is expected at some point to return to his career position at the World Health Organization.

He said the ministry has clear strategies for reconstruction and action plans to back them up.

The ministry has produced a 60-page strategy paper that has been approved by the Iraq Governing Council. Listed in it are the country’s top five priorities for rebuilding schooling: restructuring the Ministry of Education and upgrading its management capacity; reaching consensus on curriculum reform; training teachers; repairing and building schools; and updating and improving the nation’s education data so the information can be used for making decisions.

"Our plans and strategies," Dr. Alwan said, "will not be affected by who the minister is."

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

Vol. 23, Issue 31, Pages 1,26-27

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