U.S.-Led Effort Girds To Reinvent Iraqi Schools

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 23, 2003 5 min read
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The U.S. firms and nonprofit organizations that have been tapped to remake the schools in postwar Iraq are beginning to navigate a labyrinth of logistical and cultural challenges.

The clock on the one-year, $62 million contract between the U.S. Agency for International Development and Creative Associates International Inc.—and its five subcontractors—began ticking on April 11, when the document was signed.

Last week, Robert Gordon, the director of operations for the Washington- based Creative Associates, said he was awaiting the word on when the company could send staff members to Iraq. “We’re following the marching orders of USAID,” he said.

Aside from that comment, Creative Associates officials were unable to answer many questions about how the firm would proceed. In fact, they were still waiting to discuss their education mission with Iraqis inside Iraq, where the U.S. military is taking control after the defeat of that country’s forces.

The earliest goal, set for July, is for the contractors to assess conditions in 2,500 of Iraq’s 25,000 schools, according to Ellen Yount, a spokeswoman for the USAID. By Oct. 1, contractors are expected to ensure that all of Iraq’s children are back in school.

Mr. Gordon cautioned that “it will take time” to carry out the goals of the education contract, which include providing more than 3 million children with new school supplies, training Iraqi teachers, and launching accelerated-learning programs.

“The most important thing is to get the kids back in the classroom so that the parents feel there is a level of normalcy in their lives,” Mr. Gordon said. The contract can be extended for two extra years.

UNESCO, Iraqi Roles

The USAID decided not to contract with Creative Associates to provide new textbooks to Iraqi schools, but rather will soon put out a separate request for bids on that job. Experts on the Middle East predict that creating new textbooks will be especially sensitive, as they must be rewritten to omit references to the ideology of the Baath Party of ousted President Saddam Hussein. (“U.S. to Remake School System in Postwar Iraq,” April 16, 2003.)

Ms. Yount said the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, would likely help to rewrite textbooks. She said the USAID has set the ambitious goal of getting new textbooks in schools by September to start the school year in Iraq.

Americans who will help to revitalize education in Iraq say they want Iraqis themselves to determine the future of their education system. They note that Iraq has a large pool of highly educated people who could help get the system back on track.

Speaking specifically about textbooks, Ms. Yount said: “We want to have input from the Iraqi people. This is not a top-down process. This is a bottom-up process.”

“We don’t want to impose any education system on the Iraqi people,” added Mr. Gordon of Creative Associates. “We really feel that we need the Ministry of Education to be reformed so that Iraqis can take a lot of responsibility for their own education system.”

But it’s unclear exactly how Creative Associates and its subcontractors will work with Iraqis in the country.

One issue muddying the waters is a lack of clarity on how United Nations sanctions against Iraq, which are still in place, apply to postwar reconstruction. According to some interpretations, including that of a U.N. official who asked not to be identified, the U.N. resolution authorizing the sanctions bars Iraqis from being paid for services.

“We are expecting that those problems will be resolved at a much higher level than at our level,” Mr. Gordon said. Last week, President Bush asked the United Nations to end its sanctions.

Mr. Gordon acknowledged that the issue of who will pay Iraq’s teachers is also not resolved. “We’re expecting that would be a function of the Iraqi government,” he said.

Advance Team

Just how quickly Americans will be able to move into certain regions of Iraq in light of ongoing security concerns is also unclear, Mr. Gordon added.

RTI International, a nonprofit research organization based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., had plans last week to send an advance team of five people to Iraq on April 23.

The organization landed its own contract with the USAID to handle local governance in the reconstruction of Iraq. But it also is a subcontractor with Creative Associates on the USAID education contract. RTI International’s job will be to work with the Iraqi Ministry of Education to establish national education policy and coordinate with educators on the provincial and local levels to implement that policy.

Meanwhile, Carole A. O’Leary, a professor of international relations at American University, located in Washington, will lead a team of education specialists from the university to assess the conditions of schools in Iraq. The American Islamic Congress and the Iraq Foundation—two U.S.-based organizations led by Iraqi expatriates—will help identify in-country Iraqis to help with that effort.

Late last week, the USAID awarded a contract worth up to $680 million to San Francisco-based Bechtel National Inc. to help rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure, including schools.

The U.S. government’s desire to get schools in Iraq up and running by fall has led it to go easy on some restrictions typically associated with USAID contracts, such as easing the procurement logistics for one subcontractor of Creative Associates.

The American Manufacturers Export Group, in Katy, Texas, has been hired to purchase and distribute school supplies such as desks, blackboards, and notebooks to Iraqi schools.

J. Wess Tribble, the executive president for the company, said that usually with USAID contracts, his company must ensure that all goods are bought in the United States. But for the education work in Iraq, his company has the license to buy supplies from most countries in the Middle East. He noted that for political reasons, however, the company is not permitted to buy from Syria or Iran.

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


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