College & Workforce Readiness

Few Nations Stepping Forward to Underwrite Iraqi Education Reform

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 06, 2003 6 min read
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Japan and the United States have given or pledged millions of dollars to UNICEF’s campaign to get children back to school in postwar Iraq. Still, it’s unclear how much those countries and others will contribute to the longer-term, substantive reconstruction of the education system in that country.

The United Nations, the World Bank, and the Coalition Provisional Authority— which is now running Iraq—plan to participate in a donors’ conference in October to raise money for and clarify how countries will support rebuilding efforts.

Most of the money received so far by the United Nations for education in Iraq is considered humanitarian aid, not money for long-term reconstruction. An exception is a fund for both immediate and long-term assistance to higher education seeded with a $15 million donation from the Arab country of Qatar. It is being managed by a Qatar foundation and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.

The United Nations Development Group and the World Bank are currently conducting on-the-ground assessments of reconstruction needs in 11 sectors of Iraqi society, including education.

“This is the most enormous job I’ve ever seen,” said Johanna Mendelson-Forman, a senior program officer for the Washington-based United Nations Foundation, a private philanthropy. She returned in early July from an 11-day visit to Iraq with a team commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense to evaluate rebuilding in the country. She estimates that endeavor will take five to seven years, at a minimum.

Ms. Mendelson-Forman noted that the work of private firms hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development is hampered by the U.S. military’s stipulation that only a limited number of civilians can work in Iraq at one time because of security concerns, a policy that the U.N. agencies don’t have to adhere to.

Consequently, some USAID contractors’ personnel have no choice but to stay in Kuwait City and wait to be admitted into Iraq so that they can proceed with their work, she said.

Political Cloud

The issue of how much support countries aside from the United States will give to rebuild Iraq is clouded by international politics. Some governments are still put off by the United States’ and its partners’ initiation of a war in the Middle Eastern country without backing from the United Nations, and they are willing to pledge money for reconstruction only if they are assured that the United Nations will play a large role in the makeover.

“Traditionally, all the reconstructions we’ve been involved with since the Cold War have been with the United Nations, NATO, or subregional organizations,” said Ms. Mendelson-Forman. “They’ve all had some kind of United Nations legitimacy.”

But in the case of Iraq, the United States— through the Coalition Provisional Authority, which also includes Britain and other allies—is governing the country, at least until a permanent Iraqi government is formed.

“There’s a reluctance by many donors to give to an occupying authority,” Ms. Mendelson-Forman observed.

Her trip to Iraq was organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. The team concluded in a report that current sources for financing Iraq’s reconstruction, such as allocations from Congress, oil revenue, and assets seized in Iraq, are inadequate, and that the United States should quickly gain much broader international support for the operation.

Col. D. Chris Leins, an Army official in the Washington office of the Coalition Provisional Authority at the Pentagon, said last week that he couldn’t give a ballpark figure for how much money countries had given to the provisional authority for reconstruction.

“There’s no hard answer yet. It’s still in a fuzzy state,” he said. “There are a lot of countries that have made promises and not followed through with them, and other countries are in various stages of the process.”

‘Grounds for Peace’

Pupils in the primary section of Al- Yasmin Secondary School in Baghdad, Iraq, examine educational materials in a UNICEF assistance package.

Pupils in the primary section of Al- Yasmin Secondary School in Baghdad, Iraq, examine educational materials in a UNICEF assistance package. The organization is helping schools become operational.
—File photo by Saurabh Das/AP

In the meantime, UNICEF and UNESCO have put humanitarian funds to use for primary and secondary education by enabling 5.5 million of Iraq’s estimated 6.5 million school-age children to take end-of-the-school-year national exams over the past two months.

While only Japan and the United States have designated large sums of money to UNICEF for Iraqi education, a number of other countries have pledged a few million dollars or more to UNICEF for humanitarian aid. Some of that money may be used for education.

Britain has pledged $11 million and Canada $6 million. The United States has promised $23 million to UNICEF for Iraq, including up to $7 million for its back-to-school campaign.

The U.S.-led war interrupted schooling during March and April in much of Iraq, and a lack of security in that country since President Bush announced on May 1 that major hostilities were over has made some parents reluctant to send their children to school at all.

As a result, children sat for exams weeks later than usual—after summer heat had set in. Temperatures typically soared to more than 125 degrees Fahrenheit during the day in Baghdad, where electricity was unreliable and air conditioning scarce.

Representatives of donor countries stressed the importance of getting children back into school after a major conflict.

“In a post-conflict situation, basic education is what provides a return to normal life for children and families,” said Daniel Joly, the coordinator of a task force on Iraq for the Canadian International Development Agency, Canada’s equivalent to the USAID. “There are lots of experts who would say that even where the conflict is still ongoing, if you can provide for schools to operate, you are preparing the grounds for peace later.”

“Education is important in peace-building,” agreed Hiroshi Kamiyo, the education counselor for the Japanese Embassy in Washington, “The Iraqi children can’t wait to go back to school. This is why we quickly gave money for Iraq.”

Japan earmarked $10 million of a $15 million donation for humanitarian aid in Iraq to UNICEF for education and has already put that money into UNICEF’s coffers.

UNICEF, which has a long history of working in the country, printed 15 million exam booklets and worked with Iraqi educators to distribute them, while UNESCO contributed copying equipment and stationery.

Although Iraq officially has no ministry of education (its former building is a burnt-out shell), UNICEF is working with former ministry officials, according to Pierrette Vuthi, a senior program officer working on Iraq humanitarian issues for UNICEF out of the organization’s New York City office. “They are in their homes, but they are working,” she said.

UNESCO also worked in Iraq before the war, but recently only in the north. The agency printed 2 million textbooks for Iraqi Kurds in recent years, and has a grant of up to $10 million from the USAID to print 5 million math and science textbooks for Iraqi schools by the time school opens this fall.

UNESCO helped provide end-of- year exams because it wanted the school year to end calmly, Asghar Husain, the director of educational policies and strategies for UNESCO, said in a phone interview from the organization’s Paris headquarters.

“We don’t want parents to complain that their children couldn’t finish the school year for political reasons,” he said. “That could be a reason for political discontent. And secondary students on the streets is a factor of instability.”

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

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