USAID Goes to School: Instruction or Intelligence?

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A Teachers lounge in a public secondary school in Beirut. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Faten Elhajj

Published Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A USAID initiative which is ostensibly geared toward rehabilitating schools and improving education in Lebanon is raising suspicions that it will act as little more than a cover for collecting intelligence.

On 20 December 2010, the Lebanese government under Saad Hariri and the US Ambassador to Lebanon, Maura Connelly, signed a memorandum of understanding between the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Lebanon and the Lebanese education ministry. The memorandum was billed as a means of supporting the rehabilitation of public schools and enhance teachers’ skills as part of a project known as D-RASATI (“my studies” in Arabic), funded by a US$75 million grant over five years.

The stated aim of this project is to improve public education by addressing four areas: repairing and equipping schools, improving the qualifications of teachers in subjects taught in English, engaging Lebanese students in extracurricular activities, and motivating parents and the community to be more involved in the schools their children attend.

According to the memorandum, USAID reserves contractual power with the partner implementing the project, while selection of the latter is exclusively dependent on USAID. Those partners include the American University of Beirut, AMIDEAST, the Cooperative Housing Foundation, the International Orthodox Christian Charities, and the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development.

The formulas adopted in implementing the project, which the education ministry in the current government consented to, has raised suspicion among observers and educators.

Skeptics say that representatives from the ministry were absent from “talks” with teachers that preceded the training sessions, which are expected to take place soon. They also question how interviews conducted by “non-Lebanese foreign nationals whose affiliations [are not known]” were used.

Sources close to the project’s implementation claim that audio recordings with teachers include inquiries about issues unrelated to the goals of the project. One participant asked: “What does enhancing teachers’ skills and evaluating their need for educational training have to do for example with whether they are attached to their community or resentful of it, whether they like to travel and to what country, and if this person or that person is their relative?”

This participant later continued, saying: “We sensed an intelligence gathering approach that went beyond the text of the agreement and the instructions of the Education Minister Hassan Diab who assured us he did not agree to collecting this kind of information.”

This approach led many of the teachers to boycott the evaluation test conducted for those targeted by the training courses.

Training the teachers was not the only source of concern. So was the detailed “intelligence” report distributed to schools in order to determine their repair needs as well as what resources are necessary to provide extracurricular activities. Last year’s summer camps raised questions over the geographical distribution of participating public schools as there was a clear focus on Dahiyeh (the southern suburbs of Beirut) and South Lebanon.

A number of teachers active in union work went even further in their skepticism and analysis asking: “Who protects the individual and legal rights of teachers and guarantees that their personal data, which belongs to them, won’t be used for political as opposed to educational purposes? Did the education ministry outsource its authority to the private sector and allow a foreign country to run amok in public schools as they wished without consulting teachers or asking for the opinion of their representatives in associations and trade unions? And is education such a neutral issue in the first place so as to allow the US to interfere in the Lebanese educational system, transfer its technical expertise to teachers and participate in evaluating them when this role is supposed to be the responsibility of local educational bodies and watchdog agencies? Is this project part of a US diplomatic campaign to improve its image and promote its policies in the region especially now that USAID is not a charity that provides grants and assistance? What if one of the long-term goals of the project is to change the educational curriculum?”

The teachers are demanding that the project’s parameters should at least be well defined and its goals clear and transparent.

Many of these critics realize that strengthening public education requires a political decision. Neither USAID, nor any other project can achieve this goal. The Lebanese state needs to make this decision by using a strategy which includes political and sectarian contracting with teachers, ending government subsidies of free private schools, and developing a national curricula every five years.

The funds allocated, according to these observers, whether from the US or other sources, disappear in the process, especially since the implementing partners are for-profit organizations.

Al-Akhbar spoke to Diab and the Director General of Education, Fadi Yarak, who is also the head of the coordination committee – the primary comptroller in the education ministry – to inquire whether the implementing partner of the project is adhering to the laws, standards, and mechanisms of the ministry.

Diab asserts that these concerns are misplaced even though he heard conversations over the summer about collecting data. He says he gave strict instructions banning the use of any personal information outside the scope of the project. “Practically, that is how things are. No one is taking data of this kind as far as we know,” he said firmly.

The audio recordings and iris print technology rumored to have been used in interviews with teachers are, according to the minister, unconfirmed.

Diab is dismayed that some would think this project may lead to changing the educational curricula. According to Diab, the curricula are not even part of the text of the agreement. The curricula are set exclusively by the Center for Educational Research and Development.

The minister adds that “the project is implemented through a grant, not a loan, and there is a difference between the two.”

When asked about the teachers’ boycott of the language evaluation test, he answered: “I don’t know. There might be issues other than the data, such as the teachers’ fear of the test due to their lack of proficiency.”

Yarak confirms in his interview with Al-Akhbar that the training material for principals takes into consideration legal standards in the education ministry and its various bodies, especially the Faculty of Education at the Lebanese University and the Educational Center for Research and Development.

He adds that it is not the first time there has been cooperation with foreign parties to train teachers. The French and the British preceded the Americans and there were similar projects in coordination with them.

While the director general points out that the training targets 6,000 teachers, he reassures us that the evaluation tests are not related to the teachers’ employment status, that is, they will not affect their professional standing. It merely measures their level of competence to determine the number of training hours they need. That is why participation is mandatory and not by choice.

Yarak seems confident that the issue of data management will be under control as long as the planning is carried out by the education ministry and the implementation of the project is overseen by a monitoring committee. The committee is under the leadership of the education minister in addition to the director general, the head of the Educational Center for Research and Development, the director of the secretariat for the development of the educational sector, and the principal adviser to the education minister.


Intelligence Gathering in Public Schools

Pedagogical commentators have recently noticed many attempts to infiltrate Lebanese public schools through various extracurricular activities. Upon examining their goals, it becomes clear that the common denominator among these projects is to collect personal data about the students and their parents and community.

A civil society association organized an educational contest in the schools throughout South Lebanon. It was noticeable that it included detailed questions having to do with the nature of their parents’ work.

Critics also note the insistence of one well-established private university on promoting itself in the high schools of Nabatiyeh, a town in southern Lebanon, by providing public school students with tempting, though illogical, offers given their parents’ financial inability to send them to this university.

It is also noteworthy that an international organization distributed cameras to 20 students in south Lebanon asking them to take pictures of scenes that stand out in their milieu. On the surface, this project might seem educational, serving students and teachers alike but observers say, “there is an intelligence gathering background to it.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

USAID is but CIA-lite. Enough said.

Nevertheless, the article was enlightening.

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