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BuzzFeed Report Questions U.S. Education Aid in Afghanistan

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[UPDATED]

Buzzfeed News published a story this week raising serious questions about U.S. education aid in Afghanistan, with the Web news outlet claiming that more than $1 billion in spending since the war began there has not yielded the progress claimed by U.S. and Afghani authorities.

The BuzzFeed News investigation of the number of schools built, girls enrolled, textbooks distributed, teachers trained, and dollars spent "has found those claims to be massively exaggerated, riddled with ghost schools, teachers, and students that exist only on paper," the web site said in a story published Thursday titled "Ghost Students, Ghost Teacher, Ghost Schools."

"The American effort to educate Afghanistan's children was hollowed out by corruption and by short-term political and military goals that, time and again, took precedence over building a viable school system," says the story by Buzzfeed reporter Azmat Khan. "And the U.S. government has known for years that it has been peddling hype."

Buzzfeed, a nine-year-old general news site known for mixing serious news coverage with more trivial and buzzworthy articles aimed at drawing maximum page views, calls its investigation "the first comprehensive journalistic reckoning" of the U.S. educational mission in Afghanistan, "based on visits to schools across the country, internal U.S. and Afghan databases and documents, and more than 150 interviews."

The news organization says it spot-checked more than 50 American-funded schools across seven Afghan provinces, "most of which were battlefield provinces—the places that mattered most to the U.S. effort to win hearts and minds, and into which America poured immense sums of aid money."

"At least a tenth of the schools BuzzFeed News visited no longer exist, are not operating, or were never built in the first place," the report says. "At the schools that were still running, BuzzFeed News found far fewer students than were officially recorded as enrolled. Girls, whom the U.S. particularly wanted to draw into formal schooling, were overcounted in official records by about 40 percent."

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), in a statement included in Buzzfeed's report, said that "While regrettable, it is hardly surprising to find the occasional shuttered schools in war zones."

"When USAID began working in Afghanistan, the country was devastated by decades of conflict," the agency's statement continued. While the agency acknowledged to Buzzfeed that "more work needs to be done," it said, "millions of Afghan boys and girls are in school, and as a result of USAID and the international community's investment, thousands more [are] attending universities and entering Afghanistan's growing workforce."

Buzzfeed also sought comment from the Pentagon regarding separate U.S. military efforts to build schools and aid education in Afghanistan.

"Pressed by BuzzFeed News, the Pentagon said it could not provide an exact number of schools it actually built," the story says. "It also could not say how the more than $250 million in  [Commander's Emergency Response Program (a counterinsurgency effort)] funding earmarked for education was actually spent."

[UPDATE 2:45 p.m. Friday] A USAID spokesman responded directly to me about Buzzfeed's report. Here is his statement:

"Largely because of U.S. and international community support, more Afghan children than ever before have access to public education.   Since 2001, enrollment in public schools in Afghanistan has increased dramatically.  In 2001, less than 1 million Afghan children attended school.  Today, over 7 million Afghans, more than a third of whom are girls, regularly attend school.

It is not surprising that the author found some shuttered schools in the most highly volatile and violent areas of Afghanistan.  Almost all of the 54 schools mentioned in the article are in Afghanistan's least secure regions.  According to monitoring reports, 85% of the USAID constructed schools that Buzzfeed visited are being used as intended.  Plainly put, the sample reviewed in the article does not present an accurate picture of the overall state of schools in Afghanistan. ...

We recognize the challenges of working in Afghanistan, and we continue to work closely with our Afghan partners to improve the government's systems for managing the public education system and ensure U.S. taxpayers' funds are not wasted.  There is much work to be done, but we are encouraged by the reform agenda of the Ghani administration that focuses on combating corruption and raising standards."
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