The Canadian government is investigating whether aid funds intended to help Afghan children return to school in a post-Taliban era were embezzled, following recent allegations of corruption inside the country’s education department.
As one of the main contributors to the Education Quality Improvement Project (EQUIP), Afghanistan’s largest national education program, Canada has provided $117.2 million since 2006 to increase equal access to quality education for Afghan students — especially girls.
“Canada is currently undertaking the necessary due diligence to ensure that in the event that Canada’s funds have been misappropriated, that such funds are recovered and that the guilty parties are held to account,” said Jessica Séguin, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada, in an email to the Citizen.
While Canada doesn’t provide funding directly to the Afghan Ministry of Education, Séguin said, “Canadian funds provided to EQUIP are administered by the World Bank through the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund.”
The ARTF was established in 2002 as a way to support the Afghanistan government.
The statement comes after Afghanistan officials publicly acknowledged the results of a report pointing to alleged corruption within its ministry.
“Earlier this month, the Minister of Education Assadullah Hanif Balkhi said that a recent study found that only six million Afghan children are in fact at school — contrary to the 11 million as previously stated by the former government,” said a Jan. 9 media report by Afghanistan’s TOLOnews.
In other words, only about half the number of children the previous Afghan government led by former president Hamid Karzai reported to be in school are actually attending classes.
Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada, Shinkai Karokhail, was not immediately available for comment, but a spokesman said the National Unity Government led by President Ashraf Ghani was determined to get to the bottom of it.
“Our government has taken the allegations seriously and the issue is under review,” said Khalid Khosraw, a spokesman for the Embassy of Afghanistan in Ottawa, in an email to the Citizen.
“The findings will be public at the end of inquiry,” Khosraw said.
Canada’s embassy to Afghanistan said it was perturbed by the allegations, posting the following statement on Twitter the next day.
“We are aware of allegations of corruption against the Min. of Education & the EQUIP prog. We are concerned and looking at potential follow-up,” the Canadian embassy said on Jan. 10.
The post came hours before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shuffled his cabinet to adjust for a new U.S. administration.
While allegations of nonexistent or “ghost students, teachers and schools” are not new, a January report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) details a “high-risk list” of areas vulnerable to “significant waste, fraud and abuse.”
In the report, specifically prepared for the incoming U.S. administration led by President Donald Trump, SIGAR warns that “corruption continues to be one of the most serious threats to the U.S.-funded Afghanistan reconstruction effort.”
SIGAR, which describes itself as the only U.S. oversight agency in the country conducting inspections, also raised concerns about the administration of the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund.
“SIGAR has launched a new ARTF performance audit to assess the extent to which the World Bank and the Afghan government monitor and account for U.S. contributions to the ARTF, evaluate whether ARTF-funded projects have achieved their stated goals and objectives, and utilize and enforce any conditionality on ARTF funding.”
In a separate report published in November, the first of a series of findings from on-site visits to schools across Afghanistan, SIGAR found that “there may be problems with student and teacher absenteeism that warrant further investigation by the Afghan government.”
“Given that USAID has spent millions of dollars on the construction and rehabilitation of Afghan schools, and continues to spend millions of dollars on teacher training and salaries (through the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund), the agency has a clear interest in ensuring that the improvements it reports in the Afghan education sector are based on actual attendance, rather than on potentially inflated figures.”
What this means for Canada’s long-established engagement in Afghanistan is not clear, but investing in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and the education of Afghan children continues to be one of Canada’s priorities.
“Canada’s longstanding support to education in Afghanistan has contributed, along with other donors, to more than 8.4 million Afghan children being enrolled in formal and community-based schools, 39 per cent of whom are girls,” said Séguin, the spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada.
However, the initial findings cited by Afghanistan’s education minister appear to throw into question the impact of the international community’s work in Afghanistan, including billions in financial aid.
The threat of “widespread corruption,” as SIGAR described it, also casts a further shadow on ongoing investments in the country.
Canada, the U.S. and other donor countries pledged to financially support Afghanistan until 2020.
Trudeau renewed $150 million per year in funding for aid projects in Afghanistan, totalling approximately $465 million over three years, following a meeting with Ghani in July.
Part of that aid money is to help the country’s security forces amid escalating violence and the return of the Taliban.
Foreign Affairs has been advising Canadians against all travel to Afghanistan since Dec. 6, citing the country’s “unstable security situation, ongoing insurgency, terrorist attacks, the risk of kidnapping and a high crime rate.”
A total of 158 Canadian Forces personnel, one diplomat and one journalist were killed during Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan.