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Corruption Puts Kenya’s Educational Funding at Risk

School children drink porridge at the Raila Education Center, a part of a school feeding program in Kibera slum, Nairobi (file photo)

With tens of millions of dollars already missing in Kenya’s Ministry of Education, the corruption scandal currently rocking Kenya’s schools threatens to cost the country millions more.

With efforts to reform Kenya’s notoriously corrupt public sector ongoing, 2011 has already seen its share of scandals ripple through Nairobi and the halls of the country’s parliament. Lawmakers have been accused of trafficking narcotics, illegally importing vehicles and overpaying for foreign embassies abroad in various cases of graft.

But in a country where political corruption is commonplace, a new scandal has Kenya’s politicians running for cover like never before.

In parliament, Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta presented the results of an internal investigation which found that over 4.2 billion Kenyan shillings - about $46 million - was missing from the Ministry of Education. More specifically, Kenyatta revealed the money had been stolen from President Mwai Kibaki’s landmark initiative to provide free primary education for every Kenyan.

With the stigma of stealing from Kenya’s children too great to bear, blame is being passed quickly by Kenya’s lawmakers. The heaviest criticism has thus far fallen on Education Minister Sam Ongeri, who has been forced to deflect a barrage of criticism in Kenya’s parliament.

“My conscience is free and clear because I have done my duty to the best of my ability," said Ongeri. "I realize that this being an election year, some people would like to engage in smear campaigns.”

Ongeri was lambasted by Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who said the amount stolen was actually as high as $50 million.

The findings, though controversial are not actually new. The missing funds were first reported in November of last year by the Kenyan media. Those involved in the Ministry of Education have maintained their innocence, but critics such as anti-corruption chief Patrick Lumumba, say they have done nothing to rout out the thieves in the months since the charges were made public.

The Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education James Ole Kiyiapi, who oversees the ministry’s day-to-day operations, has had to defend himself against similar calls for his resignation.

“I have nothing to resign over," said Kiyiapi. "It is not even an issue. This is an issue I should not have ever had to explain. I am the PS who came in to help sort out the mess. I didn’t come in because I was part of the mess.”

The education scandal threatens to become more than a typical Kenyan corruption case, as the release of the official report has prompted international involvement.

The United Kingdom - which initially contributed about $77 million to Kenya’s free primary education program - has demanded a refund of its money. The British High Commissioner to Kenya Rob Macaire said significant reforms would be needed before the country would again consider contributing to the Ministry of Education.

The UK’s Department For International Development now plans to simply bypass the Kenyan government and contribute to schools and civil society programs directly in support of Kenyan educational programs.

But Kenya’s Elimu Yetu Coalition - which works towards improved quality and access in Kenya’s schools - says Britain’s reaction to the current scandal could be harmful to the long-term future of education in Kenya. Victor Odero, a Program Manager for Concern Worldwide, urged caution from the international community in the wake of the scandal.

“The primary responsibility for the provision of free, basic education lies with the government of Kenya," said Odero. "We therefore urge all international and domestic development partners to act with restraint. Particularly, by avoiding interventions that circumvent government or undermine the fundamental responsibility of the state.”

Elimu Yetu fears the future of the free primary education program could be jeopardized should the Kenyan government be cut out completely by international and local donors. On Monday, the group called on DFID and the international community to stand by Kenya as it attempts to remove the “rot” from within the its bureaucracy.

The free primary education program has been lauded by groups such as the Global Campaign for Education since its inception in 2003. The program has allowed an extra 1.5 million children to enroll in school for the first time, but budget shortfalls - including those due to corruption - have prevented some many students from receiving educational funding.

According to Elimu Yetu, the $46 million reported missing from the Ministry of Education would be enough to cover one year of school fees for the nearly 4 million Kenyan children currently out of school.