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Kenya’s education sector continues to suffer fallout from the theft of millions of dollars two years ago from a government program that, among other things, funds the country’s Free Primary Education initiative. Overcrowded classrooms and fragmented programs are some of the results of the theft, cases of which are still in court.
The Kenya Education Support Sector Program was launched with much fanfare in 2005. The $5.8 billion program promised to make basic education available to everyone, improve the quality of that education, increase opportunities for post-secondary education, and train education managers.
The World Bank, Britain’s Department for International Development, or DFID, the Canadian International Development Agency, and the U.N.’s children’s agency threw their support behind the program. DFID, for instance, kicked in more than $83 million.
But trouble started brewing towards the end of 2009 with rumors of massive fraud in the Ministry of Education and the entire school system. By early 2010, the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission had compiled a list of some 40 education officials suspected of theft, with a handful already appearing in court.
Nicholas Simani, public relations officer at the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission, says investigations and court cases are still going on today.
"Some of the witnesses are not turning up; some of the witnesses have changed their mind," he said. "We do not know whether they have been coerced into changing their mind or they have given up. Some of the witnesses have just disappeared. The more we talk about certain cases in specifics, we are finding that the documentations are disappearing, which means the individuals who are involved are either destroying them or not making them not be available to us."
Last June, the Ministry of Finance released the results of its forensic audit. It says that a total of $54.9 million had been misappropriated. About half of that was money meant to build schools in disadvantaged areas of the country such as arid/semi-arid lands and urban slums.
As details of the massive fraud emerged, all of the donors pulled out. A statement from the British High Commission in early 2010 announced the end of DFID’s funding for the Kenya Education Support Sector Program. The statement said DFID would allocate $27.4 million in its 2010-2011 budget for education in Kenya but would disperse the money independent of any government systems.
And that further erodes the quality of education, says Sara Ruto, regional manager of Uwezo East Africa, a program to improve literacy and math skills among children in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. She says the whole point of the Kenya Education Support Sector Program was to come up with a holistic, unified vision and plans for the entire Kenyan education system.
"We are going back to the former pattern of fragmented funding, that somebody decides on a project of choice to them. So you have people doing small things here and there and maybe they are not even talking to each other. Non-state actors have often gone for what is visible. You can easily account for a building [more] than accounting for soft issues like training," said Sara Ruto.
The Kenyan government has reimbursed donors for the fraud using taxpayers’ money, a move that riles Mwalimu Mati, head of the government watchdog Mars Group Kenya.
He recalls the government’s promise several years ago to hire primary school teachers in order to reduce classroom sizes - which in some cases are up to 100 students per classroom - and the subsequent teachers’ strike when this was not done.
"So when they went on strike, they were asking for the hiring of about 20,000 new teachers and the conversion of some of the teachers who were on contract to permanent terms," said Mati. "The total package for that bill was going to be just over four billion shillings ($47.7 million). I think if we are refunding two-and-a-half billion shillings [$29.8 million], we are basically making it very difficult for the government to be able to hire these new teachers."
Mati says the Finance Ministry is not saying anything about recovering the money from those prosecuted for the crimes. He says that, by using public coffers to reimburse donors, the government, in his words, “makes the taxpayer liable to pay for stolen funds."
Students, first victims of corruption
Sources interviewed by VOA listed many other impacts of the corruption. The Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission’s Simani says corruption harms students the most.
"Two hundred thousand kids cannot make it to Form One, to secondary [school]," said Simani. "What is going to happen to 200,000 children? They are just going to be running around? There is no other system to channel them in. There is need to look at the entire education system. Because of corruption, this has limited the choices for these 200,000 people to enter into."
Uwezo East Africa’s Ruto calls it a "vicious cycle," where teachers sometimes do not show up for class because they are demotivated by the corruption of their headmasters.