Iraq Minister of Education Leading the Schools Ahead

Jun 15, 2004 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

Christina Asquith


Baghdad-As the US advisors to the Iraqi ministries pack their bags to leave Iraq June 30 th amidst much reflection, the renaissance of Iraq’s Ministry of Education stands as one of the great, and few, success stories of the post-war year.

US’s private education contractor, Creative Associates Inc., leaves behind a mixed record of missed deadlines, and the ongoing violence has drastically affected school attendance. However, the Education Ministry itself is doing well thanks to the leadership of Iraqi education minister, Dr. Ala-din Alwan, and his team of US State and Defense Department advisors.

In less than 10 months, Iraqi education ministry has gone from a centralized, corrupt, nepotistic, bureaucracy to one of the most forward thinking ministries in the Iraqi government. A specific four-year plan, outlined in a recently published glossy booklet, includes $350 million already obtained in aid, a teacher training program, curriculum revision, and anti-corruption measures-all of which have already started.

“And we have a lot more money in the pipeline,” says proudly Alwan.

Iraqi schools still suffer tremendously from greater societal ills, such as unemployment, bombings and poor attendance due to widespread kidnapping. Under Saddam’s, many children were forced out of school to work, and now with tens of thousands of Iraqi men killed by US soldiers or terrorists, even more children have left the classroom to become the family breadwinner. On some days this spring, attendance was down to 50 percent due to the fighting.

However, Alwan’s efforts offer a glimmer of hope that, one day, Iraq’s estimated eight to ten million school-age children will be able to go back to the schools destroyed during the US war and Saddam’s tyranny, and even enjoy new ones. The text books will be updated and teachers will be trained in modern techniques, and innovation will flourish.

The success of the Ministry of Education is not only an amazing accomplishment given the tumult of the last year; it’s an unusual one in Baghdad, where many ministries have been stagnated by lack of funding, inertia, terrorist attacks and politics.

The Ministry of Higher Education has only raised $20 million in international funding, (compared to Dr. Alwan’s $350 million.) More than 2,500 schools have been refurbished, yet only a handful of university buildings have been rebuilt after the devastating looting.

How has the Ministry of Education moved at a jet-setting pace, despite the circumstances? The answer offers insights into the successes and failures of US involvement in the last year.

Most credit the current success of the schools to Alwan, a medical doctor, schooled in Egypt and Scotland. He worked in Iraq as a doctor, professor and eventually as dean of the prestigious Baghdad University Medical School, before leaving the country like so many other intellectuals in 1992. Through the 1990s, Alwan worked for the World Health Organization in Egypt, Oman and Switzerland, where he was Director of the Department of Chronic Diseases.

 In his first weeks on the job last October, Alwan laid out his vision for the year in an interview with me. Already, terrorist attacks had blown up the UN building, and Alwan was sequestered in a hotel behind armed cards and concrete bomb blast walls with other US and Iraqi government officials.

“We’ll be moving towards decentralization. We want to start using evidence-based decision-making. We should be planning ahead, and creating a budget based on evaluating needs,” he had said. Everything depended on money. Would he be able to get the attention of international donors?

 In the following few months, Alwan implemented his plan. He created task teams from the Ministry, and they traveled through Iraq assessing the state of the country’s 16,000 schools. He issued a draft paper with assessments and recommendations and-amidst suicide bombs and civil strife-held a two-day national conference in January.

Meanwhile, other sectors of Iraqi society were suffering from divisions between religious and political groups, but Alwan avoided the political football by holding two national conferences and inviting all political and religious groups.

“He convinced all the sides not to interfere by being transparent and telling them if you interfere, someone else will too and it will be chaos,” says Abdul Zahra, head of curriculum revision. “I have worked with seven ministers before. Dr. Alwan is the most educated, and he makes speedy decisions and knows what he is doing.”

One of Alwan’s top goals was the equal education of girls. He also ordered the revamping of three curriculums: history, civic education and religion. The religion class will include only peaceful, non-controversial teachings of Islam, along with respect for all religions.

“We gave the books to clerics and they gave them back with small changes,” says Abdul Zahra. “We don’t go deep into sects. We only refer to Islamic principles.”

How will history class treat this recent war?

Alwan says the history class will use the word occupation.  It will say, “the US successfully overthrew a tyrant, after which time there was a brief occupation as the US transitioned power back to the Iraqis.”

Now, that’s a version of history that will please the US Defense Department. But Alwan insists that his US advisors only coordinated with him on financial and technical issues. Iraqis decided on wording.

“I challenge anyone to show me one single decision that was not purely Iraqi,” Alwan says.

Others in the ministry have defended the wording, saying that although most Iraqis feel more anti-American, they don’t want the schools to aggravate any tensions or spark any problems between groups in a nation that is already on the brink of anarchy.

US advisors Leslie Arsht and Bill Evers, both Defense Department employees with background in education have refused since October to be interviewed by me. But Ms.Arsht told Education Week recently that Alwan deserved much of the credit for turning around the school system.

Officials at the Ministry agreed.

“He’s has given confidence to each employee and he has an open door policy,” says Dr. Kadhim Al Kharzraji, former education minister and head of education planning. This has not been easy given the rigid mentality of the staff and teaching cadre, groomed by 30 years of Baath Party politics. Few were used to taking initiative and working in a flexible system.

This is where Alwan’s natural leadership and belief in working together won people over. At a time when many sought revenge against Baath Party members, and sought to use the power vacuum to their own advantage, Alwan reached out a hand.

“If you really work hard, you will find a lot of people work hard with you,” Alwan says. “There are so many people in the Ministry of Education who are gifted, but they were waiting for the environment that allowed them to create and be productive.”

After the first National Conference, the ministry amended the draft paper and continued that national debate for three more months. Alwan held a Second National Conference on Iraqi higher education on March 31 st .

He laid out his administration’s four goals:

-Restructuring school management, which under the socialist Baath party had become corrupt, backward and sloppy.

-Beginning rehabilitation of 80 percent of the nation’s 15,500 schools, many of which lacked running water, desks and electricity.

-Training teachers, whose salaries were also raised from $5 a month to $200, which helped stop corruption and student bribes. Due to the economic sanctions, many teachers had not been exposed to new teaching methods since the early 1980s.

-Reforming the curriculum, which had been rewritten in the 1970s by the Baath Party, and was filled with anti-Semitic, anti-western, pro-Saddam propaganda.

Meanwhile, the obstacles were tremendous.

Creative Associates Inc., the Washington DC based private company that held the $65 million contract, has been credited with successfully securing school equipment and assessing school needs. However, Iraqi headmasters have complained about shoddy reconstruction work, much of which was done by subcontractors of Creative.

 The teacher training was a success, but too limited. Creative takes public credit for training 33,000 teachers, but in fact it only directly trained 260 Iraqi teachers for 5 days.

Those 260 Iraqi teachers then trained 30,000 other Iraqi teachers. So, I question the quality of training given to those 30,000. Hind Rassam, head of teacher training for Creative said, “Five days is not enough.”

 Bill Evers, former US senior advisor, also criticized Creative’s work in developing “capacity building” in the Education Ministry  “The work “was poor, sloppy, had a lack of follow-through, and a lack of perseverance and persistence,” Evers told Mary Ann Zehr of Education Week.

Creative wouldn’t comment now because they’re in the process of bidding for the 2 nd year contract in Iraq.

Alwan had more deadly obstacles. Religious groups were trying to take control of universities. Teachers were being assassinated. Terrorists were sneaking into school buildings to launch mortar attacks on US headquarters. There were death threats to Alwan’s staff that still continue. In early June, his former deputy minister for cultural relations was gunned down.

 However, Alwan was not intimidated. He was busy rallying support from the World Bank. Within three months, Alwan, who is fluent in English, convinced the organization to give a $100 million grant for the schools. This spring, the US Congress would add to that by giving $170 million to education out of its $87 billion aid package. Alwan says his strategy was persistence.

“We started extremely early in contacting the World Bank in November,” he said in an interview Monday. “And we worked with the World Bank team very closely. We visited Washington DC and gave them our vision and we started negotiating in January. It requires a lot of hard work and you have to be credible and ready to do a lot of hard work. The reason they responded to us is that they saw we had a clear vision with strategies and we were serious and working very hard.”

“The Ministry of Education had Dr. Alwan who went to every World Bank meeting and to the US and worked hand and glove with them to get the money. Our Higher Education Minister just went and said, ‘show me the money’ and the World Bank officials said ‘No. It doesn’t work that way’,” Agresto recalled in dismay.

Agresto leaves Baghdad tomorrow frustrated with the Minister, and with himself for not fighting for more US aid. He had requested $40 million in aid for universities out of the US Congress’s $87 billion aid package (he got $8 million.)

“My sadness is that we haven’t been able to give them much material support,” he says. “It’s not a losing situation, but we have lost a year.”

Corruption still plagues the Ministry of Education, according to Alwan and others inside the Ministry. One top level ministry official said that the Americans are giving way too much money to Iraqi contractors, who drastically over inflate the cost of business. “Each school rehabilitation project got $36,000. But I don’t think the contract cost more than $2,000. We don’t know where the money is going,” said one ministry official

Alwan acknowledges the corruption, and says there is a plan to weed out corruption, but “it takes time.”

In April, the US officially turned the Ministry of Education back to full Iraqi control. Last month, the UN announced the appointment of a new government in Iraq. Dr. Alwan was moved to Minister of Health, where he will no doubt embark on equally drastic and important reforms. The new Iraqi Minister of Education is the former, democratically elected president of Baghdad University.

Alwan leaves with a critical lesson learned about education reform.

 “I have learned that in education reform you need consensus. This is extremely important,” he said. “And that if you are willing to work hard, the people around you will also work hard.”

“I’m optimistic about the future. This security situation can not last forever. Security has a negative influence on attendance but it’s temporary and despite poor security our attendance rates were still high. Poverty is also a major issue but the situation is improving. Employee salaries are up and unemployment is decreasing so the economic situation will improve. I am optimistic,” Alwan says.

For more articles on Iraq education, visit www.ChristinaReporting.com

Christina Asquith is a freelance journalist who’s written for The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times and The Economist. She recently finished a book about her year as a teacher in a tough Philadelphia school. It is due out next year. Contact her at ChristinaAsquith@hotmail.com

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