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[casi] Education minister hits at USAID over textbook policy

Education minister hits at USAID over textbook policy

By Charles Clover

Published: November 24 2003 4:00 | Last Updated: November 24 2003 4:00

Ala'din Alwan, Iraq's minister of education, has criticised the US Agency
for International Development (USAID) for attempting to limit or ban Islamic
religious references in experimental Iraqi school teaching materials paid
for by the agency.

"Decisions about education in Iraq must be Iraqi decisions," said Dr Alwan,
who added he was not consulted about the move. He said he would be reviewing
the programme - a $4m (?3.3m, 2.4m) accelerated learning project for 500
students - in coming days.

The controversy started a few weeks ago when a western consultant working
for USAID asked Iraqi ministry of education experts to remove verses from
the Koran from experimental teaching materials for Arabic grammar, and
replace them with neutral content. One of the experts disclosed this to the
FT on the condition he not be named.

The western consultant, who works for USAID contractor Creative Associates
International Inc (CAII), confirmed the request had been made.

Shannon Meehan, head of CAII in Baghdad, explained they were under strict
instructions from USAID to fund only "neutral, apolitical and areligious"
materials because the US constitution prohibited proselytising with US
government money.

"If there is a sentence such as 'Praise be to God' in a grammar textbook, we
will have a discussion about revising or changing that to a different
sentence. We do not remove the lesson from the textbook, we simply change
the sentence," Ms Meehan said.

USAID officials deny that they are the source of any pressure to remove
religious themes from learning materials, and insist that all education
decisions in Iraq are "Iraqi-led".

However, several USAID officials confirmed that guidelines exist not to fund
school materials that violate the first amendment of the US constitution,
which prohibits using government funds to promote religion. One senior USAID
official said the guidelines are the result of a threat to sue USAID in the
US, though the USAID press office knew of no such instance.

"Before we use taxpayer money to print textbooks we need to ensure that we
are not infringing on separation of church and state and the first
amendment," said Jessica Jordan, chief of the USAID education programme in

The USAID guidelines have already been applied in Afghanistan, where they
generated far less controversy, mainly because they were not widely
publicised. The same appears to have happened in Iraq. When approached by
the FT, USAID officials appeared reluctant at first to admit there were such

Harry Edwards of USAID press office confirmed that Afghanistan's textbooks
had already been revised to bring them into line with the US constitution,
before USAID funded the printing of 30m books over the past two years.

They went on to become the core of the country's national curriculum.

"We intended these textbooks to be a temporary thing for one year, but the
minister of education and President [Hamid] Karzai liked them so much he
said: 'This is the permanent curriculum for the country'," according to
Andrew Natsios, USAID administrator, in a May 18 speech.

According to a senior USAID official, the first amendment guidelines
prevented the agency from funding the printing of textbooks for Iraq's
national curriculum, which were prepared instead by the United Nations
Children's Fund (Unicef) using funds from the UN's recently dismantled
Oil-for-Food Programme.

One contractor, on the condition of anonymity, obliquely criticised the use
of humanitarian aid as part of "a political and military strategy" and
indicated that many aid workers with knowledge of the revisions are opposed
to them. "We are stuck in this bizarre environment that just is not working
and do truly want to help the Iraqis move forward - but it is just all wrong
and very sad," she said.

Ms Jordan insists the ministry of education is leading the development of
the learning materials for the accelerated learning programme, and that
USAID is not reviewing or in any way influencing the teaching materials.

"The Iraqi ministry of education will determine what information children
receive," she said.

But at least one ministry employee, Walid Hashem, resigned from a panel
tasked with revising the history curriculum in protest against removing
religious material from textbooks, according to a confidential project memo
seen by the FT. Mr Hashem could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, Dr Alwan, the education minister, denied that he had been
consulted by USAID. He added that he has heard about the controversy and
USAID's guidelines but no one has discussed it with him yet.

"At a policy level we are not involved yet. We are struggling with many
issues now," he said.

He added that he plans to review the matter to ensure that the process of
writing the materials is led by the ministry.

"USAID is an extremely important partner, but we can work with other
partners on this," he said.

"We are not going to contradict our principles just because they are funded
by a certain agency."

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