Nepal’s ‘ghost schools’ hide large-scale cor­rup­tion


They started ap­pear­ing across Nepal’s poor­est dis­tricts sev­eral years ago — par­tially built schools meant for lo­cal chil­dren and funded with public money.

The schools never opened. But many con­tin­ued to re­ceive fund­ing from the gov­ern­ment — and pos­si­bly over­seas donors — in a long-run­ning scan­dal un­cov­ered by Nepal’s anti-cor­rup­tion watchdog.

“In some cases, we found a build­ing, but no peo­ple. In other places there was noth­ing to see, the school only ex­isted on pa­per nowhere else,” said Ke­shav Ghimire, a spokesman for the Com­mis­sion for the In­ves­ti­ga­tion of the Abuse of Au­thor­ity.

“Head­mas­ters, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, ev­ery­one was in­volved. We found so many peo­ple who took money in­tended for a sup­posed school and pock­eted it in­stead,” Ghimire told AFP.

Author­i­ties in the Hi­malayan na­tion have dis­cov­ered more than 300 so-called ghost schools, all funded by the ed­u­ca­tion min­istry, which launched an over­haul of the coun­try’s crum­bling schools in 2009.

Since then UNICEF, the World Bank, the Euro­pean Union and the UK’s Depart­ment for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment have do­nated more than US$500 mil­lion to the ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment.

“We mon­i­tor our own train­ing pro­grams care­fully ... but yes, it is pos­si­ble that some of the money we give to the gov­ern­ment could have gone to these ghost schools,” Mar­i­lyn Hoar, chief of ed­u­ca­tion at UNICEF Nepal, told AFP.

Some schools were al­lo­cated teacher salaries and al­lowances for “ad­min­is­tra­tive ex­penses, stu­dent schol­ar­ships and phys­i­cal con­struc­tion works,” ac­cord­ing to the cor­rup­tion watchdog.

The gov­ern­ment has so far filed 50 court cases against of­fi­cials and teach­ers who pock­eted funds meant for the schools, ac­cord­ing to Bishwa Prakash Pan­dit, ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary.

“It’s hard to put an ex­act num­ber on the losses, but I es­ti­mate it must have cost the ex­che­quer around 120 mil­lion ru­pees (US$1.2 mil­lion), since many of these so-called schools were (sup­pos­edly) run­ning for a cou­ple of years,” Pan­dit told AFP.

“We were try­ing to pro­mote ed­u­ca­tion, we had a lib­eral pol­icy on spend­ing, and I sup­pose we ap­proved re­quests for funds too easily.”

The watchdog’s an­nual re­port re­leased in April also ac­cuses of­fi­cials of in­flat­ing the cost of text­books and other ma­te­ri­als at schools that were op­er­at­ing by around 30 mil­lion ru­pees last year and pock­et­ing the cash.

‘Lost gen­er­a­tion’

Most of the ghost schools were lo­cated along Nepal’s south­ern plains, where poor in­fra­struc­ture and high un­em­ploy­ment have long fu­eled dis­con­tent.

The cor­rup­tion watchdog also found ex­am­ples of ab­sen­tee teach­ers — those who were paid by ex­ist­ing schools with­out show­ing up to work — and of un­li­censed teach­ers who did turn up, but were not qual­i­fied.

Na­gen­dra Raj Paudel, a lo­cal ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cial in Rau­ta­hat dis­trict where six out of 10 chil­dren un­der 15 are il­lit­er­ate, told AFP some ab­sen­tee teach­ers moon­light as po­lit­i­cal work­ers de­spite laws ban­ning the prac­tice.

“In my dis­trict alone, we had around 400 teach­ers who would take salaries and never turn up to work,” said Paudel, who ended up ask­ing for a trans­fer be­cause of pres­sure from lo­cal politi­cians.

Cor­rup­tion is rife through­out Nepal, ranked 126th out of 175 coun­tries in watchdog Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional’s global cor­rup­tion per­cep­tion in­dex.

In 2010, pres­sure from in­ter­na­tional donors led to the sack­ing of Nepal’s ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter, ac­cused of col­lect­ing bribes from more than 1,000 peo­ple in ex­change for teach­ing jobs.

En­rol­ment in gov­ern­ment schools has in­creased in re­cent years, but ex­perts say cor­rup­tion lev­els mean the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion is poor. Some 67 per­cent of tenth-graders at­tend­ing state schools failed their fi­nal ex­ams this sum­mer.

“The qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion is def­i­nitely an is­sue that con­cerns us ... a sam­ple sur­vey showed that only 37 per­cent of chil­dren in grade two could read a sin­gle word cor­rectly, that dropped to 19 per­cent for grade three,” said UNICEF’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Nepal, To­moo Hozumi.

Ex­perts be­lieve the cor­rup­tion and its im­pact on the al­ready poor qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion has ma­jor im­pli­ca­tions for the fu­ture of the im­pov­er­ished coun­try, whose ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem took a ma­jor blow when a dev­as­tat­ing earth­quake struck ear­lier this year.

The dis­as­ter dam­aged nearly 8,000 schools, leav­ing al­most a mil­lion chil­dren with­out class­rooms.

Since the re­port was made public, the gov­ern­ment has taken lit­tle ac­tion apart from cut­ting off funds to the ghost schools and fil­ing dozens of cases.

Cor­rup­tion watchdog spokesman Ghimire said the or­ga­ni­za­tion was press­ing author­i­ties to im­prove trans­parency.

“We would like to see long-term changes, start­ing with bet­ter mon­i­tor­ing of bud­gets, of how money is spent ... so the poor­est chil­dren can get an ed­u­ca­tion, not just those whose par­ents can af­ford to send them to pri­vate schools,” he said.

“The vast ma­jor­ity of stu­dents in this coun­try at­tend public schools,” said Mana Prasad Wa­gley, dean of ed­u­ca­tion at Kathmandu Univer­sity.

“If we don’t act now to save those schools, those fam­i­lies will just take their kids out and put them to work as porters and do­mes­tic help.

“As long as for­eign donors keep hand­ing over funds, there will be no in­cen­tive to change any­thing.

“In the mean­time, we are rais­ing a lost gen­er­a­tion.”


In this file pho­to­graph taken on April 21, a young Nepalese school­girl sets out to school in Man­thali, Ramec­chap dis­trict, some 100 kilo­me­ters east of Kathmandu.

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