USAID Goes to School in Lebanon–Or Is It the CIA?

Lebanese teachers and school officials suspect that a USAID educational assistance program is a cover for spying by American intelligence agencies.

On 20 December 2010, the Lebanese government under Saad Hariri and the US Ambassador to Lebanon, Maura Connelly, signed a memorandum of understanding between the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Lebanon and the Lebanese education ministry. The memorandum was billed as a means of supporting the rehabilitation of public schools and enhance teachers’ skills as part of a project known as D-RASATI (“my studies” in Arabic), funded by a US$75 million grant over five years.

The stated aim of this project is to improve public education by addressing four areas: repairing and equipping schools, improving the qualifications of teachers in subjects taught in English, engaging Lebanese students in extracurricular activities, and motivating parents and the community to be more involved in the schools their children attend.

The format of the project, which the education ministry in the current government consented to, has raised suspicion among observers and educators.

Skeptics say that representatives from the ministry were absent from “talks” with teachers that preceded the upcoming training sessions. They also question interviews conducted by “non-Lebanese foreign nationals whose affiliations [are not known].”

Sources close to the project’s implementation claim that audio recordings with teachers include inquiries about issues unrelated to the goals of the project. One participant asked: “What does enhancing teachers’ skills and evaluating their need for educational training have to do for example with whether they are attached to their [religious]community or resentful of it, whether they like to travel and to what country, and if this person or that person is their relative?”

This participant later continued, saying: “We sensed an intelligence gathering approach that went beyond the text of the agreement and the instructions of the Education Minister Hassan Diab who assured us he did not agree to collecting this kind of information.”

Many of the teachers subsequently boycotted the evaluation test conducted for those targeted by the training courses.

Training the teachers was not the only source of concern. So was the detailed “intelligence” report distributed to schools in order to determine their repair needs as well as what resources are necessary to provide extracurricular activities. Last year, summer camps raised questions over the geographical distribution of participating public schools as there was a clear focus on Dahiyeh (the southern suburbs of Beirut) and South Lebanon.

A number of teachers active in union work went even further in their skepticism and analysis asking: “Who protects the individual and legal rights of teachers and guarantees that their personal data, which belongs to them, won’t be used for political as opposed to educational purposes? Did the education ministry outsource its authority to the private sector and allow a foreign country to run amok in public schools as they wished without consulting teachers or asking for the opinion of their representatives in associations and trade unions? “

The teachers are demanding that the project’s parameters should at least be well defined and its goals clear and transparent.

Al-Akhbar spoke to Diab and the Director General of Education, Fadi Yarak, who is also the head of the coordination committee – the primary comptroller in the education ministry – to inquire whether the implementing partner of the project is adhering to the laws, standards, and mechanisms of the ministry.

Diab asserts that these concerns are misplaced even though he heard conversations over the summer about collecting data. He says he gave strict instructions banning the use of any personal information outside the scope of the project. “Practically, that is how things are. No one is taking data of this kind as far as we know,” he said firmly.

The audio recordings and iris print technology rumored to have been used in interviews with teachers are, according to the minister, unconfirmed.

When asked about the teachers’ boycott of the language evaluation test, he answered: “I don’t know. There might be issues other than the data, such as the teachers’ fear of the test due to their lack of proficiency.”

Yarak confirms in his interview with Al-Akhbar that the training material for principals takes into consideration legal standards in the education ministry and its various bodies, especially the Faculty of Education at the Lebanese University and the Educational Center for Research and Development.

He adds that it is not the first time there has been cooperation with foreign parties to train teachers. The French and the British preceded the Americans and there were similar projects in coordination with them.

By Faten El Hajj