DFID’s much-vaunted education programme in Pakistan has been beset by problems since its very beginning. Many of these issues could have been avoided if people responsible had listened to the voices of those on the ground who were working in the education systems and schools in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Those responsible for designing and implementing the flawed programme need to be identified, and take responsibility for their actions. Many are still in highly paid and “respected” roles in private consultancy companies that are at risk of delivering such failed projects over and over again unless they are stopped.
A recent report in the Financial Times (by Bethan Staton and Farhan Bokhari, 24th August 2019) has gone largely unreported elsewhere, as a coalition of silence continues over this failure and corruption in a prestigious DFID programme. As their report begins, “Buildings in more than nine in 10 schools in Pakistan delivered under a £107m project funded by the UK’s Department for International Development are not fit for purpose, leaving 115,000 children learning in makeshift classrooms as a new academic year begins”. Some 1,277 out of the 1,389 schools that were meant to have been built or renovated are potentially at risk from structural design flaws, which put them at risk of collapse in earthquakes. Pakistan is one of the most seismically active countries in the world and has had six major earthquakes over 6 Mw in the last decade. The earthquake in October 2005 killed over 86,000 people, and set in train various initiatives to try to ensure that schools were indeed built to protect children in earthquakes.
The UK government has responded quickly to the FT’s report, with the new Secretary of State, Alok Sharma, saying that this is unacceptable and the contracting company would be retrofitting all affected classrooms at no extra cost to the taxpayer. Stephen Twigg, the chair of the House of Commons International Development Select Committee, has also pledged to investigate this as part of an inquiry into the impact and delivery of aid in Pakistan.
However, all of this could have been avoided if earlier warnings had been heeded, especially from people in Pakistan on the ground who really knew what was going on. The suspicion is that those who designed and benefitted from the programme thought that they could get away with benefitting personally from these contracts. Yet again, suspicion falls on the probity of “international development consultants” and “implementing agencies”. As a very good Pakistani friend said to me, “follow the money”. So I have!
I first warned about problems with DFID funded education projects in Pakistan following a visit there in 2016. I raised my concerns in a post in May of that year entitled Education reform in Pakistan: rhetoric and reality, and shared these with colleagues in DFID, but was assured that this was a prestigious DFID programme that was above reproach and was delivering good work. My comments were, I was told, mere heresay.
That post ended with the following words:
“The main thing that persuaded me to write this piece was a Facebook message I received this morning, that then suddenly disappeared. It read:
“It is true though Tim Unwin. What is really pathetic is that neither Dfid nor Sindh/Punjab government are made accountable for those children whose education will discontinue after this debacle. Education Fund for Sindh boasted enrolling 100 thousand out of school kids. Overnight the project and project management has vanished, website dysfunctional…Poof and all is gone. There is no way to track those children and see what’s happening to their education”
This is so very sad. We need to know the truth about educational reform in Pakistan – and indeed the role of donors, the private sector and richly paid consultants – in helping to shape this. I cannot claim that what I have been told is actually happening on the ground, but I can claim that this is a faithful record of what I was told”.
I wish I knew why the words were taken down; perhaps the author did not want to be identified. More importantly, I wish that people in DFID had listened to them.
My earlier post alluded to the coalition of interests in international development between individual consultants, global corporations, local companies, and government officials. Let me now expand on this.
- McKinsey, Pearson, Delivery Associates and Sir Michael Barber. Barber is curently chairman and founder of Delivery Associates (among other roles) and was in many ways the mind behind DFID’s recent educational work in Pakistan. From 2011-2015 he was DFID’s Special Representative on Education in Pakistan (as well as Chief Education Advisor at Pearson, 2011-2017), and in 2013 he wrote an enthusastic report entitled The Good News from Pakistan: How a revolutionary new approach to education reform shows the way forward for Pakistan and development aid everywhere, which explored in particular ways through which expansion in low-cost private sector educational delivery might spur the government to reform itself (pp.49-50). However, as the Mail Online pointed out Barber was paid £4,404 a day for his advice. As this source goes on to point out, “Sir Michael was handed the deal 18 months ago as part of a wider contract with management consultants McKinsey. Originally McKinsey was planning to charge £7,340 a day for Sir Michael’s advice on improving Pakistan’s education system over 45 days, making a total of £330,300. Overall, four consultants were to be paid £910,000 for 250 days’ work, although this was reduced to £676,720 after the firm agreed a ‘social sector discount’, which took Sir Michael’s daily rate to £5,505. A fellow director was paid the same rate while two ‘senior consultants’ were paid £2,350 a day”. There is no doubt that Barber played a key role in shaping DFID’s educational policies in Pakistan and was paid “handsomely” for it. The 2016 review of the PESP (II) (Punjab Education Support Programme) clearly describes his involement: “More formally, the bi-monthly stocktake of the Roadmap provides a high-level forum to discuss a range of key education indicators (such as student attendance and missing facilities) with the CM, Secretary Education and Sir Michael Barber, as the UK Special Representative for Education in Pakistan”.
- IMC Worldwide, the main contractor. The British Company IMC Worldwide won the main contract for delivering much of DFID’s school building programme in Pakistan, and continues to claim on its website that the project is a great success (as noted on a screenshot of its home page earlier today, shown below).
This goes on to highlight their success in improving up to 1500 classrooms, with videoclips emphasising in particular their use of reinforced foundations, innovative use of Chinese Brick Bond, preserving history through innovations, and building community engagement. It is, though, worth remembering that the Punjab Education Support Programme PESP (II) January 2016 review commented that “The school infrastructure component has been slow to perform. This was due in part to a delay in legal registration of IMC Worldwide (the international private sector implementing partner) in Pakistan. Unit costs have also risen dramatically since the last Annual Review and work is behind the original schedule. The quality of construction in the classrooms that have been completed is encouraging”. In hindsight, the quality of work would appear to have been anything but encouraging!
- Humqadan-SCRP, the local initiative. IMC needed to implement the programme through local contractors, and this led to the creation of Humqadan-SCRP. The implementation phase started in May 2015 as a five year programme funded by DFID and the Australian government, and managed by IMC Worldwide. It is very difficult to find out details about exactly who is involved in delivering the construction work on the ground (closed tenders are listed here). Its newsletters in 2017 and 2018 mentioned that Herman Bergsma was the team leader, although he has now been replaced (his predecessor was Roger Bonner).
As with the IMC site, Humqadan’s media centre page above indicates great success for the initiative. However, local media in Pakistan has occasionally reported problems and challenges with the work. In December 2017, Dawn thus highlighted the case of a school building being demolished in 2015, but still remaining to be reconstructed. More worrying, though, are suggestions that IMC may have failed sufficiently to do quality checks, and had challenges in ensuring that local contractors were paid appropriately and on time; there are even claims that IMC may have sought to keep much of the money for themselves. DFID’s July 2016 annual report for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Education Sector Programme (KESP) perhaps gives some credence to such rumours, noting that “Just before the finalisation of last year’s KESP annual review, Humqadam flagged to DFID an expected increase in their costs for construction and rehabilitation, but the detail was not clear at the time of publication. Humqadam subsequently confirmed that after going out to the market for the construction work, several cost drivers were significantly higher than in their original estimates. This had the effect of approximately doubling average classroom construction costs from PKR 450,000 (£2,813) to PKR 950,000 (£5,938)”. The Pakistani construction sector is notoriously problematic and anyone the least bit familiar with the country should know the importance of good and rigorous management processes to ensure that appropriate standards are maintained. A doubling of costs, though, seems remarkable; even more remarkable is DFID’s apparent acceptance of this.
- The donor’s role, DFID. DFID’s regular reports on progress with the project are mixed. Ever since the beginning, they have tended to over-emphasise the successes, while underestimating the failures. That having been said, it is important to emphasise that some attempts have been made by DFID to grapple with these issues. As I noted in my earlier post relating to the Punjab Education Support Programme (PESP II): “DFID’s Development Tracker page suggests that there was a substantial over-spend in 2013/14, and a slight underspend in 2015/16, with 2014/15 being just about on budget. Moreover, DFID’s most recent review of the project dated January 2016 had provided an overall very positive account of the work done so far, although it did note that “The school infrastructure component has been slow to perform” (p.2)“. The July 2016 KESP report likewise noted that “Over the 12 months since the last KESP review, DFID has responded by strengthening its management of the Humqadam contract to increase scrutiny and oversight. The team produced an enhanced monitoring strategy and commissioned a Third Party Verification (TPV) contract to verify that this intervention still represented value for money.” It is nevertheless remarkable that the programme score for this programme increased from C in 2012, to B in 2013 and 2014, and then A from 2015 to 2016. As far as DFID is concerned it was indeed therefore being successful. Not insignificantly, though, the risk rating rose from High from 2012-2015 to Major in 2016. Unfortunately there is no mention of Humqadan in the first Performance Evaluation of DFID’s Punjab Education Sector Programme (PESP2), published in 2019. On balance, some aspects of the overall programme would indeed appear to be going well, but DFID’s monitoring processes would seem to have failed to pick up a potentially catastrophic failure in actual delivery on the ground.
This is clearly a complex and difficult situation, but above all two things stand out as being extremely sad:
- Children on the ground in desperate need of good learning opportunities seem to have been failed, since so many new school buildings appear not to have been built to the appropriate standards; and
- DFID’s reputation as one of the world’s leading bilateral donors has been seriously tarnished, whether or not the scale of construction failure is as high as the FT article suggests.
All of these problems could have been resolved if:
- greater care had been taken in the design of the programme in the first place;
- greater attention had been focused on the problems picked up in the annual reporting process;
- greater scrutiny had been paid to the work of the consultancy companies and local contractors; and
- greater efffort had been expended on monitoring local progress and quality delivery on the ground.
Above all, if senior DFID staff had listened more to concerns from Pakistanis working on the ground in rural areas of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and had been less concerned about portraying its success as a donor agency, then these problems might never have arisen in the first place. Yet again the coalition of interests of donor governments, international consultants and their companies and corporations, seem to have dominated the views and lives of those that they purport to serve.
If the Financial Times report is true, and the scale of incompetence and possible corruption is indeed as high as is claimed, I hope that DFID will take a very serious look at its processes, and ensure that those who have taken British taxpayers’ money for their own personal gain are never permitted to do so again.
Additional insights, August 2022
The above post was written some three years ago, but I have recently discovered additional materials that would indeed support some of my conjectures. Those interested might like to see the following by Matt Benson on LinkedIn about his resignation from what was then DFID:
- Resignation part one
- Resignation part deux
- Resignation part three
- Resignation continued
- Resignation part who knows…
These provide much more detail from the inside, and it would be good to know what the FCDO might have to say in response.
It strikes me that there are at least five fundamental issues that need to be addressed:
- The implications that these issues have for the provision of education in Pakistan, especially for some of the poorest and most marginalised children;
- The role of very highly paid individual consultants and international contractors in development initiatives across the world;
- The ways through which the UK funds its international development programmes, especially now that these are delivered through the FCDO;
- Mechanisms for assessing the impact of aid interventions openly and transparently, esecially where these are funded through taxpayer’s money; and
- The accountability of individuals within development interventions.
Hopefully, there can be an open and constructive discussion around all of these important issues, because it is surely time to stop the exploitation of the international aid system by companies and individual consultants as appears to have happened on a significat scale in Pakistan.
Updated 22 August 2022