USAID Education Contractor Gets a Bad Grade

09/11/2014 12:00am

Education remains one of Haiti’s lasting challenges. Illiteracy remains high (more than half of the total population), but since the great majority of schools are private, families usually pay for school expenses such as uniforms, meals, books and fees. This means that many children cannot afford school, while many other families struggle to come up with the money. The AP’s Danica Coto reported this week:

Haiti’s education system has suffered for decades due to poverty, political instability and the devastating 2010 earthquake. An estimated 30 percent of young people are illiterate, and only about half of all children can afford to attend primary school, according to UNICEF, the U.N.’s children’s agency. Fewer than a quarter go to secondary school.

The education ministry recently announced that it has invested some $13 million in books and school supplies for this year — though many students still must pay for all or part of their textbooks — and also launched a school meal system that will help 800,000 children.

Another challenge that Haitian school children face is that much of the teaching has been done in French, the country’s traditional language, but one which is spoken by only a (mostly higher-income) minority. In recent years, reformers have sought to expand Creole education, as the AP has also reported:

In a sign of growing interest in Creole’s educational potential, the U.S. Agency for International Development last fall awarded a $12.9 million contract to the North Carolina nonprofit group, RTI International, to create a basic reading curriculum that includes the language.

Last month, USAID’s Office of Inspector General released an audit of the 2-year, 4-month Research Triangle Institute (RTI) contract, which was also intended “to help the Haitian Ministry of Education develop and test an instructional model to improve the reading skills of children in first through third grades in Haiti’s development corridors,” including by “provid[ing] curricula that meet international standards for best practice and respond to Haiti’s culture and students’ educational needs.”

The audit’s conclusions can, unfortunately, be interpreted as a failing grade for RTI’s performance. It found that:

the project did not achieve all of its expected results—particularly with respect to developing and testing an instructional model for children in the second and third grades—and the project is significantly behind schedule to achieve its overall goals within the planned time frames. For example, RTI did not distribute the first-grade curriculum and materials until late March 2013—2 months past the deadline; second- and third-grade materials also were late[.]

In addition, RTI did not implement community literacy strategies fully, and its monitoring of teachers was weak. Implementation delays reduce USAID/Haiti‘s ability to assess and evaluate the cost-effectiveness of various instructional approaches.

More specifically

Despite the contract’s requirements, RTI completed only 13 of the 31 deliverables that were due through March 31, 2014. Eleven were late, and seven have yet to be delivered.

In addition to the late delivery of first-grade curriculum and materials, among the “key deliverables…not implemented as planned”:

Second- and Third-Grade Curriculum and Materials Were Not Developed. As of March 31, 2014, RTI had not developed and distributed second-grade curriculum and materials by the project’s original June 2013 deadline (subsequently amended to March 31, 2014). RTI officials said they would not meet the deadline of developing third-grade materials by June 2014.

Late and Weak Implementation of Community-based Activities for Treatment 2 Schools. During the first year of the project, RTI was to implement community-based activities in 75 of the 200 schools. However, it did not implement many of the activities fully. For example, RTI did not (1) develop report cards for teachers and parents that showed whether students’ reading skills were improving, (2) hold literacy fairs at schools, (3) facilitate parent meetings, and (4) hold weekly reading clubs as required. Other planned activities were dropped, including (1) Big-Brother/Sister Reading Partners, (2) bookmaking workshops, and (3) initiating a radio listening club.

Part of the poor performance was due to a subcontractor. The audit notes that the subcontractor only completed one-third of the mandated visits to schools during the 2012-2013 school year, and “continued to underperform for the 2013-2014 school year.”

Another finding of the audit calls into question whether RTI staff were qualified for the contract in the first place:

Mission officials said RTI’s staff lacked experience in developing the training materials, and some team members had no experience in Haiti or did not speak French or Creole. This resulted, they said, in poor-quality materials that required substantial revisions. RTI officials said the revisions were needed because of a fundamental difference in expectations between USAID/Haiti and RTI.

The audit finds deeper problems, however:

Mission officials said they did not ask for substantial revisions, but they did expect RTI to provide deliverables that met basic standards. They pointed out examples such as (1) a comprehensive training plan that was neither comprehensive nor a plan, (2) a capacity mapping report with no mapping, (3) an annual report with no reporting on performance indicators, and (4) instructional material based on repetition/memorization, lacking cultural appropriateness, and not meeting international standards. USAID/Haiti officials said the expectations were defined clearly in the contract…

USAID/Haiti, RTI, and the subcontractor trade blame for the project’s failures to (literally) deliver:

USAID/Haiti and RTI officials agreed that the subcontractor did not deliver many of the community-based activities and did not provide ongoing mentoring of teachers. But they disagreed on the root cause; RTI officials said they assigned the subcontractor to the project at USAID/Haiti’s insistence, but mission officials said this was not true. The subcontractor simply noted that it had a difficult working relationship with RTI.

The subcontractor is not named in the audit. The lack of accountability in USAID subcontracting is a problem we identified in our report “Breaking Open the Black Box: Increasing Aid Transparency and Accountability in Haiti” and is one that the new Assessing Progress in Haiti law will attempt to tackle. But it is clear from the audit that RTI shares blame for the subcontractor’s failures, as the contractor ultimately must be held to account for meeting the terms of the contract.

Among the reasons that the OIG suggested could explain RTI’s poor performance is a lack of incentive when benchmarks are not linked to a pay schedule:

Because RTI is reimbursed by USAID/Haiti only when it has satisfactorily completed a milestone per the payment schedule, not clearly linking requirements, standards, and deliverables to the schedule does not give for RTI the financial incentive to focus its efforts on completing those activities.

Considering RTI’s failures to adequately deliver suitable Creole and French materials that are “cultural appropriate,” this may be another case where contracting with Haitian organizations might well have produced better results.

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