An investigation by two NGOs has uncovered a network of Education Ministry officials stealing schoolbooks that were intended to be given free to students, and then either selling them back to schools or in local markets.
The investigation, conducted in December and January, found that officials at district education departments had intercepted the delivery of the official school textbooks, funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and had created three revenue streams for personal enrichment.
The state publishing house “paid the district level [education] officials to deliver the books,” said San Chey, a representative of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific, which carried out the investigation together with the Khmer Institute for National Development.
“But those officials are just keeping the money and the books, and then charging the school principals when they come to collect” the free schoolbooks, Mr. Chey said.
“It is a violation of the contract [with the ADB].”
In 2008, the ADB committed to providing $1.3 million to publish textbooks through a contract with the government-run Publishing and Distribution House (PDH). The PDH was supposed to deliver the books directly to schools, but violated the agreement by subcontracting the process to district education officials, according to the NGOs’ research.
District education officials then turned the free books into three sources of revenue: earning money from the PDH for agreeing to deliver the books; taking money for giving the books to school principals; and setting aside a portion of the books and selling them to local bookshops, which, in turn, sell them to students who were supposed to receive the books free of charge.
The NGO study found that just 15.6 percent of 489 students surveyed had received all their required textbooks for the current school year, while 42 percent received fewer than half.
After conducting its own investigation, the Education Ministry on January 31 warned book vendors that they would face confiscation and fines should they continue to sell the ADB-funded schoolbooks, which are marked “Not for sale. Property of the State.”
“The issue of this scandal is that the point of distribution has become the district office,” said Ros Salin, chief of cabinet for newly appointed Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron.
“The delivery was supposed to be streamlined from the PDH to the school.”
Rather than hold civil servants accountable for corruption at the district departments of education, Mr. Salin said the ministry will simply right the wrong and see that the textbooks get to students.
“We can use our own internal mechanism to identify and punish those responsible,” he said, without explaining what that punishment would be.
“First, we concentrate on getting the textbooks out of the shops and into the schools.”
But the irregularities were not just at the district offices.
The ministry’s own department of curriculum development, which is responsible for monitoring the flow of textbooks from the PDH to school students, was found to have overseen deliveries in just 11 of 33 schools surveyed.
Lim Sotharith, chief of textbook supply at the ministry’s curriculum development department, claimed Wednesday that skimming books and money off the free book distribution was not corruption, it was simply a “subcontract.”
“Two or three people at the district [education] offices get the contract with [the PDH]” to deliver the books, Mr. Sotharith said.
“The district chief asks to keep some of the books to send to the market…and the district [education] office requests that the principals come and pay when they pick up the books,” he said.
“It’s not illegal, it’s a subcontract.”
The ADB declined to comment on the revelations regarding their free books scheme.
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