Over and over, the United States has touted education — for which it has spent more than $1 billion — as one of its premier successes in Afghanistan, a signature achievement that helped win over ordinary Afghans and dissuade a future generation of Taliban recruits. As the American mission faltered, U.S. officials repeatedly trumpeted impressive statistics — the number of schools built, girls enrolled, textbooks distributed, teachers trained, and dollars spent — to help justify the 13 years and more than 2,000 Americans killed since the United States invaded.
But a BuzzFeed News investigation — the first comprehensive journalistic reckoning, based on visits to schools across the country, internal U.S. and Afghan databases and documents, and more than 150 interviews — has found those claims to be massively exaggerated, riddled with ghost schools, teachers, and students that exist only on paper. The American effort to educate Afghanistan’s children was hollowed out by corruption and by short-term political and military goals that, time and again, took precedence over building a viable school system. And the U.S. government has known for years that it has been peddling hype.
BuzzFeed News exclusively acquired the GPS coordinates and contractor information for every school that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) claims to have refurbished or built since 2002, as well as Department of Defense records of school constructions funded by the U.S. military.
BuzzFeed News spot-checked more than 50 American-funded schools across seven Afghan provinces, most of which were battlefield provinces — the places that mattered most to the U.S. effort to win hearts and minds, and into which America poured immense sums of aid money.
At least a tenth of the schools BuzzFeed News visited no longer exist, are not operating, or were never built in the first place. “While regrettable,” USAID said in response, “it is hardly surprising to find the occasional shuttered schools in war zones.”
At the schools that were still running, BuzzFeed News found far fewer students than were officially recorded as enrolled. Girls, whom the U.S. particularly wanted to draw into formal schooling, were overcounted in official records by about 40%.
USAID program reports obtained by BuzzFeed News indicate the agency knew as far back as 2006 that enrollment figures were inflated, but American officials continued to cite them to Congress and the American public.
As for schools it actually constructed, USAID claimed for years that it had built or refurbished more than 680, a figure Hillary Clinton cited to Congress in 2010 when she was secretary of state. By 2014, that number had dropped to “more than 605.” After months of pressing for an exact figure, the agency told BuzzFeed News the number was 563, a drop of at least 117 schools from what it had long claimed.
The military, the other main source of U.S. funding for education, said it does not know how many schools it has funded since the war began. Last month, the Pentagon told BuzzFeed News that since 2008 the military had funded the construction or refurbishment of 786 schools. This month, a spokesperson revised that number down to 605 and said the new number encompassed “a variety of projects that included new construction, refurbishment, or simply donating supplies such as desks or textbooks.”
I went freelance full time in December 2011 and made $17,000 in the first seven months, an average of almost $2500 a month. Making that little was, more or less, the plan. I had savings and I knew I needed to “get my name out there.” I wrote for free. I wrote for very little. I wrote pieces I didn’t want to write. I said no to almost nothing.
Slowly, it started to pay off. A story I wrote for The Awl prompted an editor at The Verge to contact me. I’ve written a number of features for them that paid between $750 and $1,500. After flying on Emirates Airlines and enjoying the in-flight magazine, I pitched the editor. He liked them and I continue to write features that pay a little less than a $1/word. I wrote slideshows for Complex.com for $10/slide (about sports, not hot women). I wrote a feature ($1,000) and blog posts ($250) for ESPN.com’s Grantland, and a photo-driven bit for ESPN The Magazine ($800).
I did pieces for BuzzFeed ($300), Penthouse ($750-$1,500), The Wall Street Journal’s sports section ($1/word), SBNation’s Longform unit ($1,750), Splitsider ($100), Guyism.com ($300/story), Street Fight ($0 but a slice of equity), The New Republic’s website ($150), and other outlets. Some paid more than they needed to, some paid less than they should. Deadspin gave me $100 for two pieces I wrote in Kiev, Ukraine. That seemed low, especially when they offered Jay Mariotti $1,000. (I’m 1/20th as valuable as he? Perhaps not untrue, but still, ouch.) At various points, I had contracts with mediabistro.com ($900/month), NBC ($350/month), Outside ($433/month), and Pacific Standard ($600/month).
I pitched and wrote constantly. I submitted invoices to between six and 12 outlets a month. But while I found consistent work, there were no massive payoffs. The most I made for a single piece was $2,200, although I did help launch and continue to edit American Soccer Now, a soccer website. I was paid a one-time fee of $10,000 and given a bit of equity. In my accounting, I spread that money over the six months starting in June, 2012 and now spend two hours a day working on the site, essentially for free.
I did less glamorous work, like ghostwriting a self-help guide ($40/hour) and some light editing and web production for a major media company ($50/hour). These weren’t my favorite assignments, but they paid well and freed me up to take a flyer on other pieces with low rates but potentially a bigger impact. Plus, while we’d all like to think there’s some magical fairytale land where freelancers write what they want when they want, that simply isn’t true. I have talked to many, many freelance writers while trying to figure out how to make it as one over the past eight years, and the vast majority take the occasional (or frequent) lucrative gig when it arrives.
I’m lucky. I’m making it work. I learned plenty about the economics of business, the good and the bad, especially that I am a poor negotiator. Still, I made a little more than $50,000 in the last six months of 2012 and around $45,000 during the first half of this year. It’s possible to succeed in this gig economy. It’s also exhausting. I’ve grown more ambitious and pitched bigger stories to larger outlets, but nothing has hit yet. Still, I keep trying.