Kyrgyz schools take $46 million in bribes annually

Students in a Bishkek high school

On a cold Monday in December, my sister-in-law came home three hours early from school. “They stopped classes because we have no heat,” she explained. She and her parents were not happy. The school had held a fundraiser to prepare precisely for this situation; parents had donated money, firewood and coal for winter heating. Where had it all gone? “The senior teacher took the wood and coal for her home. I don’t know what happened to the money,” said my sister. Classes would be suspended for at least a month because of the freezing temperatures.

I was incensed. Her older brother, who works in the village government, suggested exposing the teacher and telling the mayor about what she had done. But my little sister was terrified of being found out — if her brother told the mayor, it would be clear that she had tattled on the teacher — and her parents seemed resigned to the inevitability of the theft. So no one said anything. And the school shut down for two months. And I — along with the school children, I assume — learned a valuable lesson in the dynamics of power, embarrassment and the persistence of corruption. The embarrassment and fear of those with the least fault are so easily disposed by those with the power to be treacherous.

My parents-in-law played their role in the corruption, tolerating (though not instigating) the teacher’s theft. But Kyrgyzstan faces an arguably larger problem of parents actively engaging in educational corruption. Every year, parents pay roughly $46,620,000 in bribes into the Kyrgyz school system. USD 46.6 million, almost 1% of the country’s $7 billion GDP!!!

This goes to buying your kid a spot in school, paying for good grades and I imagine to avoiding discipline for bad behaviour. In Bishkek, it’s about $65 per pupil per year, with 93% of parents paying. In the villages, it’s more like $8 per pupil per year, with 67% of parents paying. (Check out the full Transparency International article). Much like the U.S., children are assigned to schools based on which neighbourhood they live in. But if the school is over-full, they may be reassigned and parents will pay to keep that from happening. Or if a school has a good reputation, parents may start paying to get their out-of-neighborhood children a spot (meaning that in-neighborhood kids whose parents can’t pay bribes will end up getting bumped to out-of-neighborhood schools).

If $8 to $65 sounds cheap, bear in mind that the average salary here is something like $2,400 per year (very rough estimate based on the average monthly salary reported here). I’ve been asking locals about corruption, and their invariable response is, “It starts with kindergarten and grows from there. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

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