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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, May 8) – United Nations program officials say that the Marshall Islands is not taking advantage of its programs — a concern that a high-level government official in Majuro acknowledged "is very serious indeed."

But officials at the Ministry of Education, which coordinates activities with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), say they put a priority on managing United States-funded education programs because the U.S. is injecting much higher-levels of assistance than the United Nations agency.

In contrast to its links with other Pacific island nations, UNESCO is not funding core programs in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, according to education officials in Majuro.

"UNESCO is very concerned that the Marshall Islands is not taking advantage of UNESCO programs that are being made available, especially compared to other Pacific islands," Carl Hacker, the director of the Economic Policy, Planning and Statistics Office, said Friday following a recent meeting with UNESCO officials in New Caledonia. "From the items and details of this discussion, UNESCO’s concern is very serious indeed. My advice was for UNESCO to work with the Ministry of Education and see if this can be worked into the performance budget and to expand the range of people and offices they talk to when in Majuro."

The U.S. government is the major donor to education in the Marshall Islands, funding both core and supplemental education programs, which means the Ministry focuses most of its staff and effort in managing the U.S.-funded programs, Education Secretary Biram Stege said Friday. The U.S. is injecting more than US$25 million into education programs and construction this year in the Marshall Islands. UNESCO’s small grants program provides about US$100,000 annually.

She and other Education staff said that many countries in the South Pacific do not have the option of major grant funding for education from a donor such as the U.S., so they rely more heavily on UNESCO-supported programs.

Stege said a main consideration for the Ministry is weighing the relative importance of the donor grants it receives.

"A lot of South Pacific countries don’t have access to funding at the level the U.S. (funds us)," Stege said.

She said that UNESCO is now looking at special education programs for the region. But the Marshall Islands, and other US-affiliated islands, already have strong, well-funded special education programs supported by the U.S., Stege said.

"In the north Pacific, special education is a well-funded program," she said. "But they haven’t begun (in the south)."

The UNESCO-funded program with the most visibility in the Marshall Islands currently is its small grants that go largely to non-governmental organizations, and is limited to a maximum of 10 grants per two-year funding period.

Another UNESCO-supported activity soon to start is a teacher training pilot project on a remote atoll.

Rais Aho, the Ministry’s grants manager, said that most South Pacific countries have a staff whose full-time job is management of UNESCO programs, while in Majuro Aho oversees UNESCO programs as just one of many grants that he coordinates for the Ministry of Education.

"Here," said Aho, "UNESCO is just a small part of our work."

This reflects the level of UNESCO funding compared to the United States and other donors aiding education programs, Stege said.

Marianas Variety

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