About 120,000 children in Pakistan had to abandon their classrooms and study in makeshift accommodations and tents after their school buildings, built by IMC Worldwide, were termed unsafe over design flaws, as per an investigation by The Times.
The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) roped in IMC Worldwide, a UK-based company, to build 50,000 classrooms covering 1,300 locations over 130,000 sq. km in 2013.
Concerns over the quality of the construction work of the project were first raised in 2016 by Halcrow Pakistan, a civil engineering firm hired by DFID for independent verification, a month before UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited a school in Lahore.
“We confirmed these schools’ structure is unsafe primarily over the weak suggested construction model”, a Halcrow Pakistan source told The Times. DFID was warned over unsafe designs, and that some buildings should not be used as they might collapse, by two more independent experts but regardless the department kept paying the contractor.
Priti Patel, then the international development secretary, was never informed about the problems nor were her successors Penny Mordaunt and Rory Stewart, The Times reports.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one of the provinces where the classrooms were being built, is highly vulnerable to earthquakes, but the officials running DFID's biggest education infrastructure programme paid the firm more than $66 million to build schools in spite of the concerns.
Britain apprised Pakistan to not use the classrooms after reports on safety concerns surfaced in the media. The government has asked IMC to pay for safety improvements, but the business may not be able to afford this.
Sarah Champion, chairwoman of the International Development Committee, told The Times: “I do not know of a worse example of aid misspend. It has shocked me to the very core that it went on for so long. This is a scandalous misuse of taxpayers’ money. The lack of accountability all the way through — from procurement to health and safety to delivery — was genuinely shocking. Are there other projects like this that are going as catastrophically wrong?"
She states that the two main failings were that civil servants kept the information from ministers and that those ministers who did know about this did not get a grip on the scale and severity of the problem until now.
IMC has claimed that the building designs were approved by engineering consultants registered with the Pakistan Engineering Council. Gavin English, IMC's managing director, said: “Many newly constructed buildings develop some cracks, the majority of which are non-structural".
Taking responsibility for the shoddy classrooms, DFID has said that the safety of children is the number one priority. “It is completely unacceptable that schools, which UK aid commissioned IMC to build, have not been built to the necessary standards. IMC have committed to retrofit unsafe schools and classrooms to ensure these are fit for purpose”.