By Al-Hassan Conteh
April 15, 2004
The film sends a message that Liberia may be down, but not out. This "sweet land of liberty" will bounce back. So goes the refreshing feeling until something grimly funny suddenly happens. In its final minutes, children from various backgrounds successively sing "All Hail Liberia Hail," Liberia’s national song. Some kids’ contrived rendition of the last stanza of the first part of the Anthem, which should otherwise read: "A home of glorious liberty, By God’s Command," makes one want to laugh and cry at the same time. By successively showing different kids singing the song, with imperfect tones, pitches and accuracy, the producer succeeds in sending a subliminal call to action: the urgency in making the education of children a national priority.
Clearly, the disruptive effects of a prolonged civil war on the lives of Liberian children is seen in their inability to sing their national song. And this problem is just the tip of the iceberg. It is symptomatic of a national tragedy in the form of a consequence, which I will call the education squeeze: a situation in which the ages of children relate inversely to their grade levels. Imagine some of the results of this over-aged learners phenomenon, including high retention rates, illiteracy, the long-term effects on productivity, the economy, and Liberia’s likely marginalized status in a highly competitive global economy.
The United Nations reported at the February 2004 donor’s conference on Liberia that, "48% percent of all school-going children are concentrated at the primary level. With a primary school net enrollment rate of 46%, more than half the Liberian children of school-age are out-of-school."
There are about 795,000 elementary school students in the country, says a recent Government of Liberia report. The illiteracy rate is "alarmingly high," the World Bank reveals (50-75%), when compared with Africa South of the Sahara (38%). And "the illiteracy rate among women is more than double that of men: 62% against 29%."
Pervasive unemployment (about 80% by official accounts) has created a vicious circle ranging from widespread poverty to a precipitous decline of national productivity. Consequently, many kids have been out of the classroom for about 14 years. For example, according to Liberia’s Demographic and Health Survey report of 1999/2000, 54% of males and 48% of females in the age group 5-24 never attended school because "there was no money available for school." Here lies Liberia’s dilemma for competitiveness in the 21st century characterized by globalization. Swift action is required at all levels: international, national, community and individual, to accelerate the education of Liberians in the cohort 5-24.
A Call to Action
What can we do for Liberia in addressing the education squeeze and associated problems emanating from prolonged civil war? The World Bank estimates that the financial needs for rehabilitating the country’s educational system is US$ 21 million for 2004-2005. Faced with many urgent priorities including overdue civil servants’ salaries, health, and infrastructure, the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) could only allocate 5% of its recently passed US$25 million quarterly budget to education. This is a drop in the national bucket of urgent priorities.
More should be done with less. To achieve this, all Liberians in the Diaspora should make the revitalization of education in Liberia their top priority. We should strive to complement the international and national good will on the ground. UN agencies (e.g. UNICEF and UNDP), the European Commission, international and national Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are doing their part. Those who would like to help should start by undertaking fact-finding missions. This will avoid reinventing the wheel. Scarce resources can thus be optimized to great effects. The Ministry of Education has a Ten-Year Liberia Education Sector Master Plan (2000-2010) that should be a reference point for action.
Fund raising campaigns to assist with the rebuilding of education in Liberia should be launched. The campaigns should target the urgent needs of Liberians in the 5 to 24 age groups. Some of them who were out of school were arguably members of the various warring factions, estimated as between 38,000 to 50,000 persons. This means that the CDDRR (Cantonment, Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration) Program should also be our priority as prescribed in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CAP).
The 5-24 year age group’s demand for services is central to the very basic needs required for national reconstruction. They need schools, clean water, health services (e.g. HIV/AIDS education and prevention), nutrition, reintegration and resettlement. And when students take to the streets to vandalize public and private properties to demand educational services, you know that there is also an urgent need to address the root causes of such mass action: poverty, inequality and lack of access of the majority to public goods on account misplaced priorities that helped fueled the war in the first instance. There is, therefore, an urgent need for peace education to curb the pervasive violence that is challenging postwar stability. This effort should center on reconciliation, restorative justice and peace building.
Individuals and communities in the Liberian Diaspora can continue to do small things to help. Establish a scholarship fund for primary school students, including those in the documentary. Call this drive, perhaps, "The National Anthem Scholarship Fund," symbolizing the hidden message for a call to action in "A Day in Monrovia." Professional bodies should endeavor in conducting systematic policy studies on institutional and structural reforms, including the education sector. Ultimately, the saying of the wise that greeted visitors on the walls of the old Liberia College should be remembered: "The peril of our society lies in the illiteracy of our Liberia youth."