LIBERIA: Education and the Poverty Reduction Strategy
By Francis W. Nyepon
January 8, 2010
In most regions of Liberia, thousands of children do not attend school. With one of the largest budgetary outlay in government, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has had little or no impact on the daily lives of children and their families over the past 5 years. Furthermore, the MOE national policies agenda haven’t provided an environment for productive learning and career building. Instead, policies have penalized innocent children as a result of the lack of leadership and clear-cut direction at the MOE. With the Sirleaf administration aim of reaching universal primary education by 2015 one of the Millennium Development Goals (MGGs), it’s roadmap to national recovery and sustainable development through the PRS, is in serious jeopardy of collapse especially in areas like education, health, sanitation, nutrition, and water where children are impacted most.
National Education Policies have yet to provide children and their families with opportunities to improve living conditions and livelihood. Families and educators says the national educational system face a number of challenges, which includes severe impediments to construction and rehabilitation of schools, even though the MOE claims it has build and renovated several thousand school buildings around the country, which no one can see. Many public schools are overcrowded, and in equally poor condition without adequate equipment, supplies and educational materials. Village and district leaders says their areas lack sufficient classroom space to cope with population growth and density, which many acknowledge forces students to sit on the ground or on pieces of lumber, with teachers rarely having desks, chairs or instructional materials.
The MOE must now initiate and provide a more proactive and aggressive education agenda to improve infrastructure, instructions, training and programs for children and provide adequate equipment, and supplies to schools across the country. Also, the MOE offers must offer professional development training for teachers’ national wide. Its teacher training program is not effective. Over half of the teachers in Liberia are not qualified to teach the specific subject matter they now teach. Yet the MOE offers no testing of teachers and has no yardstick by which to measure performance across the country. This author believes that one of the biggest challenges that teachers and career educators at the MOE have with the current education plan is mitigating the negative impact that current learning conditions superimposes on students and their families.
The Sirleaf administration is yet to establish an office for planning and monitoring poverty reduction policies and programs, which appear to be the reason why there are so many gaps in orientation, implementation, and follow-up of the PRS, thereby lack the kind of breakthroughs made by the administration, which the average person can comprehend. This author wishes to suggest that the Sirleaf administration should align the country’s social sector development with macro-economic policies and strategies; thereby, linking debt-relief and human development to the PRS. What the author is suggesting here is that the Sirleaf administration should broaden the utilization of its debt relief policies and channel much needed resources to the education and health sectors. In the context of macroeconomic programs, special attention needs to be paid to breaking the poverty cycle for children. The MOE should adopt systemic changes to enhance and ensure good quality education for children and robust learning for adults.
Throughout Liberia, poverty is both a cause and effect of insufficient access to or completion of education. All over the country, children are less likely to enroll in and complete school due to associated costs of attending school, even when school is so-called ‘Free’. The cost of uniform, fees, supplies, lunch, distance to school, and transportation are in many cases beyond the means of many families especially those at the bottom of the social strata. This means that choices have to be made, and the choice that is often made is to take a child or several children out of school. This is the harsh reality on the ground especially amongst families stranded and stuck with this dilemma on a daily basis. Also, rampant poverty is forcing thousands of rural and peri-urban families to send their children to the city to beg or sell on the streets, wash cars, push wheelbarrow transport or toil in markets at the expense of their education. Nearly half of children in rural areas of Liberia have no access to basic education, according to UNICEF.
Additionally, as children who are enrolled in school grow older, the opportunity cost (their labor and the foregone income it may entail) becomes greater, thus increasing the likelihood of families forcing their children to abandoning school. This author’s visit to both urban and rural schools throughout the country presented an immediate overview and evidence of children dropping out of school to support themselves or to supplement strained family income. In most cases, children simply moved out of their homes to make life by any means necessary. This is usually the norm for many children in rural and peri-urban communities. In rural areas for instance, many young men simply forget about school altogether and take on a wife or two to sustain life. In almost all cases, the lack of basic education virtually guarantees perpetuation of the poverty cycle. It further traps many well intentioned families to the bottom of the social ladder because their income-earning potential is reduced, not to mention the potential productivity level of the country, or the receptivity to change or transformation of the country, and the burning desire of many to improve the quality of their lives.
This author therefore concludes that the lack of education perpetuates poverty throughout Liberian society, and poverty constrains access to schooling, thereby suffocating painstaking progress and gains made by the Sirleaf administration’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. Notwithstanding, in order for the PRS to work successfully and bring meaning to the lives of ordinary people, poverty must be greatly reduced to touch the lives of children and their families. But, this would require strengthening and improving the livelihood of families through employment, training and the provision of basic services, productive skill sets, and not necessarily through academic education. For example, a 25 year old individual does not need to sit in a fifth grade classroom with 9 year old kids to lean verb conjugations or introduction to basic algebra. He or she could make better use of his or her time by gaining productive life-saving skill sets and vocations to improve the quality of his or her life.
This author is attempting to draw a distinction between the complex and often very necessary role education plays in the upward mobility of improving one’s life vis-à-vis poverty reduction and social development. For instance, for many school-age children in Liberia, education and learning can become a tool for preparing them to take their rightful place in the society. Therefore, if the PRS is to become successful, then the Sirleaf administration must first work towards eradicating poverty through education. This means improving basic skill sets, through apprenticeship training, vocational education, and targeted career development programs. This also means teaching social skills and etiquettes, promoting proper hygiene practices and improving sanitation, and teaching environmental health as a requirement to entering the workplace, employment, and school.
This author believes that this view of education and trend of thought would empower both school-age children and school-going adults by opening avenues in communication that would otherwise be closed. These avenues would include expanding personal choices and control over one’s environment, and provide the basis for acquiring many other life skills like obtaining access to information through print as well as electronic media; equipping themselves with work and family responsibilities; and changing the image they have about themselves. Through this kind of innovation, this author see education strengthening the self-confidence of both school-age children and school-going adults to actively and objectively participate in their respective community and maybe national affairs in order to ‘constructively’ influence social, political, economic and environmental issues not so much as becoming politicians, but being productive ordinary citizens that seeks to enhance their lives and bringing meaning to their communities.