By Benedict Nyankun Wisseh
When the Liberian civil war concluded, it was cleared that it has left the infrastructure of the country in tatters. Everything that constituted the infrastructure of Liberia as a country was destroyed. Buildings that housed schools were damaged, leaving the educational system unable to provide needed quality educational services to students. Throughout the country, this was known to ordinary Liberians and education officials. But, under Charles Taylor as president, no efforts were made to arrest and ameliorate the poor educational standard in Liberian public schools. Therefore, when Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became president, it was no surprise when she announced that reforming the structural deteriorations that compromised the quality of education in Liberian schools would be a top priority. This commenced efforts by the Education Ministry and UNICEF to develop programs to improve the standard of education in the schools. One such program developed in 2011 was the Center of Excellence for Curriculum Development and Research (CECDR) in partnership between the two with (UNICEF) as the financial benefactor.
The CECDR was constituted with the mission to conduct seminars around the country, training teachers how to teach science, mathematics, English, and social studies. The agreement reached with UNICEF assigned the ministry of education to recruit from abroad qualified Liberian curriculum specialists in these subjects who have been working as instructors. However, the evaluation of the specialists’ applications and qualifications was done by UNICEF. At this time, Mr. Othello Gongar was the minister of education and Dr. Mator Kpangbai was deputy minister for instructions, while Dr. Stella kaabwe was UNICEF’s education chief and Ms. Isabel Crowley was its resident representative and head in Liberia. The 3-year contract, prepared by the education ministry and UNICEF and signed by the specialists, stipulates that the specialists would be paid the same salaries they earned from their former positions in the United States. As a result, Natasha Martin, Roselyn Swaray and Asta Kaba were recruited from the United States and hired to teach science, english, and mathematics respectively.
In July, August and September of 2011, the curriculum specialists started their work, enthusiastic and appreciative for the opportunity to contribute to the rebuilding of their country in response to the president’s appeal for Liberians living abroad to return home. But few months after the specialists began their work, changes took place in UNICEF. In December, 2011, Dr. Kaabwe, UNICEF’s education chief in Liberia, retired and was replaced by Ms. Christine Agostini. At this time, rumour has also begun that administrative changes affecting the higher echelon of the ministry were pending in a cabinet reshuffle. These changes, after they took place as they were rumoured, immediately began to affect the stipulations of the contract signed by the curriculum specialists. Ms. Agostini, a native of Nepal, and for reasons known to her and, perhaps, the education minister, began to complain that the salaries the Education Ministry and UNICEF determined, negotiated, offered and signed by the curriculum specialists were too high and demanded for them to be reduced. Whether or not her demand was granted is not known to the specialists since they were not invited to a meeting with Agostini and ministry’s officials or sent official notices informing them of any changes in their salaries. Not only were the enthusiasm, appreciation and hopes of the curriculum specialists dashed, it began a treatment of the specialists by the ministry and UNICEF in a manner that is regrettably akin to servitude.
Ms. Agostini, perhaps, having failed to secure the automatic reduction of the specialists’ salaries, but determined that the specialists will not be paid accordingly, sought another avenue. This time, with the suspected covert approval of some decision-makers at the Education Ministry, she decided to withhold their salaries periodically for months. Although it is stated in the contracts that the specialists will be paid monthly, they were not paid from January until the end of June, 2012, when they were paid five months of salaries and not the six months they worked and were owed. Neither UNICEF nor the Education Ministry found it necessary and appropriate professionally to explain to the specialists, however episodic the explanation, why it took six months for them to be paid five months of salaries instead of the six months. But the curriculum specialists, having recognised their patriotic obligation and inspired by it, braved the hardships of not having money and continued to work diligently as they travelled to the counties under good and bad weather conditions conducting seminars for teachers.
Having been paid five months of salaries, the specialists thought that the failure to pay them monthly, as agreed in their contracts, was an aberration that would be corrected promptly. But they were wrong as the delinquency to pay them on time became a pattern. As if UNICEF and the Ministry of Education wanted to convey a point about the reduction of salaries, the specialists were not paid again for the next six consecutive months from July to December in2012. Then in January, 2013, however, they were paid six months of salaries that were paid only after repeated appeals by them to the Education Ministry to intervene drew the concerns of some low level officials. But eleven months on from January, the specialists have not been paid in 2013. Why these contract professional educators are not being paid accordingly has been a mystery for some times now. But what is not a mystery is that how they are treated by the Ministry of Education under Etmonia Tarpeh and UNICEF under Christine Agostini is a classic case of “monkey works and bamboo draws.”
The claim of “monkey works and bamboo draws” at the Education Ministry is not to be dismissed. Rather, it should be taken seriously because of how certain employees were employed at the ministry, the examination of which leads one to a suspicious picture of misappropriation that has the specialists performing the roles of monkeys. Friendship, since the arrival of Etmonia Tarpeh as minister of education, has been a serious consideration in the qualifications of certain employees in the ministry. According to two sources employed in the ministry and familiar with how administrative decisions are made, these employees, referred to as “consultants” in the ministry, were recruited for positions that only came into existence after Tarpeh became minister. Therefore, their salaries were not included in the national budget as were the salaries of the specialists in UNICEF’s budget. As a result, no money was available to pay the “consultants.” So, in order to pay the salaries of the “consultants,” the ministry decided to use the money appropriated in UNICEF’s budget for the specialists’ salaries, using the convenience and influence provided by the personal friendship between the minister and UNICEF’s Agostini. If this is disputed by the ministry, then, it must explain and justify why these specialists have not been paid for eleven months now as well as why they have been paying them sporadically.
President Sirleaf and officials of her administration, in speeches to Liberians abroad, appeal to them to return home to help in the rebuilding of their country. These specialists, undoubtedly, answered this call to national service when they resigned from their jobs, uprooted their families and returned to Liberia to work. They went to Liberia under contracts with wordings that guaranteed them to be paid monthly. As required, they travel around the country, from county to county, village to village and town to town conducting teaching seminars to teachers to improve the poor quality of teaching in government schools. In addition to this, there has never been any concern expressed by the Education Ministry and UNICEF about the individual job performances of the specialists since they began working. Yet, they are not paid, not for one or two months, but for eleven months. The Sirleaf administration cannot encourage professional Liberians to resign their jobs and uproot their families to return home to rebuild the country but does not pay them. There is something shameful and dishonorable about this. Not only is this shameful and dishonorable, it reveals why the Education Ministry is unable to carry on and complete mundane administrative tasks to improve the poor standard of education in Liberia. Even President Sirleaf has recognized this inept performance when she publicly lamented the poor standard of education in the country in the presence of Minister Tarpeh. Unfortunately, President Sirleaf left the minister untouched and dismissed her junior ministers.
Benedict Nyankun Wisseh is known for being a teammate of the ailing Sayon Davies, when they played for Lone Star in the late 1970s. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.