LIBERIA: One Million Schoolchildren Live in Poverty
By: Francis Nyepon
The plight of a million schoolchildren living in poverty will reach a watershed moment as school across Liberia reopens this week after a state of emergency closed all schools last July in response to the Ebola outbreak, which killed over 4000 Liberians. Many will be returning to school without readiness skills that will severely impact each school day; while others will be confronted with a host of issues ranging from hunger pains causes by lack of proper nourishment to unprepared teachers, inadequate school supply, and scarce books, wanting curriculum, poor living conditions, transportation and improper uniform. Furthermore, countless number of parents will be confronted with the cruel reality of sourcing funds to get their kids back into school after seven months without an income and employment. Many schoolchildren and their parents will be coming from communities where Ebola devastatingly affected family members, friends, and neighbors.
Over the past decade, poverty has had a terrible ripple effect on schoolchildren throughout Liberia by upsetting the balance in school enrollment, participation, behavior, promotion, absenteeism, dropout and poorly trained teachers. According to the United Nations, over 87% of schoolchildren in Liberia are trapped in the injustices of poverty. This author holds the view that many schoolchildren throughout Liberia do not simply have satisfactory access to healthcare, shelter, food, water, sanitation, hygiene, nutrition and proper instructions, which in fact cause the problem in the first place. For many schoolchildren throughout Liberia, poverty simply provides unstable living conditions and insecure learning environment, which when paired together become detrimental to their cognitive, physical and emotional development.
The vast majority of schoolchildren in Liberia come from households where over 50% of individuals live in extreme poverty on less than US$1 a day. For instance, the richest 12% of Liberia’s population earns half of the country’s total income, while the remaining 88% are left with the other half. It is almost a certainty that schoolchildren who come from such households would be less likely to complete secondary school. In other words, the deck is always stack against them from the get go. A recent European Commission Study confirms this author’s point. The Study states that 68% of Liberia’s rural population and 55% of its urban population live on less than US$1 a day, while 56% of the rural population and 29% of the urban population fall below the extreme poverty line; thereby, lacking the means of meeting the cost of basic social and economic needs. Household poverty has serious ramifications for social and economic success amongst schoolchildren. For instance, over 28% of schoolchildren in Liberia sit on the bare floor without desks or adequate supplies, equipment, laboratories or properly trained teachers to provide appropriate instructions and curriculum.
According to UNICEF, the percentage of schoolchildren that are trapped in poverty in Liberia has grown progressively over the past decade. For example, the World Bank states that a mere 12% of Liberians celebrated the country’s turnaround in good fortune after a return to democratic governance in 2006; while, 36% wobbled in hopelessness, misery and limbo; with the lion-share of the population, 52% being confined to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder without opportunities to improve livelihood or enhance chances for upward social mobility. In fact, school dropout rates between 14 to 24 year olds from poor families are seven times more likely than those from families with incomes, higher social status, employment, skill and connections. To make matters worse, these situations create persistent inequalities in society beyond school years.
Poverty amongst schoolchildren in Liberia needs to be substantially reduced or completely eliminated. Many schoolchildren continue to work the streets to earn a living as peddlers, shoeshine boys, money changers, motorbike taxi operators, cars washers or recharge phone cards sales people. Still others sell sachet water, candy, gum, newspaper, bread, and other small items along roadways; while, some simply resort to outright begging and prostitution. Liberia’s schoolchildren, who must work, needs be better trained in a variety of vocations including carpentry, painting, auto mechanics, welding, plumbing, bricklaying, roofing, gardening, crafts and computer technology. For example, 96% of junior high and high schoolchildren do not own or have access to a personal computer, laptop, notebook, smart phone or the internet. Nevertheless, Liberia has the resources and capacity to totally wipe out poverty amongst schoolchildren in a decade.
Lip service, which is the customary solution to vital socioeconomic challenges in Liberia, is precisely what this very important issue does not need. It would be naive for anyone to think that the issue of poverty and one million schoolchildren in Liberia can be shoved under a rug or be solved overnight. It can’t. This author believes that in order to better deal with poverty among Liberia’s one million schoolchildren, Liberia needs a long-term strategy and urgent support system. Calculated policies directly targeting schoolchildren needs to be developed and implemented with stringent oversight and enforcement instruments put in place as the core to making change happen. Our education policy needs to be creative, innovative and proactive in order to reach the poorest and most vulnerable schoolchildren; those from poor households living in peri-urban communities and rural areas.
This author believes that it is only through education that schoolchildren will be able to realize their dreams and full potential in order to live productive lives that allows them to contribute their quota to the development of Liberia. Education is the key to reducing poverty and providing a clear trajectory to upward social mobility with equity for every schoolchild. It will enhance their earnings potential, both in competing for jobs and earnings and as a source of growth and employment in itself. But, to address the root causes of poverty amongst a million schoolchildren in Liberia, policies need to be implemented to improve health, nutrition, sanitation, water, hygiene, infrastructure, vocation, computer literacy and recreation. Social promotion, along with buying of grades and sex for grades can no longer be options. These evils must be discouraged and not tolerated. In fact, stringent punitive measures needs to be handed out to teachers who engage in and practice such behavior in order to totally and completely clean up this respectable and noble profession.
Poverty amongst schoolchildren needs to seriously be addressed by this generation, who currently leads and governs our country. It is they who have the expertise and ability to really make significant change happen for innocent schoolchildren. Each member of this generation knows that education of schoolchildren throughout the country is definitely an investment for Liberia. It is certainly a win-win for the family, the individual child, and the community where they live. Every Liberian should have a clear interest in keeping schoolchildren in school because those who stay in school are less likely to become teen parents or become a burden and menace to society. By being in school, Liberian schoolchildren are more likely to participate in community life and comprehend the complexities of sustainable development.
While not a panacea, restructuring Liberia’s educational system to fit projected economic development trends and social expansion outlook are steps that can certainly move the needle forward. Two things need to happen, if we follow this trend of strategic targeted thinking. First, massive investment needs to be made in preschool education across the board. Secondly, the government needs to request and insist that all multi-national corporations in Liberia invest in specific areas of study for students in high school, which would benefit the manpower development needs of the company in say 10 years. This is a sort of apprenticeship program where specific vocations and requirements are met to both uplift the student and guarantee the company talented professions to restructure employment and workforce development. Third, enthusiasm and respectability needs to be put back into Liberia’s educational system. This can only be accomplished with regular teacher training programs for career development to build appropriate skill, guide vocational education, and lengthen the school day. Additionally, targeting parents of schoolchildren who are at risk, with better housing, business development and skill training, will send a powerful message to schoolchildren and their parents. Our Government must once again become a source of leadership and innovation regarding issues of economic prosperity, employment and upward social mobility, which can only be derived from a sound productive education.
Francis W. Nyepon: Author, Policy Analyst, Environmentalist & Entrepreneur