A Commitment to Education

The Perspective

September 4, 2001

Editor's Note: Charles W. Brumskine, former President Pro-Tempore of the Liberian Senate was in Atlanta over the Labor Day weekend to address the annual Seminar and Banquet of the Mission for Liberia (MFL) project. MFL was established by Rev. Napoleon Rayikaye Karr and his wife, Kathy, in Little Collar, Grand Bassa County, in 1987 and has since provided free education for hundreds of Liberian children. Below is the full text of Mr. Brumskine's speech delivered on September 1, 2001:

I am once again honored to be a part of the effort of Mission For Liberia (MFL) in developing the human resources of our country by assisting in educating our children, many of whom would not have received any education over the last eleven years but for the help of MFL.

Over the last decade or so we have witnessed an explosive growth of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), like MFL, in Liberia and other least developed countries. Dr. Backer and Dr. Carroll (Constructive Engagement Has Its Limits) have said that NGOs "afford an alternative conduit of assistance and collaboration that arguably avoids the shortcomings of generalized investment and bilateral aid." Irrespective of sanctions, withholding or withdrawing of investments to avoid the appearance of support for an unjust regime or constructive engagement, an NGO ensures the direct transfer of its programs to the intended beneficiaries - the people.

It is said that, "the optimism of the proponents of NGOs derives from a general sense of NGOs as 'doing good,' unencumbered and untainted by the politics of government or the greed of the market NGOs are idealized as organizations through which people help others for reasons other than profit or politics." (Backer and Carroll). And in addition to your altruistic satisfaction, all contributions to MFL are tax deductible since it is a 501(3)(c) entity.

Today, MFL and like organizations are blessings to Liberians not only in light of the Taylor Government, but also because it gives everyone, individually and collectively, an opportunity to assist our people - giving back just a little of the 'so much' that many of us received from the sweat of the brows of those who still linger in a state of poverty and destitute. For those of us who would like to be considered as apolitical, we may use an NGO, like MFL, to support the people of Liberia without being accused of being anti-Taylor, and contribute to our country without being perceived as a coconspirator in the demise of our nation.

MFL supports education in Liberia, something that is dear to my heart and, which must form a principal cornerstone of the new Liberia. The experts have advised that investment in people is becoming ever more important for African countries, especially for Liberia, for two reasons. Firstly, our future economic growth will depend more on the skills of our labor and our ability to accelerate a demographic transition, than on our natural resources, which are being depleted and which are also subject to long-run price declines. Economic growth in today's information-based economy depends on a flexible, educated, and healthy workforce to take advantage of the economic openness that globalization has created.

Secondly, investing in our people promotes their individual development and gives them the ability to escape poverty. It has been reported that no country has enjoyed sustained economic progress without a literacy rate of over fifty percent. Regrettably, our literacy rate is estimated to be about twenty-five percent - it has dropped from about thirty percent in 1989. Therefore, Liberia must educate its people.

Liberia will have to pursue policies and measures towards attaining, as a minimum, the following goals and targets as proposed by the Third United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries:

1. Ensuring that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, have access to free and compulsory primary education of good quality;

2. Achieving a 50% improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all adults;

3. Eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education and achieving gender equality in education by 2015.

However, there must be a political commitment to education, as has never before been experienced in our country. Although Liberia has a compulsory education law requiring every parent, guardian or other person having control of a child, between the ages of six and sixteen years, to have such child attend a recognized school, the law has never been enforced. This provision of our law must not only be enforced, but also amplified so that the minimum age is reduced to three years and the maximum age increased to eighteen years. It is about time that our actions compliment our education laws and policies.

There will have to be an elimination of the barriers to our children achieving quality education, whether financial, cultural, or otherwise. Education, along with health care, must claim the lion share of our national budget. If we are to make the desired progress, primary as well as secondary public education must be free and accessible to Liberian children. This would require sustained budgetary commitment in excess of any prior commitment to education, both in terms of a percentage of the budget, as well as an absolute amount in the long run.

The salaries of teachers would have to be increased to provide a living wage, and additional fringe benefits would be provided for teachers who are assigned to schools away from the urban sectors. Of course, competency tests would have to be administered to ensure that teachers are part of the solution, and not the problem of our education system. A comprehensive review of our education system would have to be undertaken with a view to curriculum reform, enhancing the content and quality of education in Liberia. In addition to math, English, and the natural sciences, emphasis must be placed on making our students computer-literate so that our education system may be extended to the use of the Internet, and not confined to the classroom.

A reformed Liberian government will be in the position to avail itself of the resources of the international community to enhance its investment in education. A reformed government would also be better able to work along with religious institutions that have historically been involved in the education of our people, for which Liberia remains eternally grateful. But the Liberian government will have to renew its partnership with religious and other NGOs, and the private sector as a whole, in an integrated system that links education, training, and employment - a partnership that cannot, and will not, be realized in the lawless environment that the Taylor government insists on fermenting.

When the Government of Liberia arbitrarily and summarily, without due process of law, deprives the Catholic Church of the right to short wave broadcasting - restricting short-wave broadcast to only radio stations that are either owned or absolutely controlled by him - Mr. Taylor should certainly understand that he only confirms to the Liberian people and the international community that his government does not believe in the rule of law, and that he will go to any length to keep our people from being educated as to their rights. However, Mr. Taylor is obviously oblivious to the fact that the actions of his government continue to stigmatize our country and adversely impact our people.

The government's education policies will have to strike a new balance - providing the needed incentives for church and private schools to expand and increase in number, while non-governmental institutions compliment the services provided by the government in fulfilling its education obligation to our children. When such a government is in place, government's subsidies, grants, and scholarships to non-governmental institutions are likely to be supplemented by endowment from individuals who would have caught onto the new vision for a better Liberia.

In addition to a massive financial investment in education, a new national leadership will have to also invest its time and effort in ensuring that children born to non-literate parents are exposed to formal education as early as children born to educated parents. This cannot be accomplished by legislation alone, it will take dialogue, confidence building, and ultimately, trust in the integrity of the national leadership to persuade our people that it is not only in the child's best interest, but also in their own long-term interest to educate their children. Education is a fundamental right of each and every child, and denying our children of the right to learn is unacceptable.

Liberia will also have to invest in non-formal education in order to promote adult literacy. Our ultimate goal must be to ensure that the vast majority of our people become at least functionally literate, but more importantly, our people must be educated as to their rights. The people must know, for example, that when Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf or any other Liberian, for that matter, says that the President "is not fool to harm [her]," that is not a violation of any law and it's her right to express her feeling as to her President. We must learn that any Liberian, whether the President or Joe Blow - private citizen, who is aggrieved by the action of another, is to seek recourse before the courts of law and not harm the alleged offender, simply because he has the power, although not the right.

Instead of sending our children in the streets to "demonstrate" against opposition politicians, which usually translates into stealing from, destroying the property of, injuring, or evening killing a perceived enemy of the Taylor government, a good government would be more concern with educating our children. Our children must be taught that not only opposition politicians, but also every Liberian has the right and should be afforded the opportunity to freely express their opinions as to their leaders, without the fear of being persecuted.

While we educate our children, it is also important that we re-educate the adults, especially politicians and potential politicians, so that in the new Liberia the people will know their rights and the leaders will be prepared and would have the capacity to comply with the laws of Liberia. For example, I read a news story a month or so ago reporting that President Taylor was awarding government revenue from logging activities to a few counties in Liberia for "development purposes." From where, I asked, did the President of Liberia get the authority to disburse government revenue like some presidential perks? Certainly not from the Constitution of Liberia, because our constitution provides that no public money shall be expended except upon appropriation by the Legislature.

The President should know, or at least be advised, that his action violates the Constitution of Liberia, and the people should be informed of the fact that the funds that Mr. Taylor is promising to dole out, if the funds ever reach the counties, is no favor to them. The money is their tax dollars that they are entitled to. But the money should have been appropriated by the Legislature for their benefit and not dispensed as the benevolence of a demigod. The President's Constitutional duties not only require him to allow the Legislature to appropriate funds before they are expended, but also dictates that he provides a full and detail accounting to the people for the rest of the logging revenue, which by some accounts exceeds one hundred million dollars.

My friends, while education cannot guarantee integrity in government, nor does it ensure good governance, you may take comfort in the fact that your contribution to good and quality education in Liberia will help our people realize their full potential and afford our children the opportunity to a better future. You should also be reminded that unless you follow the example of Napoleon and Kathy Karr of helping educate our children back home, your education would not have mattered, because as the adage goes: "nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care."


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