United States policies and educational programming in postwar Liberia

By: Tarnue Johnson (Ph.D.)

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

September 22, 2003


Liberia is a country in dire need of international assistance as the result of years of political chaos and economic mismanagement. The country lies at an important historical crossroads as the many challenges facing her are enormous to say the least. Indeed, the gravity of the humanitarian challenges facing this oldest of African countries, in the wake of recent fighting is simply awesome in its depths and unmitigated proportions. Entire towns and cities have been laid to waste and the country has been transformed into a huge wasteland. There is widespread uncertainty among the general populace at the dawn of the inauguration of a post Taylor interim administration.

The basic infrastructure for long-term recovery and institutional landscapes are bleak in the face of a total breakdown of order and indigenous support frameworks and systems. But when the dust settles and calm is returned to the nation, the nature of the educational and human resource development policies will to a large extent determine the success or failure of comprehensive disarmament and demobilization--the most important challenge in this initial phase of the postwar period. Thus, the success or failure of comprehensive disarmament and reintegration of former combatants will determine the success or failure of the transition process that may soon be underway within a month.

Consequently, it is not far fetch to assume that formal education and short term training programs will be required to underpin disarmament, counseling and the provision of adequate short-term opportunities to replace the temptations for continuous warfare. At the critical intersection of educational policy and political dispositions, disarmament and demobilization must be viewed as a process rather then a series of staged events (see Woods and Burrows, 2003). Thus, the disarmament of school age boys and girls and young adults and their eventual re-integration into society will hinge upon the availability of schools, training facilities and the provision of appropriate curriculum resources to support learning. The education sector in Liberia should be reactivated to meet this vital and basic need of a society, which must recover from long years of neglect. The achievement of this enterprise would call for massive United States and multilateral support and fundamental reforms at the basic level.

For example, classroom methods should be reappraised to foster a permeable, co-constructionist and intra-cultural curriculum perspective that fits our aspirations in a postwar period and for the 21st century. This new approach and curriculum framework would take due account of learning and cognitive styles and differentiations in the milieu of cultural socialization (see Johnson, 2001). In Liberia in all these years before and after my days as a school boy in Firestone, the gains brought about elsewhere by applying the lessons of the modern cognitive revolution and experientialism have never really filtered through to positively affect classroom learning and instructional practices. Thus to improve the quality of instruction and learning in Liberia, there must be a paradigm shift within the context of a new curriculum theory and institutional processes. There should also be emphasis on the proper training of teachers, counselors and social workers to improve efficiency and optimization of output. Similarly, funding priorities and principles of strategic planning would have to be reassessed to augment a new policy orientation of change and forward movement. An adjunct to these foundational reforms would be an alignment in current United States assistance with indigenous strategic goals and principles.

Order of priorities to foster peace and educational development

There are many priorities and challenges that lie ahead as the country slowly moves into a postwar period. The first order of priorities for the new interim administration in the transition process, however, would be to begin a credible process of disarmament and eventual dismantling of all armed groups in the country. This step would contribute tremendously to reinforce the impulses and current moves toward sustainable peace. It would also without much doubt help to aid the expansion of a refocused and restructured education sector, as it includes former combatants; a great number of whom have repeatedly expressed their desire to go back to school or join some training program. The system must be reactivated to include them [after proper screening] in a variety of learning and counseling formats to ensure complete rehabilitation and readiness for productive life in the mainstream of society (see the empirical observations of Ugwuegbu and Temowo, 1995). In fact we may have already seen minor steps through deliberate acts of courage to began this process in earnest as we have heard reports of some former combatants voluntarily surrendering their weapons to ECOMIL peacekeepers.

However, revitalizing the education sector in Liberia will in no small measure depend on American support and policies toward educational development in Liberia. The United States and Liberia are bound together by historical ties and a strategic partnership in the past, which spanned many years. Most Liberians would agree that the United States must take the lead in galvanizing support for funding and promoting quantitative and qualitative growth of the education sector. Structural and contextual changes in curricular formats and processes, the strengthening of accountability systems in schools and financial support for capital constructions of new schools and colleges around the country, would be required to meet the challenges of ensuring competent civil governance and sustainable peace in the future.

These are the historical imperatives of a new era that must be met through productive partnerships with the United States and other important donors in the international community. Hence, there should be United States and international support earmarked for development in various time frames including short, medium and long terms. But these arrangements would have to take place against the background of certain foundational perspectives and assumptions regarding the not so categorical distinctions between what is and what ought to be in anticipating a new orientation in educational policy and practice that sustain peace and distributive justice.

The process of revamping national policies and the educational mission in Liberia must be predicated upon solid foundations and a host of considered theoretical perspectives. In the past this was never the case and thus planning and strategic vision gave way to guess work and an essentially haphazard approach. These observations are not new, they were made in the past in numerous World Bank education sector reports in the late 1970s by various panel of experts who worked in Liberia. In departing from a failed past, one should seek to acknowledge that there are several important foundational principles, which must guide the transition toward stability and change in the education and social sector. I would wish to outline some of these key foundational perspectives and underlying operational assumptions. It is suggested that these assumptions and operational premises should undergird new perspectives in charting a responsible course toward democratic self-governance and in the formulation of public policy.

Foundational perspectives and working assumptions

An integral component of these perspectives and working assumptions is the premise that sound educational foundations are an integral part of nation building, especially in a country that would have to start from building new foundations due to widespread destruction. Another premise is the acknowledgement that education must serve both as institutional and psychological frameworks for empowering citizens to become autonomous and rational decision makers in pursuing alternative paths toward personal and collective transformations. One should accept the fact that this operational path is indispensable to growth in the education sector and a transformed institutional setting for civil governance, despite the current status quo of chaos and unseamless ungovernability.

A third foundational understanding places premium on a solid manpower and human resource development policy orientation as a critical link to success in building a viable and productive postwar civil and constitutional community. The last and equally important assumption is that United States and donor support for the education sector can be made more meaningful by transcending its current approach. The modus operandi for critical success must be expansive and delovelopmental in its basic orientation. Current and past approaches by the United States and UNESCO for example, have lacked a developmental and strategic perspective because they have primarily focused on short-term gains. American support for education over the years primarily in the form of USAID short-term development grants has induced indirect and haphazard assistance, thereby imposing undue limitations on desirable outcomes. What is needed in Liberia today in postwar conditions is a collaborative approach based on common understanding and adequate needs assessment, program implementation and evaluation. This collaborative approach must also be duly underpinned by the appropriate institutional and development analysis.

Hence, for there to be a radical change and an enabling of the process of reconstruction and growth, this support in whatever form must not be coincidental, but rather firmly tied and integrated into a workable and comprehensive countrywide policy framework for human resource and manpower development. This integrated approach is the critical link that has been missing in our conceptual understanding and practice of educational development in the past. But such a link must now be created in the fostering of self-determined and self-governing individuals and structures to ensure sustainable peace.

Thus, it is through the operationalization of the above foundational assumptions and other unstipulated but essential variables that would decidedly lead to recovery, as the nation is about to set on a new course of peace and sustainable development in securing a future. These working assumptions, which should serve as guideposts for future policy interventions, must be further elaborated upon against a critical understanding and backdrop of the limits of previous structures of intervention to restructure education and improve its technical efficiency by the principal donors in the international community.

Educational funding and distributive justice

Educational funding and related issues of social justice and equity are central to the formation of a new methodological perspective. This view has been amplified in the changing paradigms of educational reforms over the years. For example, in World Bank circles various levels of education have been earmarked for support and active assistance at different times congruent with the results of marginal economic returns to education analyses based on typical input-output and linear regression models. Thus during the 1980s, a wave of education sector reforms based on cost recovery in secondary education was admonished by the World Bank in various sub-Saharan African countries that had pledged to undertake structural reforms and adjustment of their economies. These reforms which continued up to present in some cases, constituted part and parcel of the package of measures and adjustment conditionality that borrowing countries had to fulfill to get loans and other financial support to finance development across the board.

There are mixed results in terms of the overall success of structural adjustment at the macroeconomic and sectoral levels in sub-Saharan Africa and in other borrowing countries. And it is also not certain if adjustment policies have had any positive effect in eliminating income disparities (see Hinchliff, 1989; Fuller, 1989; Hutchful, 1994). Reimers (1994) has employed a hypothetical counterfactual methodology, which covered 8 years of the adjustment period in a controlled group of countries. His counterfactual analysis showed that contributions of households to education declined dramatically in adjusting countries compared to non-adjusting countries.

In the mist of these structural reforms in Tanzania, for example, public spending on education fell to just over 4 percent in the early 1980s compared to the pre-adjustment period, and then dropped to below 4 percent by the early 1990s. Public spending to improve education actually declined in real terms over time in conditions of engineered fiscal retrenchment. Around 14 sub-Saharan African countries have cut per capital spending on education under adjustment programs proposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Countries such as Niger, Zimbabwe and Zambia have cut spending on education by 3 percent per annum under adjustment regimes.

What these examples show is that educational development in postwar Liberia will not be necessarily about policy choices to support a particular level of education or about merely introducing and sustaining cost recovery and user charges to supplement government support. It is clear that introducing user charges across the board as a way of raising funds to finance needed structural changes will not suffice given that gainful employment and other income generating activities have collapsed. Cost recovery as a fiscal tool to improve the quality of educational inputs would have to be extremely selective in current economic and social circumstances.

For the economic and fiscal outlook in Liberia in the short term is bleak as has been attested to in the submission of Jacques Klein to the Security Council of the United Nations. Indeed, the Liberian economy is in dire straits as the result of massive looting and destruction occasioned by recent fighting and long years of neglect. Employment generation in the private sector will not be forthcoming until the sector has regained some semblance of general health. Unemployment and underemployment in the economy hovered around 80 percent during the tenure of the previous administration.

Thus, the number of people living in poverty has progressed geometrically particularly under the criminal regime of Charles Taylor. Today more than 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Because of the lack of policy direction, discipline and fiscal prudence under Taylor, the economy had not only been stagnant, but it was bedeviled by crippling structural and institutional rigidities, such as chronic and widespread corruption and lack of policies for structural diversification. At the end of the 1990s, the Debt-Service-to-Exports ratio in Liberia was 70.8 percent. What this suggests is that the country was paying more than 70 percent of her export earnings to service debts owed to various categories of borrowers.

The current outlook may even be worse given the total breakdown in economic activity. Under current fiscal arrangements it is clear that the country would be incapable of meeting pressing economic and social challenges. Hence, structural adjustment in the social sector will be needed, but this must however be conducted on different terms that might doubtless conflict with prevailing orthodoxies and assumptions. In order to ensure distributive justice and equal treatment as a primary objective of the new educational agenda, and across-the-board-support for all levels of education, readjustment would be simply untenable if it is conducted in the spirit of the principles and neo-liberal dispositions of the Bretton Woods Institutions (World Bank and IMF).

Thus, the central challenge going forward is to adopt a strategic vision to optimize output in the short and long runs. In effect this calls for an activist and balanced developmental perspective. And this is where United States support will be needed to help design a strategic and an overarching framework for human resource and institutional development in postwar Liberia. There must be financial and material support from the United States and other donors to ensure the implementation of a comprehensive development plan for each region and segment of the population to ensure a much fairer distribution of scarce resources. This is the basis for the workable partnership I would allude to.

The current fixation on humanitarian and relief assistance, which fits the mood of the times given the immediate humanitarian crisis, may not be sufficient for sustainable long-term recovery as we gradually move into a phase of relative stability at the end of conflict. The United States support could be critical in assisting to cancel Liberia’s national debt or at the minimum helping to put a freeze on debt servicing for a specified period of time. Another area where United States support would be invaluable could be the recovering of looted assets amassed by Charles Taylor and his criminal gangs and hidden away in a web of secret Swiss Bank accounts (see Woods and Burrows, 2003).

In these desperate times in Liberia the country will require United States support and assistance more than ever before. The depths of the development crisis in Liberia as the result of long years of civil conflict and neglect will demand a new American attitude of total involvement and compassion for a country, which is in many ways a product of American history and civilization. Such total approach in order to succeed must be radically different from United States attitude to Liberia in the past. Since its origins as a supposed save haven for ex-slaves from the United States in the 19th century, successive American administrations have always shown a noncommittal attitude to matters concerning Liberia and its well-being. This attitude dates back in earnest in the 1820s and perhaps earlier when the idea of Liberia was being considered.

In 1906 the Liberian Government under President Arthur Barclay, after realizing that it was impossible to borrow money from local German merchants, negotiated for a $500,000 British loan, through Sir Harry Johnston, a British colonial agent, and his Liberian Development Company. But Sir Harry Johnston would later admit in his book “The Story of Life” that the loan was not a legitimate business transaction, but rather it was used as a trap to limit Liberia’s independence and subject it to the “colonial claws” of the British Empire. There are other examples in which previous Liberian leaders chose to enter into inequitable and dubious diplomatic and financial arrangements with European Powers and private business interests because of the absence of sustained United States support and involvement in Liberia.

But this must change not only for Liberia’s sake but also for sustaining America’s strategic interest and influence in the region. The United States should not only come when they need something from us, but they must come when we need something that would be of mutual benefit to both parties. And there is no doubt that actively supporting the growth of institutions and social forces for self-governance and self-reliance will be in the long-term geo-political and strategic interest of the United States in the sub-region.

Building upon existing foundations

The new strategic approach to educational development must be built on a logical symmetry between a host of programs and intentions. This follows that educational programming in Liberia must be built upon new foundations that would seek to harness American support for the social and nongovernmental sectors through deliberate and coordinated policy action. Today, the social and nongovernmental organizations have become enablers in civil society through their proactive engagement in the most diverse national endeavors ranging from trading, health care, human rights issues, conflict resolution, education and training. The new educational agenda must seek to empower these self-governing structures by strengthening accountability, training and professional expertise.

The relative success of the social and nongovernmental sectors has reinforced the notion that the process of ensuring a fair and equitable distribution of social and educational benefits must start with efforts to empower decision makers at the local level. This would ensure more powers to democratically elected provincial leaders and autonomy among villages, towns, counties and households to effect real time decisions that cater to their interests on the ground. In essence, the object of this new vision would be to break the bonds of the patronage system, which has done so much damage in the past. Part of this strategic vision to refocus decision-making is for the United States and donor partners to contribute to an information technology and communications fund. Liberians of reputable standing must also be strongly encouraged to contribute toward this fund.

This fund could be used to expand broadcasting and telecommunications networks throughout the country and to provide the infrastructure and platform for the creation of a 21st century distance learning and extension education program in farming communities and other relevant geographic localities. There may also be the need for the formation of an axis of symmetry between various policy actors as emphasized earlier. Creating synergy between local and external approaches to educational programming would help to reduce waste, duplication of efforts and generally assist the rational allocations of scarce resources to meet desirable political and social outcomes consistent with the aspirations of a new era.


This paper comes at a very defining moment and crucial juncture in the history of Liberia. Thus, it is suggested that the country will need a fundamental reappraisal of the educational mission to formulate policies that would be consistent with current demands. Consequently, I have sought to highlight the need to foster a new educational agenda that would be angled in a strategic vision. This vision must be predicated upon the formation of a viable partnership with the United States that would lead to the preservation of the enlightened mutual interests of both countries. This follows that the country will need financial and material resources, which would be forthcoming through the United States and the support of other principal donors such as the United Nations.

This new policy vision in Liberia must also lead to the decentralization of decision making to introduce built-in flexibility and accountability in the system, which would in turn undermine the deleterious effects of patronage as a culturally and institutionally entrenched endogenous variable. Similarly, I have also concluded that the country would need structural realignment between various policy approaches to stop wastage and duplication of efforts at all levels of the education system in Liberia. Ultimately, this is the platform that must be established for laying a solid foundation for sound governance and economic vibrancy in the postwar era.