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Liberia: build roads, but build education too

“Liberians spoke of building a country where a child can live in safety, go to a school with qualified teachers, get clean water and medicine, and study by electric light.”

President Johnson Sirleaf states in a video for a consultation on education in emergencies “…I know that without the education of my people, the recovery and development process will be very slow and painful. It is for this reason that we are paying particular attention to the education of our women.”  She also states that after 13 years of brutal conflict, which only ended in 2003, the education infrastructure was not spared.

In a nationwide consultation after the war, people demanded that education, health and roads be placed at the top of the government’s poverty reduction agenda.

This was the background to Lift Liberia, Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, which sets out an ambitious plan to lead the way to full recovery from devastating years of conflict, provide all basic services to its population and become a middle-income country by 2030.

While in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, I covered a distance of approximately 1.5km a day. Roads were being built almost everywhere I went, in stark contrast with urban areas where no roads exist just yet in other parts of the capital. So, it is clear that at least in Monrovia, one part of the reduction strategy is beginning to be delivered.

But what about education?

It’s not strikingly unusual for education practitioners in Liberia to find 10-year-olds, even 14-year-olds, trying to enter their first year of primary school. The obstacle is the entry examination (a ‘must’ in order to enter primary education). This means that a child of school-going age can re-sit an examination for which he or she has never been prepared. This means there are young adults still trying to enter year one. A colleague told me she had even come across a 30-year-old who was going through primary school.

The Education Act, adopted in 2001, before the end of the civil war, sets out a clear wish to deliver education to all Liberians from early education to tertiary education. Section 1.2.b, entitled Liberian Education Philosophy, sets out a clear commitment for education to “emancipate and empower every Liberian man, woman and child.” Together with the Education Sector Plan, it sets out numerous ways to ensure all children receive a quality education.

There are a few striking ones that need particular effort now:

  • Allocating the right budget only 12% of the national budget is destined for education in 2011; far from the 20% asked by LETCOM, the national Education for All (EFA) coalition. This shows there is much to be done in Liberia to address a huge financing gap that does not cover the actual scale of need. The Act places an emphasis on an equal financing role, not only of external donors (including the Fast Track Initiative, UNICEF and partners) but of contributions generated within Liberia. Liberian businesses and citizens also have a part to play in building Liberia, according to the Act, and are responsible for putting back a percentage of their revenues into education. Yet the delivery mechanism, hosted by the Ministry of Finance, is not yet in place to start this process and monitor contributions.
  • Building the teaching force – a sample school in Liberia has one teacher on the government’s payroll. Approximately 12 other teachers are volunteers; members of the community that give a number of hours. In a number of areas, teachers can only receive their salary in person, by reaching Monrovia, meaning children are in class without a teacher. Volunteer teachers sometimes don’t show up either, given other commitments. Many children may well be enrolled in school and marked as attending class, but learning nothing in these cases.
  • If the Education Act and the Poverty Reduction strategy stress the importance of education in building the nation, then support for those delivering it is urgent. Taking a closer look at the conditions of teachers, building the teaching force by putting qualified volunteer teachers on payrolls, and providing support to teachers through Teacher Training Institutes is essential in pursuing the goal to building up Liberia’s education system.

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