Liberia: Dramatic Turnaround

dramatic turnaroundMONROVIA, Liberia – On any weekday morning, the streets of the capital are filled with students dressed in their colorful school uniforms, having risen early to avoid competing with other pedestrians in the morning rush.

This picture contrasts sharply with the days of the civil wars that tore the country apart until October 2003.  It’s also an improvement on the situation in Liberia just one year ago.  For the first time since the conflicts began twenty years ago, enrollment figures are up – at an all-time high from kindergarten through to the university level.

While the increase can be attributed to the end of hostilities, government policy has also played a major role. And, while parents still face numerous hurdles in their quest to provide their children with a meaningful education, the situation is getting better.

These improvements are all the more impressive when one acknowledges the depths to which education standards plummeted during the two civil wars of 1989 and 2003. According to the website of the Liberian Education Trust (LET), a US-based non-government organization working to restore basic education in Liberia, most schools throughout the country were destroyed during the conflicts and many teachers fled or were killed, meaning that few children of any age received an education during those years.

The net result, according to LET, was a situation in which 70 percent of the population was illiterate.

Revamped Priorities

The present government has pinned its hopes on the country’s youth by investing in education, a far cry from its predecessors’ approach over the past three decades.

Since the bloody 1980 military coup that ushered in Samuel Doe’s authoritarian rule, governments have paid little attention to education, instead focusing on militarizing the country and waging war against insurgencies in the West African sub-region.  Public education all but came to a halt: parents were required to pay for their children’s education, even at the primary level.

Much of the credit for the sea change in education can be attributed to a clear message from the top. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a highly respected economist and Africa’s first elected female head of state, has committed herself to universal education and the fight against illiteracy. At a LET fundraiser in the United States in May 2007, she told the gathering that the simple dream of most Liberians was the opportunity to enjoy all the good things that education brings.

In its first year in office, Johnson-Sirleaf’s government took a major step toward that goal, instituting a system of free primary education and low-cost secondary schooling in all public schools. As part of its Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), the government has pledged to “provide access to quality educational opportunities at all levels of the sector and to all its people, in support of the social and economic development of the nation.”

The impact of the new policy has been striking. According to Liberia’s PRS paper, enrollment in public primary schools increased by 82 percent between the academic years of 2005/06 and 2007/2008, or from 597,316 to 1,087,257. Enrollment in secondary schools increased by 16 percent over the same period, from 132,224 to 153,467.

According to Elijah G. Freeman, the director of personnel at the Monrovia Consolidated School System (MCSS), this dramatic increase took some time to accelerate: “Students generally did not take advantage of the policy in its inception because the government failed to properly communicate its benefits to the public.” But he said that the MCSS, which is the administrative body responsible for all public schools in the country’s capital, has recorded positive growth in the student body ever since free education was instituted.

More students in the classroom is a good thing, but high enrollment has aggravated the shortage of qualified teachers, especially in the more remote parts of the country. The situation after the last civil war was dire: many educators were killed in the conflict or fled abroad. In response, the government has adopted a plan centered on extended field-based, in-service training. Under this scheme, teachers are sent to teacher-training institutes around the country for regular job training, but still receive their regular salaries. President Johnson-Sirleaf recently presided over a ceremony officially opening the rebuilt Zorzor Rural Teachers Training Institute (ZRTTI). Located in the northwestern town of Zorzor on the Guinean boarder, the ZRTTI had been destroyed during the civil war.

A Debated Move

This strategy should eventually lead to a better-qualified teacher corps.  In the meantime, the government has taken the controversial decision to start phasing out the large number of volunteer teachers who stepped in to fill the gap, many of whom did not meet the minimum levels of education and experience needed to serve as teachers.  While the move will improve academic standards, some feel the change should be more gradual

Samuel K. Duworko, an experienced university lecturer, believes that it would be better to keep these volunteer teachers in the classroom, saying that they will not be easily replaced:  “It is better to give these people training than to just throw them out.” But Duworko does commend the progress made in other areas. “Some strides have really been made in the education sector,” he said, “especially as it relates to free and compulsory primary education, which has led to a significant jump in enrollment.”

Schools in remote areas already have a problem with keeping teachers in the classroom, though many say that the educators themselves can’t be blamed for leaving. Elaric Tokpa, a former volunteer teacher in the south-central county of Rivercess, explained that schools in that part of the country have academic sessions for only two weeks each month of the school year because teachers in the area have to walk for about four days each way to get to the provincial capital, Cestos, to receive their monthly salaries.

“Once these teachers reach Cestos, they usually have to wait a few extra days to actually receive their salary checks from the Ministry of Finance’s pay team,” said Topka, “and then they have to await the Central Bank’s team, which redeems their checks by paying them cash as there is no commercial bank operating in the area.”

Residents in the region and other places in the largely remote hinterland areas lament that their children consequently spend less time in the classroom than their counterparts in the country’s cities. But government officials say that the present pay system was instituted to streamline governmental expenditures and avert corruption in the education sector.

“Prior to the institution of the present scheme, there were a lot of ghost teachers and schools,” said one official, who asked that his name not be used. “That situation was bleeding the government of thousands of badly needed tax dollars all around the country.”

More Job Security

Freeman of the MCSS understands the plight of teachers in the rural parts of the country but pointed to progress being made in addressing rural/urban anomalies, such as the opening of new libraries and increased salaries. As part of an overall effort to keep talented workers in the state sector, the government raised the salaries of all state employees from a minimum of around $20 per month to $70.  That increase, and the government’s ability to pay its employees mostly on time, is designed to ensure that teachers in the public school system, especially in urban areas, devote most of their time to teaching and not to a range of side jobs to make ends meet.

Freeman admitted, however, that inconsistencies in the present salary structure of state employees put a damper on some of the pay rises. “The present pay system that the government has introduced makes the $70 base salary not taxable,” said Freeman. “As a result those earning a little over that $70 level usually take home less pay after they are subjected to taxes than those at the threshold.”

Access to quality schooling in Liberia is also severely limited due to insufficient facilities, many of which were damaged or completely destroyed during the war. Schools are disproportionately located out of reach of some regions of the country. As a result, the authorities intend to construct or rebuild 80 primary and eight secondary schools near remote rural communities. This initiative, which started in mid-2008, is expected to be concluded by the start of the new school year in 2011. The Liberian Agency for Community Empowerment (LACE), an NGO funded by the World Bank and the Liberian government, has also built over 30 primary schools throughout the country through the end of 2008.

Also in line for an overhaul by 2011 are the country’s school curricula, which are outdated and weak. The Education Ministry is developing new primary, secondary, and tertiary school curricula, which all schools in the country are expected to adopt.

Addressing the Gender Disparity

Since taking office in January 2006, the government has placed a priority on providing more education opportunities for female students, who have had to do battle with the widely held stereotype that girls are mainly qualified for performing household chores. That tradition has led to low enrollment and school completion rates among girls, especially in secondary school. At present, the ratio of girls to boys in primary school is about 0.96, but in secondary schools the figure drops to 0.78, according to the country’s Poverty Reduction Strategy paper. In order to address the gender discrepancy, LET aims to provide girls and young women with scholarships to attend school for free, while male students above the primary school level still have to pay.

The brightly dressed students in the streets of Monrovia trying to beat the morning rush are true cause for optimism, and ambitious government programs and donor support has already led to real change. Still, the image in the capital is deceptive, and one has to wonder whether those students’ counterparts in the remote parts of the country are similarly hurrying off to school in the morning or whether their teachers are on their back from a payday many miles away – or even whether they have qualified teachers and sufficient classrooms to fit them all in.


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