Macedonia: PC Politics

pc politicsSKOPJE, Macedonia | Koco Racin is an elementary school in the small village of Petrovec, about 15 kilometers from the capital.

Hastily erected after a catastrophic earthquake hit Skopje and the surrounding region in 1963, the school building was meant to be a temporary structure. But Koco Racin has never been renovated; the roughly 1,000 students who attend the school‘s primary grades are taking lessons in the same structure that their parents and even grandparents did.

And now, they are learning under worse conditions than ever.

The school‘s toilets, sewerage lines, and electrical installation are more than 40 years old. The main entrance – an iron door – has been demolished, the gymnasium is out of service, and the playground stands largely useless, overgrown with tall grass and bushes in the summer months. Local residents say parents sometimes have to dig into their own pockets when parts of the school need emergency reconstruction. For the students of Koco Racin, modern educational technology amounts to not much more than a chalkboard.

Koco Racin is not alone; throughout rural Macedonia, many public schools are struggling to get by. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development , 14 percent of Macedonia‘s state budget of approximately 1.8 billion euros goes toward education. A former Ministry of Education and Science official, Fatmir Avmedovski, said costs for reconstruction of just one school can amount to about 3 million euros. Consequently, many schools are subsisting on slim financial resources that often prevent funding for direly needed facilities improvements.

Enter the Computer Age

So when the government recently launched a program to provide every student in the country with a personal computer, many Macedonian communities accustomed to rundown schools and only rare measures taken to fix them met the ambitious technology project with skepticism.

In 2006, the Macedonian government announced “Computer for every pupil,” a program through which it will purchase 150,000 PCs and distribute them to 1,000 elementary and 85 high schools throughout the country. It is a successor to other efforts, including those of USAID, to expand computer use among youth, as well as a component of the current government‘s push for national IT development.

Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has said the government will start with high schools and work its way down in stages, installing all of the PCs by the end of 2009. Suleiman Rushiti, the minister of education and science, said in June that the first computers will be installed by the end of September.

Some people, however, are far from optimistic about the pending project. In towns and villages with schools that lack electricity and other basic commodities, residents are wondering how the PCS, if they are installed, will even be able to function.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a 37-year-old citizen of Petrovec said he sees the project as a political ploy, meant to make the government look innovative in the eyes of the public. A parent of two children at Koco Racin and himself a graduate of the school about 20 years ago, he said the aging building’s poor electrical wiring, along with its lack of toilets and clean drinking water, show that the government is unlikely to sustain the PC project.

“I don’t believe that the project will be successful,” the man said. “The children don’t even have elementary conditions during the period in which they are at school.”

The man, who gives bottles of clean water to his children before they go to school each day, said he and other citizens have told local authorities and the education ministry about Koco Racin’s problems but have seen no changes made. “Empty promises are all we get,” he said.

Jagoda Koloska, a former principal of Zivko Brajkovski, a school in the Butel municipality, about 3 kilometers from Skopje‘s center, said she agrees with the concept of the PC project. But like citizens in Petrovec, Koloska added that the new program seems unlikely to be successful, especially if long-standing problems are not addressed.

“We’ve asked the local authorities to help us financially for the repair of the electric wiring, but we always get the same answer: ‘There is no money; find the solution by yourselves,’” Koloska said. “So we are often forced to seek help directly from the pupils’ parents. If the government really wants to go on with this project, then first of all they must invest in renewing the school’s infrastructure.”

Tech Disconnect

The Ministry of Education and Science has said the PCs will be installed only after schools undergo revitalization. But according to ministry sources, field analysis of schools in need of reconstruction or renovation has shown that the PC project may be harder to implement than many public officials are letting on.

Zivko Jankulovski, deputy prime minister and vice president in charge of agriculture and education, said the conditions for installing PCs for every Macedonian student currently do not exist.

“We are facing problems. In most schools the electricity wiring is in awful condition. So we have to arrange new, stable electric wiring in certain schools if we want to go on with this project,“ Jankulovski said in a June press conference.

The need to improve wiring, he added, is why only 10 percent of schools will receive PCs at the start of the project‘s installation phase. The list of those schools will be released once the contract for the computers has been signed.

The question on many citizens’ minds is what money is available to fix the wiring of the numerous schools. Gruevski has said the PC project will progress “in accordance with budget capabilities,” but some people are doubting that those capabilities will prove sufficient, especially with other educational projects in the pipeline.

According to reports from Macedonia Radio Television (MRT), the government has announced plans to build at least 100 new schools. It will fund 5 to 10 percent of the costs of this construction, and the rest of the money will come from the private sector. Other schools have also been listed as priorities for revitalization projects. Sources said that to augment the funds available for such projects, the government is seeking foreign donations — a practice it has engaged in for many years.

Where the extra money for improvements needed to implement the PC project will come from is unclear, and government officials are not offering specifics. They have said only that the improvements will be financed from the central budget. Rushiti, along with the official spokesperson of the Ministry of Education and Science and other government officials, have not been willing to speak openly about details regarding to the payments for reconstruction.

For many schools, poor infrastructure, questions about funding, and a lack of confidence among citizens may not be the only problems standing in the way of the PC project’s successful implementation; security is also an issue.

A school in the village of Nikustak, about 20 kilometers outside of Skopje, has a single room heated by an oven, several broken windows, and neither electricity nor running water. The floor, covered in holes, resembles Swiss cheese. The school‘s equipment can be described as minimal at best. Burglars have walked off with equipment. Similarly, Zivko Brajkovski received 12 donated computers a few months ago — but all of them were stolen.

MRT has reported that the new PCs will be “robbery protected.“ The government, however, has been slow to provide details about security measures.

Teaching the Teachers

Koloska noted that another major obstacle she sees looming in the PC program‘s path is teacher competency; she worries that school personnel will not have the time or money to learn how to use the computers.

According to MRT, teachers will receive necessary training. Government officials have noted that such training will not be a problem because some computer education is taking place already.

This year, the government launched a free computer training program, entitled called “Macedonia Land of IT Experts.” According to the Macedonian newspaper Utrinski visnek, as of May more than 22,000 people had signed up for the program, which will familiarize participants with operating software and the Internet. Training will be conducted in 38 areas of the country.

The training is already encountering some criticisms. The Commerce Chamber for Information and Communication Technology (called MASIT), an association of Macedonian IT organizations, has asked companies not to recognize the certificates of completion that will be distributed after the training courses. MASIT claims that the training program is not designed to offer sufficient time for quality IT instruction.

Ivica Bocevski, a spokesperson for the government, responded to the complaint in a press conference by noting that all knowledge is good for the labor market, and in the end, also good for the IT companies.

But MASIT‘s qualms with the government don‘t end with training; it is also concerned with the overall “Computer for every pupil“ project. The contract for the bulk of the PCs is expected to be awarded to a foreign company rather than a domestic one, which MASIT believes is unfair to the Macedonian market. So in early July, the association called on the government to cancel the public call for contract proposals. The government, however, has not responded to MASIT’s complaint.




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