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Africa Confidential, May 2008

Liberia's big challenge
Abraham Conneh of Oxfam, Liberia, talks to Africa Confidential about education in post-conflict Liberia

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When Liberia's civil war finally ended in 2003, there were no more than 1,000 schools in operation: over 50% of the country's schools had been destroyed. The post-war population was 2.5 million, but that has now increased to 3.5 mn. following the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees, who had been displaced to neighbouring countries. About 1.75 mn. of the population is under 15 years-old with 5%-6% suffering from HIV/AIDS. The challenges facing post-conflict Liberia are immense: with only 2,000 teachers, 62% of whom have no formal training, how do the politicians immediately meet the educational needs of the country's children without letting down a generation?

Oxfam's Education Officer Abraham Conneh, remains upbeat about Liberia's prospects for education. From Yekepa, Nimba County, formerly an iron ore mining area, he has a Masters in Education and is a poet. '250 teachers are being trained by Oxfam in partnership with the Ministry of Education...although primary education is free, children have to pay for junior high and senior high, and they have to have exercise books and uniforms.' He describes how in Westpoint, a slum in Monrovia, Oxfam ran a livelihood project so that local women were able to earn money for making uniforms for schoolchildren, which usually cost about $10.00. When asked about the obstacles to female education, Conneh says they include teenage pregnancy, early marriage, poverty, negative peer pressure, male preference in the family and distance to school. However, in spite of these barriers, Conneh says, the gender gap is gradually closing: in 2007-08, 664,000 girls compared to 729, 000 boys were in education.

In her acceptance speech of the 2006 Africa Prize for Leadership from The Hunger Project, Africa's first female President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, spoke of the progress her government has made so far in female education: 'We also have launched a national girls’ education program that is providing scholarships to girls, recruiting and training more female teachers, and providing literacy training for our market women. On the international scene, we have called for a United Nations agency which has a proper mandate and adequate resources to respond specifically to the needs of women.'

Big task, small budget
A former teacher, Education Minister Joseph Korto of the Liberia Equal Rights Party works closely with non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam. His first task in 2006 was to close down fee-paying quack schools, which employed untrained teachers, and to standardise education. By 2005-06, 3,779 primary schools were already functioning and that figure has now risen to 4,145. Secondary schools now number 1,252, up from 876 in 2005-06. However, the national budget for education in 2007-08 was just US$10 mn. and international funding, which is mainly channelled through NGOs, is still woefully inadequate to the enormity of the task. Despite that, 1.39 mn. people (about 48%), ranging in age from 11 to 25, are now getting some kind of basic education, but the drop out rate is high and less than half go on to secondary education.

The student-teacher ratio is officially 1:40 but in some cases more like a staggering 1:100, so there is an urgent need to train more teachers. In collaboration with the Monrovia Consolidated School System, Oxfam trains teachers to cope with such large numbers by instructing the quickest students first so that they can then help teach the others. They also use participatory and innovative approaches to ensure teachers provide the quality of education needed among students. National training for teachers is provided by the Zorzor Rural Teacher Training Institute in Fissubu, Lofa County, the Kakata Institute in Margibi County and Webbo Institute in River Gee County. Apart from that, USAID is running a 3-year teacher training initiative with the University of Liberia to help improve national education and teacher training at a cost of $14,999,758.

HIV/AIDS awareness is growing in Liberia but the behavioural changes necessary to stem the rate of infection, officially running at 6%, are not growing alongside it. The long-term presence of UN peacekeepers and aid workers has also been a factor in the increase of HIV among the general population. A 1999 survey (http://mirror.undp.org/liberia/aidshiv.PDF) found that the maximum impact of HIV/AIDS was among soldiers, then marketeers, and then students. The 2002 scandal around UNHCR, when aid workers were accused of demanding sex in return for food, was not unique. Anti-retroviral medicines are not widely available and there are an estimated 36,000 orphans as a result of AIDS. Orphans nationally number around 240,000.

The UN's demobilisation, disarmament, reintegration and resettlement programmes 'didn't  succeed too well', according to Abraham Conneh, and many of the 'children associated with fighting forces' (CAFF) have resorted to crime in the streets of Monrovia and elsewhere. The CAFF are of course not young children; those in education are sometimes 25 years-old and 'share a bench' with eleven-year-olds.

Foreign companies working in Liberia are not really contributing towards education there. Even Firestone, which has operated in Liberia since 1926, supplies electricity from its hydro plant to Monrovia's airport only because it requires a functioning airport for its activities. The company's reputation in Liberia is as a bad employer, which does not even equip its workers with protective clothing or pay them properly. It has also been accused of using forced and child labour. In November 2005, a case was brought against the company by the International Labor Rights Fund in an Indianapolis court in the USA. It is yet to be heard. But Liberians rejoice that the President has forced Firestone to pay 65 years of back tax to the government.

Tens of thousands of Liberians remain abroad, in West Africa, Europe and the USA. After 14 years of conflict, the country cannot immediately absorb and sustain all those who would like to return. President Johson-Sirleaf is seen as doing a good job but Liberia cannot do it alone. As well as basic education, electricity, running water, hospitals are all urgently needed, not just in the rural areas but even in the capital. The international community must also do its part to sustain Liberia's reconstruction.          

Yawerlee Elementary School Liberia



Oxfam funds 12 schools in Liberia, 7 in the rural areas. For further information, please visit Oxfam