15 November 2012

Ghana: Basic Education Is a 'Public Need' and a 'Public Good' and Should Be Free


It is barely a few weeks to the crucial general elections, which will give every voter the right to choose between the free compulsory Senior High School (SHS) policy and the other policy. I don't' quite remember what they say it is. "Wait till 2032 for free SHS"

I am glad that this is perhaps, the very first time since the inception of the 1992 Constitution that an election is being defined by a public need and public policy. Voters are being offered the platform to choose between those who say we can have free Senior High School with a carefully guided public policy on resource allocation, and those who think we should wait until 20 years.

Before I continue, let me say something about development. What is development? There are three different senses of development. The first is development as a vision. This measures the state of being of a desirable society. The second is development seen as a historical process of social change in which societies are transformed over long periods and lastly, development is deemed as consisting of deliberate effort aimed at improvement on part of various agencies, including the state (Allen and Thomas, 2000). Note that the state is still the most dominant agent of development not only in poor countries, but in the most developed countries.

Poverty and development

It is the last vision of development "consisting of deliberate efforts on the part of development agencies", which is central to my argument. Also central to debate on development is the issue of poverty. In fact most development agencies agree that of the problems to be solved, poverty is number one. The World Bank has stated that reducing poverty is the fundamental goal of development. And there couldn't be any better way of reducing poverty than by giving opportunities to the poorest and neediest children to have access to education, which has been proven in development practice as the best 'equalizing factor.' In other words, where poor children had the opportunity to attain some level of education, even to the secondary level, it enhanced their chances of living quality and productive lives. I am a true reflection of education as an equalizing factor; and many northern intellectuals, politicians, business men and women are ample demonstration of the positive correlation free basic education can have on poverty. I was born at Damongo in the West Gonja, grew up at Buipe, in Central Gonja and Sawla and Tuna, in Sawla-Tuna- Kalba districts. You can see that I am an 'all round 'northerner' and a hundred percent Gonja (both mother and father being Gonjas). I was born into stark poverty; it took only the grace of God for me to survive early childhood, let alone, going to school. But for the free basic education policy introduced by the Dr. Kwame Nkrumah to bridge the development and human resource gap between the north and the south, I, and thousands of my age group and subsequent generations might not have gone to school at all.

By the time I gained admission to Damongo secondary school in the early 1980s, my late father, Mr. Safo Sadari was already on pension. But my father didn't have to worry about five of his children who were in secondary school at the time, because of the free education policy. I remember my father telling me on his sick bed that education was the only property he was leaving behind for me and encouraged me to do everything to go to school to every possible limit; emphasising that once education was free in the north; all I needed was a little perseverance, which I did. Today, I hold a Master of Arts degree in International Journalism, and currently pursuing a second Master of Science degree in Development Management. I even attempted a PhD in 2010-2011; after completing the foundation course, I withdrew because of funding difficulties.

Education as an equalizing factor

I am using my life as a testimony to demonstrate how education can be an equalizing factor. From a poor background, I now own a single-storey house in Accra to the glory of God. If my name rings a bell, I am the immediate past editor of Public Agenda newspaper; prior to joining Public Agenda, I worked in senior editorial positions at The Chronicle, African Observer and Accra Daily Mail newspapers. I have traveled across Europe and Africa in the course of my work as a journalist, capping it with further studies in Germany and the United Kingdom. Who would have thought that I would travel abroad for further studies, looking at where I am coming from? It was the grace of God and free education I had from the north. That is the transformation education can bring to a life. In development practice, 'development' was often thought to mean 'good change.' Over time, development has come to mean improved living standards in education, health and water sanitation for instance (Allen and Thomas, 2000). In other words development is based on the idea of creating the conditions for the realization of the potential of individuals. Let me emphasis that nothing can create the potential for individuals than education, especially free basic education. Any change that therefore does not bring about positive development and potential for development of individual is not worth it.

The state as a development agent

Even in the developed countries, the state was and is still the primary agent of development initiative. Political decisions can be taken regarding development as contained in the national and development plan. Funds can be allocated, bureaucratic roles and regulations can be laid down on how development programmes can be implemented. The successes of governments of Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and lately, China, in steering and enabling the development of free basic education and technical and vocational education have been well documented. Their advancements in basic and technical and vocational education triggered a wave of economic development in the early 1970s and 1980s, leaving eye-opening lessons for us in Ghana to learn. Ghana started the new path of World Bank/IMF development policies with South Korea for Instance; but why have they left us behind? The reason is quality and decisive leadership. In other words the best agent or trustee for basic education is the state. If a government is committed to bringing free basic education as Kwame Nkrumah did for the north, it can.

There may be strong reasons why the state could stay out of publicly providing some services, especially with the advancement of the neo-liberal agenda to squeeze the state or cut its powers; I strongly hold to the view that basic education, health, water and sanitation are the essential services that any government worth its salt cannot run away from. Since the invention of intentional development, the state has claimed to be the legitimate development agent of its people, though I admit, as do other schools of thought, that the state can no longer claim to be the sole agent of development. Let me emphasis once more that, despite the numerous claimants to trusteeship, there is no clear successor to the role of the developmental state.

The role of the state in public provisioning

Public provisioning refers to the way society organises the provision of goods and services, top on the list being education and health. The provision of these basic goods requires public expenditure mainly financed by taxation (Open University, 2000). The idea behind public provisioning is to shield the most vulnerable from the downward spiral of poverty. From the argument above, it beats my imagination why in this day and era, a government that imposes huge taxes on its people is telling the electorate to wait 20 more years for to implement a free basic education policy enshrined in our Constitution. Permit me to point out that market-led, private-interest policies tend not to include everyone. If we want to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, basic education, targeted at the poor is the surest way out. That is why I will vote for the free SHS being pushed by Nana Akufo-Addo and the New Patriotic Party.

Public goods and public needs

According to development experts, the concept of public provisioning and public goods incorporate the principle that "no one can be excluded from their benefit. To state it clearly, education and health for instance are so basic and fundamental that everyone, irrespective of social, religious, economic and political backgrounds need to have access to them. The denial of these public goods to me is a breach of the social contract the state (government) has signed with the people. So any government that tells its people for to wait for another 20 years to make basic education free does not deserve my vote. There are two ways of viewing public goods- (a) as an economic construct (b) as a social construct. For the sake of this article, I will dwell on the latter. In development context, public goods as a social construct involve political processes that evolve around the definition of public need in response to poverty, deprivation and marginalisation. A typical example was Apartheid in South Africa, where adults and children alike were deliberately denied education. We must be careful not be practicing Apartheid by the way 'public goods' are being distributed to exclusion of the poor and vulnerable. It is the view of those in favour of public goods that, it is the state, not the private sector which can be an impartial provider of goods. I unapologetically subscribe to this view.

Public Action and policy

Renowned development economist Amartya Sen defines public action as " not only what is done for the public, but also what is done by the public for itself." It includes for example what people can do by demanding remedial action through making governments accountable. I see accountability in terms of voting for, or against governments based on public policy failure or success. Thus the clamour for Nana Akufo-Addo's free SHS policy against those who think it is not possible is a perfect example of the call to public action. In development practice, it is a known fact that public action defines public provisioning and public goods. It is public action that will determine what policies governments put in place. So, this election is about making the choice for a better public policy. A purposive public policy like free SHS is the best option for Ghana, as we seek to develop our human resources.

It has been well documented that the reduction in mortality rates in Western Europe and an increase in life expectancy was made possible with much public action and state planning and funding. The legitimate question is, whether a developing country like Ghana should wait till it has all the resources and infrastructure to undertake an equitable public programme like free Senior High School. The answer to me is no. This is because no country in human history has significantly developed without the human factor. China, Costa Rica, Sri Lanka etc made public interventions in education and health prior to attaining their current level of economic growth; especially given the fact that the cost of delivering public health and basic education is known to be cheaper in poor countries than in rich countries. The reason is that both education and health are labour intensive activities, and this makes them cheaper in poor countries because of low wages.

The Child can no longer wait

In 1998, the government of Ghana launched a supplementary policy to the Children's Act, Act 560. The supplementary policy is titled "The Child can no Longer Wait." How appropriate the title of this document is. In fact, the 'child can no longer wait for 20 years." Take for example a child who is nine years today, will be 29 years, and way above the SHS going age by 2032. Free SHS has won my vote.

**The writer is a Development Communicator, a social justice campaigner, and a former editor of Public Agenda newspaper. The views expressed in this article are entirely his and do not represent the views of any organisation.

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