AN estimated 339 000 pupils might drop out of school this year owing to government's failure to adequately fund the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM) initiative, meant to assist vulnerable children with their school fees.
The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare recently revealed that the programme will only be able to pay school fees for 161 102 children out of an estimated 500 000 disadvantaged children, leaving out about 339 000 children.
There are other estimates suggesting that there could be 750 000 children in primary school and 250 000 children in secondary schools needing BEAM assistance.
Assuming these to be correct, it would mean that the number of children dropping out of school could be much higher.
Government is already in serious arrears towards its obligations under BEAM with cumulative arrears for 2014, 2015 and 2016 now standing at US$72 million.
In the 2017 National Budget, the Ministry of Public Service, which administers BEAM, was only allocated US$10 million or 10 percent of its requirement of US$105 million.
"This amount will result in only 161 102 children being assisted in 2017, from an estimated need of over 500 000 children. As many as 339 000 children risk dropping out of school in 2017," said Goodluck Kwaramba, chairman of the portfolio committee.
"In addition to this constraint, children in difficult circumstances have been availed only US$200 000 compared to the ideal requirement of US$1,5 million and this will adversely affect that social programme," he added, while presenting an analysis of the 2017 National Budget vote for the Ministry.
The total vote for the of Public Service Ministry constitutes 5,6 percent of the National Budget.
The Ministry was allocated US$193,8 million lower than its bid of US$291 million.
BEAM is a government-driven initiative meant to facilitate equal access to basic education by those who cannot afford it.
Its beneficiaries include orphaned and vulnerable children, those living with disabilities or in foster care under poor parents, street children, or children with chronically ill guardians or in child-headed households.
BEAM's major objective is to reduce the number of children dropping out of school and reach out to children who have never been to school due to economic hardships.
The initiative was originally funded entirely by government.
In 2009 foreign donors such as the Department of International Development (DFID) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) only stepped in after government became overwhelmed.
BEAM's funding woes worsened after DFID of the United Kingdom and USAID pulled the plug, which meant that government had to dig even deeper into its coffers so that no child drops out of school.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) told the Financial Gazette this week that the donors, which it used to manage until 2011, had decided on an alternative funding mechanism and were no longer channelling funds through BEAM.
"UNICEF's role as fund manager therefore came to an end when the donors decided to channel their BEAM contributions through a different funding mechanism," said UNICEF in an email response.
Justice for Children director, Caleb Mutandwa, said it is government's constitutional obligation to ensure that every citizen and permanent resident of the country enjoyed their right to basic State-funded education.
"It is not the obligation of donors. The donors or international community should only come in to support the government. It was therefore a dereliction of duty in the first place for government to rely solely on donors to fund BEAM," said Mutandwa, adding that government seemed to be getting its priorities wrong by not properly funding education as it used to do during the first decade of the country's independence.
"At independence, our government was able to commit huge funding to education. What has changed now? Government needs to prioritise and manage available resources efficiently for it to meet its basic obligations to children. It must also co-operate with the international community where it genuinely needs assistance, including financial assistance, for it to meet its domestic obligations to children," he said.
Former education minister, David Coltart, concurred that adequate resources must be allocated towards BEAM to enable vulnerable children to access basic education.
In addition, he said, government should speedily identify other funding partners for the programme.
"It is a great tragedy, but the blame should not be laid at the door of the donor community, but the current government, whose constitutional duty is to care for these disadvantaged children," said Coltart.
"BEAM should cater for well over one million children; in the last year I was minister, despite our best efforts, BEAM fell short in its funding and we estimated that over 300 000 children were missing out on an education," he added.