Liberia: Yes, We Can Mr. President!

President Weah did not hide his shock and disbelief at what he saw when he visited some public schools around Monrovia recently. He openly chided Education Minister Ansu Sonii for being responsible for the abjectly poor conditions under which students are learning.

The President observed broken desks and armchairs, leaky school roofs and a host of other problems for which he must have felt convinced, Education Minister should be held responsible. Analysts say the President's remarks contained veiled threats of dismissals, dismissals which the public believed would have followed almost immediately.

But contrary to such public perceptions and expectations, Education Minister Ansu Sonii remains steadfast in his position and there appears to be little chances that such threats would be actualized anytime soon.

But the question is whether the dismissal of Minister Sonii will provide answers to problems facing learning/education in this country. The ready answer is no although dismissals could address the problem of inept leadership at the top.

The recurring mass failure of Liberian students in WASSCE exams has long since been a matter of public concern. Such mass failures were relatively unknown in decades prior to the onset of civil war in 1990.

Admittedly the civil war had devastating impact on every sector including education. Thousands of professionals including trained teachers were either internally displaced or forced into exile as refugees.

Restoring this sector to prewar levels has been quite an uphill challenge. Most teacher training institutions that existed prior to the civil war are either in a state of wanton disrepair, closed or operating at marginal levels of existence.

Public schools where they exist, including in Monrovia are also in a state of disrepair. Most public schools lack basic materials such as wooden desks, armchairs, instructional material, etc.

Most public schools in and round Monrovia, for example, are overcrowded and lack basic learning facilities such as libraries, laboratories and internet connectivity.

Over the 12-year period of President Sirleaf's leadership, not a single public high school was constructed in Monrovia. Rather than increase spending on public education especially the training of teachers, President Sirleaf instead embraced and championed the outsourcing of public education to private investors paid for by public money.

Despite public outcry and despite appeals to President Sirleaf from the National Teachers Association, UNESCO, UNICEF and others seeking to have government walk back on its decision to outsource public education to BRIDGE International, the deal went ahead.

The results have been dismal to say the least. President Sirleaf whose public outburst declaring that the educational system of Liberia was a "mess" is today walking back on that statement saying she only meant, at the time to draw the attention of policy makers to the problem.

Further, President Sirleaf's full embrace of a neoliberal economic policy agenda for Liberia and her actions taken to tailor the Liberian economy along neoliberal lines also meant strict adherence to IMF Structural Policy Adjustment Policies (SAPs)

These policies call for sharp cuts in public spending on health and education and other social spending including public sector wage cuts. As the evidence shows, those policies, continued under this government have had a devastating impact on the lives of ordinary Liberians.

With unemployment hovering at around 80 percent, according to some estimates although, the Liberian Center for Geostatistical Information Services (LISGIS) puts the figure much lower arguing that individuals engaged in petit trading even with inventories as low as five-hundred Liberian dollars are counted as employed.

Whatever the case, the issue comes down to the matter of funding for public schools according to some experienced educators who acquired their primary and secondary education from public institutions.

They pointed out that during the reign of President Tolbert, impressive results were obtained in the education sector because of funding provided by government.

Under President Tolbert, tuition was waived for elementary, junior and senior high school students while all students enrolled at the University of Liberia had tuition requirements sliced by half and the same was applied to all books purchased from the UL Bookstore.

During the 12-yr period of President Sirleaf's rule, nearly one billion US dollars was said to have been contributed by USAID to support education in Liberia.

Most of this money is said to have been channeled through international NGOs. But the problem is neither the International NGOs nor USAID have anything to show for it.

If private education for profit is/was indeed the way to go, the question is what accounts for mass failure with most students coming from private rather than public schools?

Clearly, government has to step up to the plate and increase funding to public schools. Government cannot any longer continue to subsidize private schools which are profit seeking institutions.

Such funding the educators maintain, should instead be directed to the erection of more public schools (well equipped), teacher training salaries and benefits for teachers including housing allowance for those serving in rural areas.

If Britain, the US and other developed nations had not spent on public education where would they now be? China stands out in this regard, moving up from the sick man of Asia to the industrial giant and economic powerhouse of the world poised to overtake the US.

It was education paid for by the state that has made such achievement possible. We should not fool ourselves thinking that private entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckenberg have the answers to Liberia's educational problems.

Public spending, making education free to all is the way to go and, let nobody IMF/World Bank included, tell us that we are too poor and or we lack the resources to do it. Not by a long shot Mr. President, with such great natural resource endowment. Can we do it? YES ,WE CAN MR. PRESIDENT

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