Africa, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Human Rights

EDUCATION-MALAWI: Making Universal Primary Schooling a Reality

Frank Phiri

BLANTYRE, Nov 27 2003 (IPS) - When the Commonwealth heads of government gather in Nigeria next month for their bi-annual meeting, the agenda will probably be dominated by politics. But, if activist Julita Msanjama had her way, the leaders would spend most of their time discussing education.

Msanjama is Malawi coordinator for the Commonwealth Education Fund (CEF) – which was launched last year by Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s 50th birthday.

The fund operates as a partnership between three British charities*, the private sector and the British government – which has endowed it with about 17 million dollars. Britain has challenged business to come up with the same amount, saying it will match contributions from the private sector dollar-for-dollar.

Ultimately, the fund could be worth more than 50 million dollars. CEF Chairman Edward George has written that this will allow “a bottom-up input to the design and implementation of policies” that will help to deliver education to 17 low-income members of the Commonwealth.

These are brave words in the face of a daunting task.

When international leaders met at the World Education Forum, held in Senegal in 2000, it was estimated that 113 million children still had no access to primary education. Of these, more than 70 million are in the Commonwealth.

The Dakar Framework for Action that was drawn up at the forum called on signatories to ensure all children had access to free primary education by 2015. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals also pledge governments to ensure that, by 2015, all children will be able to complete their primary schooling.

The CEF estimates that, “on current trends, this goal will be missed by a wide margin, with 75 million children remaining out of school by the target date”.

The fund itself is a victim of these “trends”: businesses have not responded to the challenge of pledging money to CEF in the manner that was hoped. Nonetheless, Msanjama remains hopeful. She also points to areas of progress in Malawi.

Amongst other things, CEF aims to encourage wide participation in the design and implementation of a country’s education plans.

It highlights the importance of having local communities monitor government spending on education. The fund also encourages the documenting of innovative ways to ensure that vulnerable groups, like street children and child soldiers, receive education.

Msanjama says her CEF management team has managed to involve non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) and church groups in keeping an eye on Malawi’s education budget.

“Our recommendations will go to the Education Committee on Budget in Parliament, and for this fiscal year we’re pressing that government make transparent its expenditures in the sector,” she says.

Msanjama adds that CEF has funded studies to determine why children leave school early. There has been research on ways to ensure that girls get equal access to education, and the problem of illiterate adults has also come under the microscope.

“We’re also consulting the Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry as an entry point to lobby private sector to support education,” Msanjama says, noting that similar processes are going on in Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Sierra Leone.

To date, the fund has granted Malawi about 770,000 dollars.

According to CEF-Malawi, primary school enrolment in the country doubled from 1.8 million to 3.2 million between 1994 and 1997 – this after the government introduced free primary education.

However, the increased enrolment was not matched with additional teachers. At present, the teacher-to-pupil ratio in Malawi ranges from 1 to 50, and authorities have been forced to employ 25,000 unqualified teachers.

HIV/AIDS has had a severe impact on education: about 6,000 teachers are thought to have died from AIDS-related illnesses between 2000 and 2001 alone. This death rate exceeds that of recruitment, creating a huge shortfall in teaching staff.

Of the 17 countries targeted by CEF, 13 are in Africa – the rest in Asia. Cameroon, Gambia, Lesotho, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe are the remaining African countries which benefit from the fund.

Msanjama believes that leaders at next month’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, (CHOGM), from Dec. 5 to 8, should take stock of their efforts to improve education for the youngest citizens of their countries.

“Abuja is the time to account for progress made in the past three years and plotting the future to make education accessible to all,” she says.

* ActionAid, Oxfam and Save the Children

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