Civil Society, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Poverty & SDGs

NICARAGUA: Universal Primary Education Still Far Off

José Adán Silva

MANAGUA, Apr 1 2009 (IPS) - Damaris Aguilar had to pull her daughter out of school this year. “My oldest child is already in fifth grade; now we’re waiting for the situation to improve so that she can go on learning,” says the 34-year-old Nicaraguan mother of two.

Aguilar works as a domestic in wealthier neighbourhoods in Managua to support her family. But the economic crisis affecting the country has pushed her further into poverty, and with her income lower than ever before, she decided that only one of her two children could continue to attend school.

A single parent, Aguilar has a 12-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy. The girl will be the more useful worker, and sixth grade books are more expensive, while the boy is eligible for subsidies and school meals, so he will continue his studies, she says.

“I can’t afford books and shoes for both of them,” said Aguilar, speaking outside an educational event where she and her daughter sell sodas and ice cream.

Hers is not the general case; overall, girls in Nicaragua do not drop out of school because of poverty at a higher rate than boys. Fifty-five percent of girls complete primary school, compared with only 45 percent of boys, who tend to be taken out of school earlier by their families so that they can work.

But her dilemma is an example of something that concerns experts and authorities alike: poverty is growing and is affecting school enrolment and dropout rates.

Preliminary reports indicate that some 700,000 school-age children did not begin the school year, which started in February.

Nicaragua will not only come to a standstill, it will slide backwards in the struggle against poverty and the effort to fulfil the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), said sociologist and economist Cirilo Otero, head of the non-governmental Environmental Policy Initiatives Centre (CIPA).

There are two reasons for that, according to Otero: the global economic crisis and the domestic institutional crisis which led to a sharp decline in international aid to Nicaragua.

The MDGs are targets adopted in 2000 by the United Nations member states, to fight poverty and inequality and bolster human development worldwide. The Millennium Declaration is an international agreement on minimum standards to be attained by 2015.

In Nicaragua, “we are close to the deadline and a long way from the goals,” Otero told IPS.

He estimates that child malnutrition will increase from 27 percent of children under five, the 2006 figure, to 38 percent by 2010.

One out of every five children in this country suffers from chronic malnutrition, according to the State of the World’s Children Report for 2008, “Child Survival,” presented in Managua by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in July last year.

According to the UNICEF report, 12 percent of newborns weighed less than 2.5 kgs, 10 percent of children under five were moderately or severely underweight, and 20 percent were stunted (had low height for age). The data was collected during the 2000-2006 period.

“These statistics do not even reflect the impact of the present world economic crisis, nor the soaring cost of food since mid-2008,” Otero pointed out.

Malnutrition and a rise in unemployment will drive thousands of children out of the classrooms, he said.

Nicaragua needs to reach 100 percent coverage in primary education by 2015 in order to meet the second MDG.

In 1998, 75 percent of children were enrolled in primary school, and in 2006, according to the most recent report on Nicaragua’s progress towards the MDGs, primary school enrolment stood at 80 percent.

But out of every 10 children who started first grade, only four completed sixth grade.

Nicaragua has 5.7 million people, 47 percent of whom are living below the poverty line, according to official figures (although independent sources put the poverty rate much higher). It is the poorest country in Central America, and one of the poorest in the Americas.

Last year, the national office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) expressed concern about the extent to which the country was falling behind in meeting the second MDG: achieving universal primary education.

Unless there are drastic changes in the educational system, it will be very difficult for Nicaragua to meet this goal by 2015, UNESCO said in a communiqué. To meet the target, the budget for education would have to be doubled, it added.

“This goal will never be fulfilled with the inadequate resources that have been devoted to education over the past several years. On the contrary, more children will be left out of the school system,” said economist Adolfo Acevedo, who advises the Coordinadora Civil (CC), a coalition of more than 350 civil society organisations and NGOs, on social issues.

But instead of being increased, the education budget was cut by 7.5 million dollars, leaving the Ministry of Education with 265 million dollars in its general purposes budget for this year, when it needs to spend at least 500 million dollars a year to even get close to the target of universal primary education, according to Acevedo.

The government has been cash-starved since the United States and several European Union countries cut back their aid because of allegations of fraud in the November 2008 municipal elections.

“The primary school completion rate to grade five is the lowest among 19 Latin American countries,” said Acevedo, quoting UNESCO figures.

In 2004, an estimated 99.7 percent of Chilean pupils who enrolled in the first grade of primary school reached fifth grade. In Costa Rica the proportion was 86.6 percent, in Guatemala 68 percent and in El Salvador 69.4 percent, while in Nicaragua it was only 53.4 percent, he said.

Jorge Mendoza of the Education and Human Development Forum (FEDH) told IPS that 200,000 children did not resume their studies this year, according to non-governmental estimates.

A record 1.6 million children enrolled in public and private primary and secondary schools in 2008, according to the Education Ministry, and the FEDH says about 1.4 million children enrolled this February. The Education Ministry has not yet released official figures for 2009, saying the school intake is still being counted.

“This number is on top of an additional 500,000 children who had already dropped out of the school system, so there are about 700,000 children who are being denied their right to a primary education,” Mendoza said.

The problem persists in spite of government attempts to encourage primary school attendance by means of social programmes, including food vouchers for the poorest parents and free meals, backpacks with school supplies and transport subsidies for more than 250,000 pupils, according to the Education Ministry.

State education is free and universal in this country, but not obligatory. Eighty percent of the school population attends public schools, according to the government, where they get free enrolment and tuition paid for by the state; the rest attend private schools.

But there are not enough public schools or teachers’ posts to cope with the demand. The Education Ministry acknowledges a classroom deficit of 57 percent nationwide. Out of 27,854 existing classrooms, only an estimated 12,181 are in good condition, and out of 10,000 teachers needed this year, only 2,500 have been hired.

As a result, the primary school drop-out rate will not be halted by social programmes, in Mendoza’s view.

Education Minister Miguel de Castilla acknowledged the deplorable overall situation, and blamed it on the neglect of the education system by rightwing governments in the past.

“There is a scandalous educational backlog, with 500,000 children who have dropped out of school, that we inherited from previous governments,” de Castilla said.

But neither has the present administration of the leftwing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) provided the necessary resources to fulfil the goal of universal primary education, Mendoza said.

“We spend five times less on education than some other countries in the region with budgets and economies very similar to our own. That’s why we must insist that, in addition to political will, a way must be found to structure our budget more rationally,” he said.

A report published in February by the Central American Governance Institute, a network of nine regional academic institutions, says that Central America is one of the regions that spends the least on education, investing an average of 60 dollars per capita.

According to the report, the annual outlay per person on education is 48 dollars in Guatemala, 63 dollars in El Salvador, and 81 dollars in Honduras, while in Costa Rica it is 240 dollars, an amount similar to what is spent in countries like Mexico, Venezuela and Chile.

Nicaragua comes last, with an annual expenditure on education of only 42 dollars per person, the report says.

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