Back to Basics: Ensuring Access to Quality Education for All

October 29, 2009
by Faustin N'Tala, RESULTS partners, Democratic Republic of Congo

When it comes to finding a viable source for the minerals that help run technology industries, I believe that most eyes turn to the Democratic Republic of Congo. International actors continually turn to the DRC for natural resources that are demanded on the world market, and find a way to get them — brutally or not. Many eyes followed Hillary Clinton’s trip to the DRC and other countries of Africa this August, where she spoke about ending violence against women. As the United States urges African leaders to be accountable to their people by striving for equal distribution of wealth and a peaceful transition of power between elections, another tragic issue has not been spoken about loud enough. It is an issue that I hope to see the U.S. take the lead on at a time when it is getting worldwide attention — it is the problem of illiteracy. We must grow the effort to provide access to quality education to more than half of the population of the DRC and millions more around the world. What better way to fight against poverty and ignorance, the basic ingredients of violence and fundamentalism in the world?

Growing up in a city where the main activities revolved around copper and cobalt mining had its own advantages in terms of social services. The city of Kolwezi, located in the southwestern region of the Katanga province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was the epicenter of some of the best schools in the country. The Gecamines, a state-owned mining company and now nearly bankrupt, provided some of the best K-12 schools in the Copperbelt. Today, the Gecamines still serves nearly 45 percent of the Copperbelt’s student population. Some of my fondest memories come from the time when I was a pre-elementary and elementary student in the Gecamines school system. However, government-run public schools such as Athenee de Kolwezi and parochial schools like Lycee Jean XXIII were as well-supplied as the privately subsidized schools similar to the Gecamines. The public schools received continuous support from the government and the parochial schools received funds from the government, churches, and international sources. The Gecamines funded its own school districts — I think those days are gone.

In the last couple of generations, the Congolese educational system has gone from good to bad to worse. There was a time that students enjoyed small class sizes, freshly delivered school supplies, and trucks delivering cookies full of lime, soja and milk. Books were sold every month to encourage students to engage in reading. There were summer programs in every Gecamines workers’ camp that provided students with different activities throughout the season. Nowadays, it is not surprising to find classrooms of 70–100 students for each poorly trained teacher. This is a reflection of years of lack of education investments in the DRC.

The current economic downturn has exacerbated an already critical situation in such countries as the DRC. Some international organizations are funding social services in order to provide access to better health and education. The school system continues to rely on these international organizations, without which it would collapse. Because many parents are too poor to finance their children’s education, the question arises: how does one escape the poverty cycle if he or she does not get the financial support to access quality education?

Attempts to resolve issues of lack of access to quality education by most families include work done by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). However, the financial support needed is not always available. Teaching and learning conditions have been deteriorating, and schools that were once subsidized by mining companies are losing their support.  Despite their efforts to finance the education of their children, many parents are coming to realize that their investments have only yielded children who are functionally illiterate.

There is no better way of ensuring the collapse of a nation, and thus of the world, than by neglecting or under-investing in youth. Countries such as the DRC have been missing the critical investments that are needed to rebuild the education system. More important than investing in the mining sector, it is imperative to provide the youth with the opportunity to attend good schools.

There must be a global effort to educate children around the world. All nations, particularly wealthy ones, need to work together to fund the education of the millions of children who are waiting in line to get a chance to attend school. As much as we would like to believe that education is a right, it remains only a dream in many parts of the world.

During my trip to the DRC in the summers of 2008 and 2009, I recognized the strong need to invest in education. Many children who begin attending school never complete the primary cycle. In fact, most drop out by the time they master the basics of literacy and numeracy. Many teachers and former educators warmly welcome such initiatives as the Waza Teacher Training Seminars that I conducted. In the two years of offering this training, the Waza Alliance for Quality Education has seen the number of teacher participants almost double. It has also offered a few scholarships to elementary students to alleviate parents’ burden. But that is just a little drop in the ocean. Similar, more robust efforts are needed to ensure that we reach all children. The DRC has more than minerals to invest in. It has its youth. Almost half of the population is 15 years old and younger — it would be a major missed opportunity if we failed to provide them with quality education.

The United States can play a major role in spearheading such an initiative, especially now, as it redefines its relations with the DRC and the world. The U.S. should support the initiative for a Global Fund for Education that will serve millions of children around the world. The fund could be a reliable source of support and an alternative to the current structure that is bogging down the poor.

If by 2015, all of the world’s elementary-aged children could receive an education that would lead to a better, more peaceful world, then initiatives like the Global Fund for Education are definitely worth supporting.

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