The Seeds of (Under)Development are Sown Early

Next month we are hosting a major policy workshop on the coordination of care for orphans and vulnerable children between the various government ministries, major donors and NGO’s operating the field. This week I was fortunate enough to join our documentation team in a rural community in the North to capture the thoughts and views of those on the ground: district welfare officers, administrators of community based organisations (CBO’s) and most importantly of all – the children themselves.

Zambia has a combined education enrollment rate of about 60% which places it 130th out of the 172 countries that the UN tracks. Consequently there has been a big push on school enrollment since the start of the century with school lists growing at over 10% a year i.e. the total number of children in school has more than doubled in less than a decade. Commendable as this, the number of teachers retained has stayed more or less constant so unfortunately the ratio of teachers to children has also doubled over the same period.

As part of the major market reforms the country underwent in the early 1990’s, Zambian children can now only expect free education only up until grade 7 (roughly 12 years old). After this point they have to pay some fairly significant attendance and exam fees. At all ages they are expected to have sufficient money to pay for uniforms, books and of course transport should they need it. This leads to many children dropping in and out of education (particularly at secondary level) as and when their parents can afford to send them. There were several 16 and 17 year old students in the 8th grade class we visited. It was not always thus, during the times of Kenneth Kaunda (post independence and pre market reforms) education was generally free and anecdotally at least, children from that era appear to have benefited from a more comprehensive education.

Our program works with the relevant government departments and local CBO’s to identify those families most disadvantaged and provide them with sufficient support (from pigs and goats, to cash grants, uniforms and shoes) to enable them to get back or stay in school. It also makes a big effort to engage the government services in the area to ensure that there is co-ordination of this support. Sadly this is not as commonplace as you would hope with multiple NGO’s operating in the same locations.

Encouragingly at a local level the support does appear to be having its intended impact and we heard stories of children who were able to resume their education from our project. But as the local coordinator so elegantly put it – ‘Our work here is just a drop in the ocean, there are so many families who need our help and so few who we can give it to’

So when we asked the children to draw and write messages for their government and donors, what did they say? Well perhaps predictably quite a few asked for footballs and books. Tellingly, some asked for new wells to be drilled to accommodate with drinking water their growing numbers of classmates. Finally, at a community school which does not yet qualify for full government support, many petitioned for the building of accommodation and electricity for their teachers. The class supervisor explained that at present even the headmaster commutes over 20km each way by bicycle over very poor dirt track. A journey that is just about achievable in the dry season often becomes impossible in the wet leading to frequent school closures. The lack of electricity supply is also a major barrier to attracting talented teaching staff from the urban centers.

A number of recent studies have illustrated that the stress associated with poverty has a profoundly negative impact on a child’s ability to learn. These studies, conducted in rich industrialised countries with developed social security systems, showed that the stress of poverty alone was sufficient to explain a significant and meaningful decrease in a child’s capacity to form working memories and hence benefit from their education. Issues of hunger, disease, illness and parental loss are extremely common in Zambian households when compared to the US subjects in the study so one can only imagine the impact such events have on the overall capacity of Zambian children to reach their full potential.

A well educated population is something like water in a well, you only miss it when it has gone. It has struck me, on several occasions since first arriving in Zambia, the toll that a broadly reduced level of education takes on the country as a whole. It rears its head in many ways – some petty and small such as the length of time it takes to navigate simple bureaucratic procedures, some large and meaningful such as a concern about the supply of qualified and capable individuals to lead private organisations and the government at all levels.

It is not uncommon to hear foreigners and well educated Zambians (from that past generation) seething about the ‘lack of efficiency’ in the country. Yet when you get the opportunity to visit their schools, you begin to understand how several of the fundamental building blocks of an educated (and consequently efficient) society are severely strained and in some cases simply not present at all.

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