In its editorial of Thursday 29th
November, The Nation
newspaper expressed alarm at
the revelation that Malawi’s education sector was performing worse than our neighbours.
posed the question “Where
are we getting it wrong?” The news of our dismal educational performance came
via the Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Eunice Kazembe, who, as was reported by The Nation newspaper
speaking at an Education Joint Sector Review meeting in Lilongwe that week.
The Joint Sector Review is a periodical gathering of donors,
Ministry technocrats, academics and other educationists to discuss progress
against benchmarks outlined in educational policies and implementation plans.
Amongst the problems the newspaper quoted the minister highlighting was that
seventy percent of Malawian pupils lacked basic skills and necessities, and
that most of these learners drop out before reaching Standard Six.
In this two-part article, I want to argue that any analysis
of the problems that have paralyzed Malawi’s education sector ought to be
understood in the larger context of Malawi’s governance and the political
economy of the country. I also want to point out that what we see as local and
internal causes of these problems have their roots in a broader global context
of economic and education policy prescription and domestic adaptation.
|Part of Lilongwe Teachers College campus, in a 2004 photo|
It would be an exaggeration to argue that education is the
only sector performing miserably. A lot of Malawians still suffer from chronic
hunger, despite all the efforts of the Ministry of Agriculture. Most Malawians
have no access to a hospital, and the few available hospitals have no drugs. Medical
personnel are overworked and disgruntled. Many Malawians die needlessly, due to
sheer negligence and lack of empathy. Electricity continues to be a nightmare
for the 8 percent of Malawians who have access to it, and water supply is
The majority of Malawians go without police protection, and
most of the times the police are unable to prevent crime or apprehend
criminals, leaving Malawians helpless. The conditions of our cities are
atrocious. Garbage is everywhere, most roads are dirt roads even in the capital
city, and have not been maintained since they were constructed. Our city
markets are so filthy it’s a miracle we don’t have armageddon cholera epidemics.
We therefore need to put the malaise of the education sector
into perspective. The failures of the education system are symptomatic of the
general failures of the country as a whole. As I am writing, the majority of
Malawi’s primary school children have no access to a school textbook. Textbooks
were last distributed to schools in 2008, and schools no longer have those
books due to wear and tear. A niece of mine told me recently her Standard Six
class has three English pupils books against sixty eight pupils. A day later a
group of Primary Education Advisers told me entire classes in their schools do
not have a single pupils’ book.
And our teachers are an angry lot. They are always paid
late, teach in classrooms unfit for purpose, live in houses not worthy the
name, and are treated as second class citizens. Recently Malawians have
lamented on social media sites remarks purportedly made by the president
herself demeaning teachers. She is alleged to have said, at a public rally in
Thyolo, that farming was a better paying preoccupation than the teaching
profession. As teachers have no means of expressing their anger directly at
their ministry or at the country’s leaders, they resort to other tactics easily
misinterpreted as incompetence unprofessionalism. Left unaddressed, the anger
our teachers are nursing is slowly but steadily eating away at the educational
fabric of the country.
The causes of the problems bedeviling Malawi’s education sector
are local and global, internal and external, structural and political. They are
the same problems ailing every aspect of Malawi’s governance system as well as
social architecture. They must be addressed in a holistic manner.
Much has been said, lately, about the problems of leadership
that have stagnated the country’s progress. Little has been mentioned about
those Malawians who have persevered against the odds, and have been an
inspiration to others. Teachers are amongst these unappreciated leaders.
hard to acknowledge, in the current atmosphere, but there are things that still
work in this country. We need to highlight them, celebrate the leaders behind
them, and make them an example for everyone else.
The local, internal and political causes are easier to
recognize than the global, structural and external problems. There is a part
where we as a country, as The Nation
editorial alluded to, are indeed “getting it wrong”. But there is a part where
it is global structures of economic governance and geopolitical power that are
“getting it wrong.” Somewhere along the continuum, the internal and the
external causes are connected.
Inefficiencies such as late salaries and bureaucratic
bottlenecks that choke career prospects for teachers are part of the local and
internal causes. So is the size and structure of the country’s economy, which
makes it impractical for teachers and most civil servants to be better paid. There
are capacity problems that have led to millions of kwacha being returned to
donors or to the national treasury because we are unable to utilize the money,
despite all the known problems that are, paradoxically, caused by lack of
money. The global and external causes also factor into the local and internal
causes, something we will explore in part II
Click here to read Part II