Could the seeming pervasive college-for-all mindset, which relegates entrepreneurial, vocational, and other technical training as dumping ground for youth perceived as being underachievers, underserved, and having uneducated parents be pursuing the wrong development goal?
Could it be increasing the inequity in the society because the education and relevant policy in different sectors are not aligned to attend to the targeted needs of the most vulnerable populations? Does the present education system induce risk among the youth underclass in ways that positions them not to be absorbed in an industrialized economy?
The Liberian education system has faced many challenges over its lifetime. As a consequence, learning outcomes in general, have been largely poor, although not completely. Minor exceptions have existed in some schools.
Parents and guardians with the requisite financial resources have been able to access schools with updated facilities and modern curriculum, quality teachers, instructional leadership, libraries, laboratories, computer labs, after school and parent involvement programs, which have made beneficiaries competitive. Nonetheless, poor Liberian youth, those constituting the youth underclass have been relegated to schools that suffer immense neglect.
Schools in urban and rural communities with no or sub-standard/inadequate toilets, libraries, science laboratories, high student to teacher ratio, and poor school completion rates are notably higher in numbers. Education in these schools has had the tendency to put these youth at a significant disadvantage. Even if they have closer proximity to schools with better resources and facilities, they are usually unable to access them because of financial and other constraints.
The exception is where poor students receive scholarships to attend these better resourced schools. The longer such conditions have lasted, the society has not been able to redress the disparities caused, leading to possible intergenerational poverty or class immobility. Liberia’s future public policies, education policy being in the forefront, must break with vicious cycle.
In recent months, I have been working with a group of boys who hail from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some of the characteristics that they share are fatherlessness, little or no aspiration, uncertainty, and worse, the schools that they attended are still a cross between a psychiatric ward and a prison. It was difficult to receive good education there, even if you imported the best teachers.
The textbooks were outdated and the classrooms without fitting furniture. These features are reportedly responsible for these youth developing now into young men living in marginalized settings.
They started work life early on in their development peddling goods in the informal sector. Some are parts of a cohort negatively characterized as “zogos” (street-absorbed/drug dependent youth) in Liberian society. Many of their relatives have been in and out of jail.
Those who work are still poor because their salaries are decided arbitrarily by the employers especially since they do not have the requisite skills and qualifications to access better jobs. And even if they do, which is quite rare, the job market is biased toward the privileged classes. These combinations, broken homes, poor schools, and widespread stigma can only cultivate the roots of underachievement and underclass life.
Given that good education, especially the one with a solid pre-k foundation is considered crucial to facilitating intergenerational class mobility, it is about time for the future government to set its policy focus on pre-k reform.
There has been some redress in the educational disparities in the public education system since the current government took office. School facilities have been built in many places around the country and access has increased. But such access has not been to better quality schools remain.
If this trend spills over into the new government, poverty will persist. As a remedy, the economic and education policies of the next government must be aligned to forge a pro-poor nexus. Post-war Liberian society will have to transform a certain percentage of its population into educated and contributing citizens to enable the building of structures that catalyze industrialization. But if failure and mediocrity are entrenched in the schools and larger society, so too will be persistent poverty.
The current government should underscore its achievement of near universal enrollment, as a significant feat. This is so given the abysmal educational sector that it inherited after the protracted civil carnage and devastation.
The education system has come a long way in rectifying some of the ills that were caused by the war and previous systemic neglect for certain segments of the population. What it has yet not made up for in large measure is the stark gaps in the quality of teachers, facilities, other physical resources, and school management/counseling capacities.
Addressing these issues have proven to be more daunting, partly attributed to poor funding mechanisms and sluggish national education sector leadership. Outsourcing public education is not proving as a sustainable remedy especially when student achievement data from the recently privatized public schools have yet to be provided to the larger society for empirical study. Worse, the lives and future of Liberian youth cannot be used as experimental sites for new ideas over a long period.
In the absence of validated data on overall expenditure per learner, one is left to wonder if our national education leaders have optimized investments in the sector to enable a closing of the achievement gap between poorer and richer students. Backlogs of problems from the pre-war and warring years must be mitigated with purposeful strategies to foster the requisite changes in the intergenerational socio-economic immobility that were engendered.
Emphasis must be placed on the fragility of the communal family system, which played myriad of roles in buffering disadvantaged persons in their social unit against hardship. A post-war family policy and strategic plan is required in the wake of these challenges to rectify and redress the ill-effects of the civil war.
It will be quite important in the new administration to revisit how schools are funded and to examine whether or not equity is promoted intentionally. Unless the education system holistically prepares our students or learners for appropriate transition to work or higher education, it is failing to achieve a vital mission. By doing so, education policy contributes to structural exclusion of citizens from the mainstream economy, which in turn entrenches intergenerational poverty.
Sadly, those affected the most by lack of alignment between economic and education policies are those who live in poor urban communities and remote and rural areas constituting the underclass. No longer, can the society allow its citizens, especially the underclass to be trapped in intergenerational poverty and expect its unemployment and crime rates to improve, or for its poverty reduction strategy to make meaningful impact. These factors are mutually reinforcing.
The growth of the informal sector is quite startling. Indicators, although unscientific, include the seeming accelerated increase in the number of young children selling goods in the streets and apparent growth in the numbers of drug dependent/addicted youth living in the streets, trapped in impoverishment.
They live in communities where most residents cannot be absorbed by the workforce or are unemployable – a phenomenon that is structural because of the mismatch, between skills that these Liberians have, if any, and the employment opportunities that the market offers.
The youth underclass is therefore the result of the growing skill requirements of the formal economy, which is setting them apart from the rest of the youth cohort, especially when job creation is not purposefully focused on the needs of the underclass. Unless the new government develops policies to reintegrate the youth underclass into mainstream society, it risks creating a ready-made pool that would be tapped easily for illicit purposes: crime and war making, included.
In Liberian society, we have often wondered about the causes of the deviant behaviors of the zogos and other disadvantaged young people. We have not gauged the structural issues responsible for their plight.
Terms such as “zogos and zogese” are therefore loaded with class-based discriminatory connotations and stigma, forgetting how socioeconomic neglect has been a key culprit in causing their underlying conditions. Unless our education, economic, justice, health, youth development, labor, and social policies converge in ways where awareness of the structural forces that generate the underclass are heightened and targeted for durable mitigation, intergenerational poverty will thrive.
But then again, in a society where empirical data is lacking in many cases for policy decision making, it is difficult to disrupt negative trends and tendencies due to the intellectual laziness of some policy makers and professionals.
Given Liberia’s sparse research tradition and how easily research findings touch a raw nerve (quick politicization), it is not difficult to explain why many of the core problems facing the society merge and become enormously difficult to resolve. Leaders rely on antidotal evidence as opposed to their rigorous empirical counterparts.
For example, the gap between the nation’s wealthy and acutely poor is often mentioned in most policy discussions. But the issues frequently left unexplored are the structural forces that are beyond the control of the poor. Public policy makers must inquire vigorously about how this structurally positions our underserved students in ways that lead to underachievement, drop-out, street life, addiction, crime, and imprisonment.
In the new era, the persistence of poverty enabled by structural conditions must be taken seriously and analyzed to find empirical evidence that can guide policy, practice, and future research. Policy makers and professionals must absorb these harsh realities with considerable maturity and not resort to unwarranted self-interested defensiveness and political posturing. Only then can durable solutions be found to the nation’s difficult problems.
If policy makers keenly understand the education challenges facing the youth underclass, it might be a viable reference point for more durable solutions to the widespread poverty problem. We must dismantle the outdated ways underserved youth are prepared for education and transitioned to work by paying special attention to the labor market requirements of the low manufacturing society, which Liberia has been made into.
The society is not dominated by jobs that require high tech labor as yet, although in the future, post-secondary credentials will be required as the labor market graduates into industrialization. But for now, the fastest growing occupations in the society appear to be service sector and entrepreneurial jobs those that require less than a college degree.
No doubt, college education has the power to enhance job opportunities; but key drivers of the Liberian economy in its present state ought to be studied carefully to devise relevant strategies for sustainable change.
I end with this Ethiopian proverb: “When spiders unite they can tie down a lion.
”When Liberians unite we can end all of our most daunting governance challenges.
Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D., Contributing Writer