Why Malawi’s education sector is in a mess: Part I

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. The Nation 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 was 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.

Education Minister Eunice Kazembe

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 highly erratic.

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. It’s 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.

*Steve Sharra blogs at Afrika Aphukira and for Global Voices Online. He moderates Bwalo la Aphunzitsi, an online forum for Malawian teachers and educators.

A version of this article appeared in the My Turn column of The Nation newspaper, 10th December 2012.


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