For a story of this magnitude, I couldn’t risk publishing it yesterday – on April Fools Day.
According to Mail & Guardian Africa, the West African nation of Liberia is in the process of outsourcing its entire pre-primary and primary education system to a private American firm – Bridge International Academies. This announcement was made back in January 2016, but has gone unreported. For context, according to USAID, “Liberia is significantly behind most other countries in the African region in nearly all education statistics.” Bridge International’s website says the company serves “700 million families who live on less than $2 USD per day”, with $2 per day being the internationally accepted poverty line. Its stated mission “is to provide every child with the chance to have a high-quality primary education regardless of their family’s income.” The company had over 200 schools in Kenya in 2013.
While this is not yet a total privatization of the education system, one article states that the Liberian government will eventually outsource all early childhood education to private providers. In what appears to be a watered down version of the voucher system, the government will be providing the funds for parents to send their kids to the Bridge International-managed schools. It is further evident that Bridge International will be given what essentially amounts to a monopoly in Liberia’s pre-primary and primary education. Here’s hoping the government is able to deliver on its plans for opening the education market – and (hopefully) pulling government out.
This move has been subject to criticism, from the United Nations and teachers unions. The Mail & Guardian Africa itself also appears to be unhappy with this development, opining that “mass privatisation of the system, as Liberia is attempting, is an anathema and just wrong – no matter the positive outcomes in better grades” (my emphasis).
Education which is not provided by the coercive monopoly of government is just wrong, regardless of what positives it yields? Such sentiments from a news organization are inappropriate, to say the least.
The United Nations is the most predictable opponent of the move. Kishore Singh, the UN’s Special
Commissar Rapporteur on the Right to Education, says “the concept of education as a public good” is under attack, and that it “is a core function of the State” to provide quality education within its jurisdiction. Further illustrating his ignorance of basic economics, Singh adds “it is ironic that Liberia does not have resources to meet its core obligations to provide a free primary education to every child, but it can find huge sums of money to subcontract a private company to do so on its behalf.” Singh believes that the government is the best arbiter for what constitutes good education, and that it is apparently best suited to provide such to children. Shannon May of Bridge International, however, aptly described in 2013 what the difference between the for-profit model, and the state-provided model is:
“Our customer can put us out of business. They can say, ‘This isn’t good. I don’t want it, it’s not useful. It has no value to me. That’s not how I want to spend my 400 shillings [about $5] this month.'”
Let’s see if Liberia can live up to its name.
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