Now that the US has–very appropriately in my book–moved to join the UK in suspending budgetary assistance for Kenya’s “free” public education program pending accountability for the corruption that has now come to light going back to the early days of the first Kibaki administration–it might be worthwhile to also ask ourselves how we got duped, too.
Here is Gene Sperling, writing in Huffington Post as Director of the Center for Universal Education at the Council on Foreign Relations. (and former National Economic Advisor to President Clinton) in September 2008 after spending a week in Nairobi (excerpts with emphasis added):
And in a bright spot, one area where this coalition government seems truly united is on education. Kenya made international news in 2003 by eliminating the terrible practice of charging even poor parents fees for each child they send to school – a practice that denies tens of millions of your people – especially girls – an education in much of the developing world. The announcement of free education by President Kibaki brought 1 million new children into school in one week! Since then, enrollment has gone from 5.9 million to over 8 million. Now Kenya is taking the pioneering step of eliminating fees for secondary school – even though it will cost the government ten times the amount to cover the cost of secondary school as opposed to primary school. While parents still face the expenses of boarding, uniforms, and travel, the abolition of fees has again led to a surge in enrollment.
While President Kibaki and his first Education Minister George Saitoti – both of the PNU – deserve great credit for pushing the elimination of fees, the Orange Democratic Movement seems just as committed. When I met with Prime Minister Odinga in his Nairobi office, he told me that the same education goals were in the platforms of both parties because “we all agree that education will be the ultimate engine of Kenya’s economic growth.”
The Ministry of Education has garnered international respect through both excellent civil servants like Permanent Secretary Karega Mutahi and Basic Education Secretary George Godia as well as their decentralized and transparent system for dispersing funds to local school districts. Rather than hold the money in the Ministry of Education, Kenya ensures that every shilling gets to the local level by depositing a per-child grant of 1,020 Kenyan Shillings (approximately $15 USD) to local banks accounts for each school. The headmaster is then required to post the amount received in plain view (which I saw firsthand in school after school that I visited) and work more closely with parent committees on how to spend the money that anything I had witnessed in the United States.
While Kenya is stepping up to the plate with serious reforms and the financial commitment to replace lost school fees – including for 4,000 secondary schools – they cannot do it alone. The overwhelming funds needed are for teacher salaries – which typically make up 80% of school budgets. What Kenya most needs from the international community is help with the recurrent costs that would come with hiring the 47,000 new teachers that current Minister of Education Sam Ongeri says Kenya needs to handle the additional three million students while focusing on quality.