FREETOWN, Sep 20, 2011 (IPS) – A formal strike of teachers has been averted and pupils in Sierra Leone returned to school on Tuesday, almost a week after the term was meant to officially start.
On top of a hill in downtown Freetown the D.T. Akibo Betts primary school sat empty – its classrooms crammed only with little wooden benches at the start of the school term on Sep. 14. But as students returned to school on Tuesday, it comes after government and teachers wrangled all summer over a promised pay reform package, which the teachers’ union says is overdue.
The package – funded by the World Bank, European Union and government – is due to increase public sector wages by 50 to 100 percent over five years.
Teachers mingle outside in the rain and are cautiously optimistic about the raise.
“Many teachers haven’t been paid for three years – this needs resolution first,” one teacher, who did not want to be named, says. “The question is when is the package to be delivered?” another asks.
“Government has promised improvements in our conditions of service – including salaries – by month end,” says Davidson Kuyadeh of the Sierra Leone Teachers Union (SLTU). “We’re confident, but we need tangibles and we’ll monitor the situation closely,” he says.
The SLTU believes that an International Monetary Fund (IMF) wage bill cap – that keeps salaries low and prevents new recruitment – blocks the promised package.
However, the government and the IMF are adamant that there is no such cap.
“How can the IMF dictate what we spend on teachers?” one senior official at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) asked. Though another source conceded that the MEST deals with the Ministry of Finance, which budgets public sector salaries following IMF meetings.
But this is not uncommon, according to the Right to Education project (a coalition of NGOs). They say IMF wage ceilings leave no room for exceptions, even for countries like Sierra Leone, which need leeway to spend after shocks like the war. Sierra Leone’s 11- year civil war ended in 2002.
A generation of children missed out on school – not least because many actually fought in the war. When the war ended, 65 percent of schools had been destroyed and teachers had left the country in droves.
Free education was phased in over 2001 and 2005 – more than doubling pupil numbers. The post-war re-building increased the number of schools from 1,800 to around 7,000. And primary school attendance is now 69 percent with a school completion rate of 73 percent. Though impressive gains, this is short of universal quality education, as the government and agencies acknowledge.
Meanwhile, with rising prices and a removal of rural allowances, real salaries have decreased, and teacher motivation and job satisfaction are low.
New graduate teachers join the classroom but not the payroll – creating ‘volunteers’. Some supplement or earn income by selling food and education materials to children, undermining free education.
Joseph Cobinah of Education For All (EFA-SL) says that a cap undermines quality, impeding the achievement of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for education. The MDGs are eight time-bound goals tackling poverty and its various dimensions that the United Nations member states agreed in 2000.
“Teachers can be hired only to replace those leaving – new recruitment isn’t allowed. But, there’s a massive staff shortage,” he says.
However, the IMF resident representative in Sierra Leone, Francis Kumah, said that as a body of macroeconomists the IMF has little say in budget appropriation to ministries.
“Historically, the IMF had a wage ceiling, but that’s changed. Wage bill distribution is government business as are teacher numbers. We have clear views on what are possible based on income, inflation and expenditure. We want sustainable increases in social spending – we support the multi-year pay-reform package.”
But, a recent Oxfam International report to the IMF found that though there is no formal IMF cap, there was “behind the scenes pressure” to limit public wage spending.
“In life, there are caps on almost everything – a ‘decision on distribution’. No government could spend everything on wages – there are roads, hospitals and schools etc,” says Kumah.
Action Aid, an international NGO, has lobbied against what it calls a contradiction in education – with government and NGO’s striving to improve quality while hampered by IMF fiscal policy.
“The IMF’s macroeconomics is detrimental at the micro level; it determines teacher recruitment despite increased enrolment. Our teachers leave – 80 to 90 percent of teachers in The Gambia are from Sierra Leone,” says Action Aid’s Thomas Johnny.
The World Bank’s Vijay Pillai says revenue must be increased: “If government got rid of tax concessions, it could increase total tax take by around 50 percent.”
Pillai says only a tiny 10 million dollars in tax is earned from the lucrative extractive industries.
“We have to see the pay package in the wider context of teacher quality – 50 to 60 percent of teachers are unqualified and untrained. The package is performance related,” says Pillai.
The World Bank also says schools need to be cleared of bogus ‘ghost workers’ – corrupt teachers and hangers-on, who illegally draw salaries.
Though Pillai says this process is not related to the delayed pay package, Professor David Leonard from the Institute of Development Studies, an organisation for international development research, says it is likely to be of concern.
“The Bank would want to see corrupt expenditure eliminated and then would be happy to see the savings used to give better pay to teachers who are actually working.”
Cobinah wants to know when the cleanup will end: “Four years is a long time – we need to move on so teachers and children can move on.”
A representative at MEST said cleaning up the system is nearly finished. “We’re on a mission,” she says standing square over a table stacked high with monitoring forms.
One NGO representative, however, pointed out that until the payroll system itself is strengthened there would always be people who ‘work’ an overly bureaucratic process.
“Ghost workers are not just about corruption. It can take months to replace a teacher who has left. Rather than go through the official process, schools do not report changes to prevent what income they have from being lost. But, this creates disparities in names. Every time it is cleaned up, they have to begin again from the start,” the source said.