Education and inequality in Sierra Leone

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Abu Bakarr Jalloh

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 11 August 2017

The income gap between educated people and those who cannot read nor write, has widened considerably in Sierra Leone since the country gained independence from Britain in 1961.

The fast-increasing majority of people with no formal education have resulted in low productivity and poor standard of living in the country, especially for the poor working in sectors such as mining, agriculture, whole sale and retail that the economy heavily depends on.

In the mining sector, a manager or accountant with a university degree earns far greater than a security personnel who is a primary school dropout.

Unskilled workers working for mining companies in Sierra Leone have always occupied positions where they do all the hard and stressful work, but find it difficult to pay their bills in a country where minerals account for over 98 percent of export earnings.

The agriculture sector dominated by subsistence farming which employs majority of people with no formal education, does not generate enough income that could allow family farmers to afford basic necessities – such as clean water, food, housing, education, healthcare, electricity, etc.

A subsistence farmer who cannot read nor write, earns far less than a high school dropout working in a palm nursery field for an international bio-energy company.

And, the wholesale and retail business that also absorb large number of unskilled workers, pays primary school dropouts working as clerks in warehouses far greater than those with no formal education, transporting goods on their heads to unload trucks – carrying hundreds of tons of merchandise.

The informal economy accounts for over 70 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It depends heavily on unskilled workers, especially food markets. Most farmers and fishermen supplying staples such as rice, cassava and fish have no formal education.

Moreover, mining companies in Sierra Leone thrive on the back of unskilled workers, enjoying huge profits and cheap labour.

Decades of rampant corruption and bad governance have barred majority of the population from any formal education or training. According to the World Bank, over 60 percent of the population has no formal education.

Education, for many in Sierra Leone, has become the diamond and rutile the country has abundantly, but few people benefit from.

Sierra Leoneans used to say that their country has one of the best education in Africa. I do not think we could claim that distinction today with a straight face. The high cost and low standards have prevented many parents from sending their children to school.

Majority of subsistence farmers struggling to feed their families, cannot afford even primary school education for their children. Many children whose parents work full time for mining companies hardly make it to their third year in primary school.

Even the middle class are finding it difficult to meet the cost of college education for their children. Moreover, the overpriced college degrees have not translated into qualified and competent workforce.

Many graduates cannot use what they learn in class rooms as critical thinking to solve complex problems in the real world.

The education standard has become so poor that the few people who can afford to pay tens of thousands of US dollars to send their children to school, outsource their education needs to Europe and the United States.

The education system being fraught with corruption, has produced worthless degrees or just papers. The system cannot even stop leakages of exam questions, especially during national exams that award degrees and diplomas.

Politicians whose children attend schools in Britain and the United States have never taken education in the country seriously. Investment in education is all time low.

The political system has deliberately made education unaffordable for many, so as to keep voters uniformed and irrational, an allegation politicians dismiss as conspiracy theory.

Lack of skilled workers makes the country’s central bank loses millions of US dollars in foreign exchange reserve every month, as foreign workers repatriate their income earned in Sierra Leone to their home countries.

Many Sierra Leoneans lacking the experience and expertise cannot perform the functions required for high paid jobs that guaranty a decent standard of living, in a country where over 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Sierra Leone must make education affordable, if it is to lift millions out of poverty. The less the country takes education seriously, the more it sinks into poverty and the more politicians become empowered and emboldened to loot and squander its resources.

About the author

Abu Bakarr Jalloh, Business and Economic Editor for the African Press Agency based in Dakar.

1 Comment

  1. Most probably it is because of the lack of education why Sierra Leone is suffering the highest corruption rate world wide – a country with just over 6 million people. I am sure that without education, corruption will continue grabbing the mind of the governments and the administration. Education must be put first.

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