The New Push for Education Reform in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Over the last two years the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has doubled the proportion of the national budget going to education from 6.5 percent to 13.8 percent. Such a large increase is uncommon. More than doubling the percent of the national budget appropriated to education is indicative of a greater shift in national priorities to move education up the ladder of importance. Still, for this commitment to translate into positive outcomes for the millions of children who are in school but currently not learning, and the 7 million primary school-age children who are out of school, the DRC and its partners must address challenges made more complex by on-going conditions of insecurity.

In 2012 the ministry of education finalized a new strategy that outlines its national objectives for the next three years. Knowing that the depth of the problem is too great to address without support, the government has made a concerted effort to reach out to international partners, including through two trips to Washington D.C. and New York in the last three months – one by Minister of Education Mwangu in December 2012 and a second by Prime Minister Mapon this past February. The Brookings Center for Universal Education, together with the Africa Growth Initiative, co-hosted the prime minister and his delegation and engaged in a discussion about economic stabilization and education policy and partnerships.

Despite the step change in recent budget allocations to education, the country has a long way to go in reaching universal primary enrollment and improving the quality of education available to all the children in its country. On the 2011 Human Development Index, the annual rankings of national achievement in health, education and income in 187 countries, the DRC was ranked last. Ravaged by over 15 years of conflict that ended in 2008, the country faces the threat of on-going violence and instability in the eastern region that prevents broader economic and social development. Although 11 heads of state signed a peace accord on February 24th at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, the government and the M23 rebels remain locked in tense negotiations. Rebel tactics in the DRC have been particularly brutal, including widespread rape of girls and women.

Reaching the lost generation

During past years of conflict in the DRC social services were slowed or even stopped. By the government’s report, in 1990 the national allocation to education was 1 percent of the national budget and in 1999 only 32 percent of children were in primary school. Since then, 2.7 million children have died as a result of the conflict. Other children did not go to school because they were working, fighting, or were displaced from their homes due to instability. The prime minister dubs this generation, who are now young adults, the “lost generation” because of the opportunities that passed them over. Data from a 2010 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey conducted nationally reflects the impact of war on these young adults. It found that nationally only 51 percent of young women age 15-24 years are literate, a figure that falls to only 28 percent for women from the poorest quintile. These youth make up the country’s unskilled labor force and a large percentage of the unemployed – almost 70 percent of youth have no job. The government and its partners are now tasked with providing employment opportunities for this generation. One way they are doing so is by creating jobs in the agricultural and social service sectors.

Not only does the country need to create jobs, but also ensure there are skilled people to fill them. The DRC is a country with the third largest population in sub-Saharan Africa. It is endowed with some of Africa’s most fertile soil, unparalleled hydroelectric potential and many of the world’s most precious metals. Its labor market demands workers with strong foundational skills including literacy and numeracy, and noncognitive attributes such as critical thinking and interpersonal communication. But also skills that are relevant to – and meet the needs of – a growing economy, such as information and communication technology fluency, computer literacy and industry specific technical skills. The government is partnering with private universities, the business sector and NGOs to create targeted vocational programs such as specialized training programs in mechanics and plumbing.

The DRC faces twin challenges of remedying the lack of skills and employment opportunities for the “lost generation” with improving its education system to best meet the needs of today’s children. To achieve this the government announced that primary education would be free up through third grade in 2010 and have been adding one grade level each school year since. Still, reaching the most marginalized with quality education remains a formidable challenge, including that the implementation of the free primary education policy has been criticized by some members of civil society.

Ensuring equity

Recent data from UNICEF shows that the DRC’s national net enrollment rate is 75 percent for primary school. Reaching the last 25 percent of out-of-school primary aged children – approximately 7 million children by some estimates – is essential for the DRC’s long-term growth and prosperity. But the last 25 percent is will be the hardest to reach. They are the children from the poorest families, the most rural and conflict-affected areas, and those disadvantaged by their gender or disability.

Reaching the conflict-affected with education services is a particular challenge. The use of child soldiers is pervasive in the DRC and recruitment prevents some children from staying in school. As of 2011, an estimated 7,000 child soldiers remained in both armed groups and government forces (despite large scale releases of child soldiers from the national army in preceding years and reforms making recruitment of children under 18 illegal). As of December 2010 there were 2.7 million internally displaced persons in the country and an additional 491,481 refugees in other countries from the DRC, a large percent of which are children whose access to education has been disrupted. International actors have an important role in supporting demobilized child soldiers and in delivering services to IDPs, including food, health support, shelter and education services; but the government has the ultimate responsibility to ensure their right to education.

In addition to living in conflict-affected areas, other factors such as gender, poverty and location create disadvantage. Data from UNESCO’s Education For All Global Monitoring Report’s new World Inequality Database on Education shows just how stark the disparities can be. For example, only 6 percent of urban 17-22 year olds face extreme education poverty (less than two years of schooling) compared to 23 percent of their rural counterparts. Two percent of the richest quintile face extreme education poverty in contrast to 26 percent of the poorest quintile. However, the greatest disparities exist between regions: In Kinshasa only 2 percent of the population experience extreme education poverty, compared to 32 percent in North Kivu – the site of much current and ongoing conflict. The impact of poverty on education is evident among the more than 40 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 14 who have been child laborers, especially in mines.

Girls are especially vulnerable and the disadvantage they face is reinforced in conflict-affected areas. The Gender Parity Index for primary school is 0.93, but falls to 0.83 in Katanga in the conflict-affected east of the country. Only 7 percent of males face extreme education poverty, compared to 23 percent of females. Rape is frequently used as a tool of war, many times against children. In 2007, UNICEF reported 18,000 survivors of rape in eastern the DRC alone, half of whom were children. During surges in rebel activity, as recently as the fall of 2012, reports show that sexual assault of women and girls sharply increases.

Improving education quality

Improving equity in access to education is one step the government of the DRC can take to strengthen economic growth; another is improving the quality of education for children once in school. Learning outcomes in the DRC are low. In a RTI International 2012 Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) baseline assessment of Grades 4 and 6 students showed that 29 percent of boys and 44 percent of females could not read one word. Furthermore, the assessment found that two out of three Grade 4 and 6 boys, and more than three out of four girls in the same grades, were unable to answer a single reading comprehension question correctly.

Poor learning outcomes are due in part to an undersupported teaching force. In primary school, the national average is one teacher for 37 pupils, but in marginalized or rural areas, there can be over 100 pupils per class. Similarly there is a lack of education materials, with one textbook for every two students at the primary level. Estimates suggest that there are between 350,000 and 450,000 teachers, with just over half of these teaching at primary level. The average age of teachers is 50 years old and while almost 74 percent of primary teachers are trained, only 33 percent of teachers at secondary level are trained. Salary expenditure consists of four-fifths of the education budget, yet teacher salary levels remain among the lowest in the world and have declined in real terms by up to 40 percent.

The DRC has made improving the quality and relevance of education the second priority of its education strategy. To promote quality education, an 2012 RTI report said the government committed to increasing free textbook distribution, creating a national policy on teacher training, establishing a national action plan to add value to the teaching profession, training teachers and instituting curriculum reform.

Funding gap

In 2012 the government developed an Interim Education Plan with three objectives: increasing access, equity and retention, improving the quality and relevance of education and strengthening governance. In addition to the increase in budget allocation to education over the last decade, the government reports widespread economic reforms that have resulted in a stabilized exchange rate, lower inflation rate, and an increase in public revenue collection so that it now accounts for 28 percent of the GDP, compared to 5 percent in the 1990s.

In December 2012 the DRC was awarded $100 million by the Global Partnership for Education to help increase access to primary education, improve the quality of education through better learning materials and strengthened teacher training, and improve management in the education sector. While the government’s budget for education from 2012 to 2015 is $1.2 billion, in a presentation by H.E. Mr. Maker Mwangu Famba to the Brookings Institution, he explained there is still a $270 million financing gap. In addition to the additional funds, the country seeks technical support to aid in the absorption of funds and efficient delivery of services.

On April 18th and 19th, the minister of education and the minister of finance will return to Washington D.C. to attend the Learning for All Ministerial meetings at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Invited by World Bank President Jim Kim, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and U.N. Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown, the delegation will meet with members of the international community to discuss how to provide quality education for all and to continue to accelerate progress toward the reaching Millennium Development Goal of universal access to education in the DRC.