Tinde, Tanzania — Tinde Primary School would strike terror into the heart of any Canadian teacher, or indeed any parent. Students sit three to a rickety metre-wide wooden desk. There are 49 of them in the class, and one weary teacher — fighting her third bout of malaria in the past year.
There are no brightly coloured alphabet letters on the walls, no bulletin board to show off new art projects. Students receive only four hours of instruction each day.
Yet the teachers at Tinde Primary are feeling rather good about the place. Yes, the average class has 48 students, with one flimsy paper textbook for every three students. But three years ago it was 30 students to a book. The school’s six classrooms and 23 teachers are double what it had. More than half its students passed the national leaving exam in 2004, compared with 23 per cent in 2001.
What prompted this revolution in education? Debt relief.
Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world, where the annual per capita income is just $290 (U.S.).
When it applied for relief to its international creditors, including Canada, it pledged that if debt payments were reduced, it would use the money saved to reduce poverty, with education the first priority.
In perhaps the most vivid illustration of what debt relief can do, Tanzania abolished school fees in 2002. And 1.6 million children went to school for the first time.
That’s the reason classes at Tinde Primary are crowded — enrolment has soared.
“This school is a much better place for children,” said Felista Masanja, whose 13-year-old son studies here. “I see the change in him. He’s learning things.”
In 1999, Tanzania was spending $217-million a year to service a debt of nearly $7.3-billion (U.S.) it owed to rich countries and international financial institutions such as the World Bank. That was about one-quarter of expenditures on education and more than double what was being spent on health care.
Next Saturday, when Finance Minister Ralph Goodale meets his counterparts from the G8 countries in London, a proposal for a “Marshall Plan for Africa” will be on the agenda. It comes from the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, who wants to see a complete cancellation of bilateral and multilateral debt from 70 of the world’s poorest countries, including Tanzania.
In this country a few days ago, Mr. Brown saw schools similar to Tinde’s. He heard from community groups that want a health-care revolution like the one that took place in education, and he said debt relief could make it possible: “Justice promised will forever be justice denied, unless we remove from this generation the burden of debt incurred by past generations.”
Mr. Brown has pledged that Britain will take over the payments on its share of the debt owed by those 70 countries to multilateral agencies. The United States, another key G8 player, agreed in principle with debt cancellation, but proposed to subtract the money saved from its foreign aid budget. Aid agencies hope Canada will follow the British model and maintain or increase aid levels while covering its own share of the debt payments, estimated by the agency Oxfam at $67-million a year.
Canada has announced a moratorium on debt payments for Asian countries hit by the Dec. 26 tsunamis, but there are no indications it is actively trying to broker an agreement between Washington and London.
It is unclear whether Mr. Goodale will support further debt relief next week. In a speech in August, he set out several conditions, including a stipulation that further debt relief should not hurt the ability of agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to provide financing to other poor countries.
“This is a good opportunity for Canada to show leadership…” said Max Lawson, a debt expert with Oxfam International. “It wouldn’t cost much money. If Canada did this now, it would send a clear signal to the other G8 members.”
International lenders are concerned that corrupt governments will misuse the money saved, or that relief will signal to poor countries that future commitments or obligations can be shirked.
But some of the debt in question was incurred 15 or 20 years ago. The Democratic Republic of Congo is paying off loans made in the Cold War era to dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. As for corruption, Mr. Lawson said that most countries qualifying for a recent debt-relief scheme — the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Debt Initiative, known as HIPC — applied the extra funds directly to reducing poverty.
“Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Burkina Faso — the list is increasing of countries spending the money pretty reasonably,” he said. “Nobody is saying it’s perfect and that there are not some dodgy dealings, but…by and large, these funds have been directed to health and education.”
Mozambique used debt-relief funds to immunize half a million children; Malawi bought drugs; Kenya dug boreholes to supply clean water. A World Bank audit found that HIPC countries were spending debt-relief savings “largely as anticipated.”
Such savings are especially valuable to poor governments because, unlike foreign aid, they free up money that can be used for long-term planning and core budgetary expenses. Aid-giving governments frequently stipulate that funds cannot be used for items such as salaries of teachers and nurses.
HIPC allowed Tanzania to cut its annual debt payments to 8.9 per cent of government revenue from 20 per cent. Still, it will spend $65-million this year servicing debts to the World Bank, IMF and the African Development Bank.
There were gains in education, said Chamba Kadjege, program co-ordinator for the Tanzanian Coalition for Debt and Development. “But the place where we didn’t gain much was the health sector.” Child deaths and maternal mortality remain largely unchanged over the past five years, he noted, while AIDS infections have shot up and the overall poverty level has shown no real decline.
“It is a good thing they have done with school fees, but what is the point of school being free if my children are too sick to go there?” asked Seniorina Lukingo, a grandmother who spoke up at a recent community meeting in Buswelu village, near the city of Mwanza on Lake Victoria. “None of us can afford health care now and that is what the government must fix.”
Tanzanians must pay for health care at public clinics. Community organizations say the fees keep the poorest people from access to the services they need the most. Consultations at local clinics cost $1 to $3. Medications and diagnostic tests are extra. Sixty per cent of people polled in a 2003 survey said they had been sick that year but did not consult a doctor because they lacked money for fees.
The fees generate about 2 per cent of Tanzania’s annual budget. The government says they are needed to keep the system running and keep people from abusing it. Britain is urging the government to abolish the fees, the U.S. favours them and Canada’s position is to support that of the local government.
Other things stand between poor Tanzanians and good health care. A total of 43 per cent of posted jobs in health clinics are unstaffed. Basic drugs are lacking in most clinics because of distribution problems and theft by underpaid staff. Clinic staffers routinely charge illegal fees to supplement their meagre incomes.
“We think that getting rid of the fees would be the cataclysmic event that would bring people back into the system,” said Maggie Bangser, director of the Women’s Dignity Project in Dar es Salaam, adding that a total overhaul of health care is needed as well.
As with education, debt-relief funds alone wouldn’t be enough. Scrapping school fees cost the government about $8-million in revenue, while bringing in 1.6 million more children who needed books, classrooms and teachers. The $56-million freed by debt relief was not going to cover it, so the government presented a comprehensive plan for overhauling primary education to international donors. It pledged to spend one-quarter of its total revenue on education, and asked rich countries for the rest.
By overhauling its centrally planned socialist economy, making efforts to stamp out corruption and posting good economic growth figures, Tanzania made itself something of a darling for the donors. They signed on to the education plan to the tune of about $170-million a year. With that money, more than 40,000 new classrooms were built and 16,200 new teachers were hired.
It hasn’t been a total success. When responsibility for schools was taken from the Education Ministry and given to local committees of teachers, students and parents, the government promised a grant of $10 a student a year for five years to buy new books and desks and dig toilets.
But funds had to make their way through district councils, and audits found that, on average, corrupt officials siphoned off half the money. “We received only about $4 per pupil last year, but we don’t know where the rest is,” said Tinde’s deputy head teacher, Emanuel Mbwambu.
A huge teacher shortage remains. Many parents feel the quality of education has not kept pace with improvements in infrastructure. Teachers are paid an average of about $90 a month, just twice the minimum wage.
Many, living in isolated rural communities with no housing or basic services such as piped water, are badly demoralized. “Teachers have no incentive to teach when they have no savings, no position [in society],” said Asha Masalu, a teacher at Mwenge Primary School in the town of Shinyanga.
Most teachers were trained with colonial-era techniques such as rote learning. There is virtually no interacting with students. Teachers recite notes or write them onto blackboards — when there is chalk — for the students to copy.
In Shinyanga, one of the poorest districts in the country, Oxfam has taken on the task of training teachers in child-centred learning methods. “Schools that haven’t had the training, the teacher is still like a preacher in the church or the mosque. How do they know our pupils are learning anything?” said Agnes Chipungahelo, head teacher at Mwenge. “At our school, you can see the difference in the students, and in the pass rates.” But the project is an isolated one.
Only 8 per cent of primary-school graduates will go on to secondary school — one of the lowest rates in the world. Now, hundreds of thousands of children will leave primary school with nowhere to go. “Every month I meet dozens of young people desperate to go to secondary school, and they can’t because they can’t pay [fees are about $300 a year] and there is no space,” said Rakesh Rajani, director of HakiElimu (Kiswahili for education rights).
So Mr. Kadjege, with the local drop-the-debt organization, said he and his colleagues hope Mr. Brown’s push for total debt cancellation will succeed. “Paying 10 per cent of our debt does not solve our problems,” he said. “Without debt cancellation, we are never going to get out of this hole.”
With a report from Jeff Sallot in Ottawa STEPHANIE NOLEN