Liberia: Education Reimagined

Interview with Education Minister, Hon. George K. Werner

In March of this year it was reported in various African media as well as activist media that Liberia was outsourcing its pre-primary and primary education system to a US based, for-profit, organisation called Bridge International Academies.

Investors in Bridge include Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Pearson, Omidyar Network, the UK and US government and numerous venture capital firms. See Bridge’s Powerbase entry here.

Bridge’s “school in a box” approach is a highly structured, technology driven model that relies on teachers reading standardised lessons, designed by educationalists in the US, from low cost tablet computers. This allows Bridge to keep down costs because it can hire teachers without qualifications and who are required to attend a 5 week course to learn how to read and deliver the script.

I wrote a number of articles on the programme myself which you can read here and here. What I found interesting was the deafening silence that I was met with when reaching out to Bridge directly as well as those organisations investing in this “EduBusiness” including the UK government’s DFID whose official mandate is to lead “the UK’s work to end extreme poverty”.

Education Minister, Hon. George K. Werner

I did however reach out to Liberia’s Education Minister, George Werner who agreed to grant me a generous amount of his time for this interview.

It’s a long read but if you’re interested or even concerned about the corporate takeover of education in the developing world then I think you’ll find it worth your time. Because if we look the other way and say nothing this stratified version of education will soon be in our backyard. If we wouldn’t accept it for our children then why would we allow it to happen somewhere else?

I want to publicly thank Minister Werner for his candid and frank responses to my questions. If only all education ministers were as open.


To get a sense of context and background please would describe the circumstances that led to the development of this out-sourced education programme.

Minister Werner:

If you are a follower of the history of Liberia you know that over the past 30 years Liberia has been experiencing decay in many ways. Beginning with the Rice Riot of 1979 that affected the University of Liberia where many students died. After that we had the coup d’etat that targeted the so-called Americo-Liberians. Many fled the country and then the chaos ensued from there.

Interview with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Charles Taylor came with the rebellion that lasted for about 14 years, during which not only Liberian nationals were targeted but also ECOWAS nationals that had been teaching in Liberian schools from secondary to tertiary institutions. Many teachers I had were from Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal. I was in high school then and I remember one of my teachers, my vice principal, refused to leave then and was killed.

I tell you this story because it gives you an appreciation of how the system has, over 3 decades, experienced deterioration affecting everything from infrastructure to quality in terms of teachers and learning materials.

We have a national budget that hasn’t really gone beyond USD $600 million. When President Sirleaf was elected, she prioritised education, health and infrastructure.

I returned to Liberia from the United States, 6 years ago. My first task was to help reform the entire government public sector. Looking at institution, mandate and function, looking at issues of redundancy, cleaning the payroll to remove the bloated elements of it that came from the war and the warring factions, partition in government and all of that. That’s what I did for that 4 years within the civil service institution.

During the Ebola crisis starting in 2014, the President asked if I could go to health, to take over from the retiring Health Minister. The Senate said that we needed a medical doctor, so I didn’t go and then shortly after that, last May a year this month, I was nominated to come to the Ministry of Education.

The first thing we did was to take a tour of the entire country and that brought us face to face with the issues. We spoke to parents, we spoke to community leaders, we saw school infrastructure post-Ebola, we saw students, we saw everyone who wanted to speak. We held town hall meetings. With the support of Georgetown University, whose students came to Liberia for their internship, because I don’t have the capacity in the Ministry to work with us, I asked them to figure out what the issues are, really, that people want resolved.

In June of that same year we held our education sector planning review which brought almost every stakeholder together. We gathered in the coastal city of Buchanan. We identified 15 priorities that we felt needed to be tackled within 3 years if we wanted to set the system right. Of that 15, top of the list, was teachers. Teacher training, learning materials, teachers guides and all of those. We talked about girls education, school infrastructure and vocational education. These things were topping the list.

David Miliband

In September, around the time of the UN General Assembly, I accompanied the President and my task was to be able to communicate these priorities to people who wanted to listen. I was lucky enough to be invited by David Miliband of the International Rescue Committee in partnership with Dubai Cares and I spoke there on education in conflict. Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah also invited me around the same time to speak about issues of education, particularly focusing on post-Ebola reforms.

It was during these meetings that I met people from the world of philanthropy, and they wanted to hear more. In November I was in London, invited by Vitol Foundation. Vitol had convened a roundtable of potential funders for our priorities.

At the end it was said that,

“ Liberia under President Sirleaf has enjoyed a lot of international goodwill. We have devoted ourselves to the status quo. From what you are telling us the impact has not been achieved. Now, there are various initiatives in Africa that we want you to experiment, even if it means that we pay for it, for your travel there.”

We were pointed to East Africa to look at Bridge International Academies and what they were doing. We went to East Africa, spent at least a week there talking to parents, particularly Kenya and Uganda, talking to local authorities, visiting the schools, seeing the students, talking to parents and the stakeholders. At the end I was struck by the ability of the children to read at a great level, the commitment of the teachers and the fact that there were systems of accountability, monitoring and evaluation. The management systems were clear.

President Uhuru Kenyatta

I returned and prepared a report for the President. When she had an opportunity, invited by her Kenyan counterpart, President Uhuru, for a State visit in December of last year she said, “You have to come with me to show me what you saw.” We went when she had an opportunity in Nairobi to see what she could see. After she saw that she said,

“Okay, I need you to speak to your Kenyan government counterparts to give you an honest opinion about this program.”

When I met my Kenyan counterparts they said,

“Look, we like what Bridge are doing but we have a problem with standards. Standards for curriculum and standards for teacher training. We train our teachers through the universities, they must have degrees, and we designed a curriculum that every school must adhere to. Bridge has our curriculum but is not following it to the letter”.

I said,

“Okay, what I’m listening to and seeing is the parents who live in these slum areas where Bridge are operating are paying Bridge, and why are they choosing Bridge over the public institutions that are relatively free? There must be something at stake here.”

Then I was told that it’s true that the students at that level are doing relatively better than their counterparts in the public (state) schools.

We returned to Liberia and I used the Christmas period to reflect on how we could leverage some of the strengths Bridge portrays without violating what has been legislated in Liberia. Free education, free and compulsory education for children at the primary level.

I said, “Look, the best thing to do is to form a partnership with Bridge,” and at the time, I have to be honest with you, I did not know there were many other low-cost education providers. I decided to write to the same group that had convened in London and said,

“I was just in East Africa, as many of you wanted and what I saw looked very good but in Liberia we want to start a conversation in January in 2016 to talk about how we could form a partnership with Bridge.”

That letter went out and I think it was around the 24th and the 25th. Many traveled from within and without to come to Monrovia to talk about what this partnership could look like. It was in the meeting, particularly from civil society, that there were objections to looking at Bridge only. People wanted to see competition, they wanted to see all of that, so we said yes.

I said to them,

“Since this conversation began with Bridge, we are going to continue to go with Bridge but Bridge will not run private schools in Liberia.”

The schools in Liberia and the piloted schools will be for government. There will be no school fees paid, the materials the students will use will be free of charge, but we want to pilot this to see if we can leverage the kind of management systems that Bridge uses to improve learning outcomes including teachers showing up on time, extend their school hours and days, etc. To introduce them back into our system and in so doing build the Ministry’s capacity to carry on these things beyond the pilot year if we are not able to afford it.

We consulted with our public procurement commission in terms of the competitiveness of it. We gave our guidance, we put our call for expression of interest and within that time we also signed a memorandum of understanding with Bridge. Since then we’ve had at least 11 applications.


Are these applications from domestic providers or are they from external NGOs?

Minister Werner:

Both. They come in several categories. They are Liberian, meaning run by Liberian. They are NGOs that operate in Liberia, such as Street Child. Then you have BRAC, that is in Liberia but operates in the health care sector but wants to do education now. Then you have Rising Academies that’s currently in Sierra Leone, but wants to come to Liberia, and you have Omega. Then in Liberia we have several others including, Youth Action Network.


What is Liberia’s annual budget for education?

Minister Werner:

Of the $600 million USD national budget, the Ministry of Education receives around 44 million or so. Now, of that 44 million at least 35 million is for salary and then there’s a substantial amount for school subsidies. There isn’t money, actually, to do proper education planning or programming.


I understand that you’ve received financial support from the World Bank via their Global Partnership for Education initiative. How much has Liberia received?

Minister Werner:

I think the program probably started in 2007 or so. The Global Partnership for Education has been constructing schools, and giving school grants and all of those things. I think it’s a $40 million project. The World Bank itself is the grant agent for this money. Post-Ebola it has given some school grants to be able to prepare the schools to be more resilient, to train teachers in psychosocial, pedagogy and the rest. It’s ending June this year.


Who are the other external organisations that have been advising you on Liberia’s education programme?

Minister Werner:

credit: Tony Blair African Governance Initiative

The Tony Blair AGI, they support my office and they help us clarify issues, they bring in their own expertise. They help us to formulate some of the policy papers on this and to be able to talk to our donors to help them understand what is it that we are trying to achieve by doing this and the problems we are attempting to solve. They have a person in my office who keeps me abreast of everything that is happening.

ARK from the UK is also advising, playing a very good and appreciated supportive role in terms of us navigating this. Those are, apart from what we get when we convene, stakeholders meetings with USAID, UNICEF and others. Those are the main advisors on this.


What is the cost to Liberia in contracting with Bridge for this programme?

Minister Werner:

We have agreed as a government that the teachers working in these schools will continue to be civil servants on government payroll, so government will be paying those teachers. Government will continue to maintain the schools. So those 2 areas of finance were already budgeted for, the rest will be provided through private philanthropy that will go directly to the providers.


So to clarify, Bridge are not receiving any funds from the Liberian government or families but from external philanthropists?

Minister Werner:

This would apply to the other providers too, if BRAC and others were chosen. That’s how they would be funded.


What is your response to the statement made by Samuel Johnson of the National Teachers Association and his concerns about capacity building?

Minister Werner:

The National Teachers Association, have been represented adequately in these stakeholders meetings. In fact, in the Ministry here, the Director for Teacher Education is the President of the National Teachers Association. There are other moving parts to this.

The Ministry is carrying out an aggressive teachers workforce reform. We’re using biometrics to verify our teachers, to check their credentials. We inherited a system bequeathed us by the war. Many people are in the classroom and they shouldn’t be. They are not educated to be in the classroom and we are finding out many “ghost teachers”. It’s interesting to see that Mister Johnson himself was discovered in one of our counties as a teacher, when he lives in Monrovia working as Secretary General of the National Teachers Association. Since 2013 he’s been receiving direct deposit paycheques from the government but he’s not been in the classroom, so this reform has many implications for those who want to circumvent the system to continue to cheat.

Click image to read correspondence between Minister Werner and Samuel Johnson.

The other part to it is that Bridge operates in Kenya as a private provider and as you know Bridge doesn’t have that many friends in the teachers union groups. Education International vehemently opposes Bridge, and while we were doing the stakeholder meetings they sent a team to Liberia to work with the National Teachers Association to oppose this. They mischaracterise this as privatising schools. The problem is that I know the heads of Education International, David Edwards and others, great friends of mine.

I saw them in Dubai prior and they didn’t want this to go ahead. I told them, I said,

“Look. What we are doing in Liberia is different from what Bridge is doing in Kenya. This is a partnership to improve certain systems, to build the Ministry’s capacity to do certain things, so it’s a pilot. We will have independent evaluation of it. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but we have to try whatever we can to accelerate and improve learning outcomes. Liberia is way too behind.”


Why do you think they object to the programme then?

Minister Werner:

It’s because I don’t think they were open minded enough to see our perspective. Then I discovered later on that in Bridge-operated schools in Kenya and Uganda there are no teachers unions. That could be a reason. Bridge doesn’t tolerate teachers unions in the schools it operates.


Both the Kenyan and Ugandan governments have halted the expansion of programmes with Bridge citing, for example, highest turn over of senior managers and teachers in any private education network in Africa, questionable results data, poor quality facilities, unqualified teachers, etc. Does this concern you & what measures are being put in place to ensure quality education is provided to Liberian children in this programme?

Minister Werner:

I will ask Bridge but I haven’t really seen anything from them. As I explained I met with my Kenya counterparts. I didn’t see my Ugandan counterparts on this. Although I went to the local government officials near the Kenyan border and went as far as Kampala, by the time I was in Uganda I think they had around 7 schools. My information is that they have maybe 3 times as many now and this is since December 2015 or so. I don’t know. Bridge, by the time I was in Kenya, had 404 schools.


By outsourcing Liberia’s education provision to external non-domestic organisations are you concerned about the potential for “intellectual colonialism” to negatively impact cultural identity and future prosperity?

Minister Werner:

I agree with your concerns and I share them. My thinking is we need to lead in the leveraging of the advances we’ve been making in terms of technology as tools for education, in terms of the various methods and knowledge giving teachers in the classroom, and we need to lead in the design of our curriculum and all of those things that should be to make education better.

So yes, I am concerned about intellectual colonialism. However, making reference to what is happening, I think that the approach we are piloting may be a better approach in the sense that we are not relinquishing things that we hold dear, things we’ve legislated in Liberia. We are not being stopped from designing our own curriculum. I think that another way to look at it is to say, you know, we’re being bombarded with external media anyway.


I assume that relying on non-domestic agencies for your education provision can’t be a long term plan. What is your strategy for domestic capacity building in regards to teachers, schools and curriculum?

Minister Werner:

Since the end of the war, we have partnered with USAID to train teachers. Liberia has 3 teacher training institutions regionally situated and the training of teachers since the war has focused on early childhood and the primary levels. That means we have huge deficiencies in junior and senior-high levels.

This year we started tackling the middle school level, which is 7, 8 and 9 by introducing a program we call the “B certificate”. It’s a 2 year program in one of the teacher training institutions to train teachers who can teach at that level.

There is a long term plan and we’re working with UNESCO to be able to put this in place with ICT education and the rest. Then we have what we call the County Education Officers. These are people in the regions who are responsible for education at the local level.

Liberia has 15 counties, and then those who assist them, we call them District Education Officers. There are 98 political districts, so there are 98 of them. We need to build their capacity to understand what their rules are in the counties. To be able to hold themselves, and the schools, and their community engagement to PTAs and the school boards growing in those areas. That is the much bigger project. I know the pilot has gathered more news but this is a pilot project we are pursuing. To have a good school you need a good principal.

That is one of the challenges, building good leadership. Not just about encouraging female leadership, which is huge in Liberia. Imagine 28% of our teaching faculty is female and when you check the leadership hardly does one find any woman at leadership level in the schools. It’s something that we are working on long term. Then the Ministry doesn’t have a stringent M&E (Monitoring & Evaluation) capacity to monitor all of these things, to make sure that teachers are showing up, to make sure that communities are engaged, to make sure that schools have what they need to operate. We hope we can build all of these things in the plan we are formulating.


How can other organisations, domestically or globally, assist Liberia and your mission as Education Minister?

Minister Werner:

I think to help you must know the person and listen to the person. Interestingly I was in Israel recently with my Ghanaian and Ivorian counterparts and when Naana [Opoku-Agyemang] talked about Ghana, I almost thought she was talking about Liberia because I’ve always envied the Ghanaian system myself. I was in Kumasi for some time and there are shared problems I believe within the ECOWAS setting. I shouldn’t have to go to Israel to see my Ghanaian counterpart.

ECOWAS has to value education, to place it on the agenda where ECOWAS Ministers of Education can come together and talk about what the shared challenges are and how we can resolve them together within the context of the West African Examination Council, for example.

Here in Liberia we need help with teacher training. We need help with building the capacity of the teacher training institutions. There are too many young people out of the war who are functionally illiterate. We need help directing them to skilled training programs that actually give them skills and jobs. I believe if we want to solve the teacher issue we must also work to clean the payroll, which is what I’m doing now, and use the efficiency savings and put them back into the system so you have qualified teachers in the classroom. This is going to be key to revitalising or reinvigorating the school system in Liberia.

As I said earlier, before the war when we were in junior high school there were Ghanaian teachers, there were Nigerian teachers, there were Senegalese teachers, there were teachers from the Gambia. These were teachers in the sciences and math. We killed many of them, some ran away with their Liberian wives and they’re not coming back here. These are the challenges. Building the human capacity to deliver on the essential service of education is what is needed.

Further reading

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An entertaining & thought provoking slayer of sacred cows, Graham Brown-Martin works globally with senior leadership teams to help organisations adapt in the face of rapid change & innovation. By challenging entrenched thinking he liberates teams to think in new ways to solve complex challenges. His book Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury and he is represented for speaking engagements via Wendy Morris at the London Speakers Bureau.