Feature Article of Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Columnist: Sakyi, Kwesi Atta
By Kwesi Atta Sakyi
17th November 2012
As elections loom large on the Ghana horizon, it is germane to ponder over some of the issues which worry Ghanaians. The NPP is campaigning vigorously that when it is given the mandate through the December 2012 elections, it will implement a free Senior High School (SHS) education policy. Right now in Ghana, basic education is free up to the Junior High School (JHS) level, that is the first 9 years of basic education. The progression rate from JHS to SHS has been abysmally low with many teenage school dropouts left stranded in our Ghanaian economy. We must remember that 2015 has been set by the UN to reach the 8 Millennium Development Goals.
Perhaps, the free SHS promised by the NPP could be one of the strategies of intervention to reduce poverty in Ghana. With high unemployment rate, global recession, inflation and the heavy burden of looking after the extended family, many parents and guardians are hard put to it paying school fees for their children and wards who pass the JHS exams and have to proceed to SHS, most of which are boarding schools. Many critics and concerned onlookers in Ghana have been worried to no end as regards a fair distribution of the national wealth. Ghana has for decades exported gold, diamonds, bauxite, manganese, timber and cocoa, yet the ordinary man in the street has not benefitted much from the earnings of these finite resources. Many people, especially the uneducated people in the rural areas, live in abject poverty with very poor infrastructural facilities.
They do not have access to electricity from the national grid, they have no access to potable water, they have no access to tarred roads, and excellent medical facilities are like a mirage to them. Is this social justice? Where is the so called public interest or the social contract? Our voters should be discerning so that they elect a party which can pursue pro-poor policies, just as Americans did on 7th of November 2012. It is dangerous to vote elitist political parties into power because the aim of such political parties is to enrich themselves, and to yoke the majority poor with unsavoury and enslaving taxes.
I think one of the best ways to distribute the national cake is to provide free education up to SHS. However, Kenya has since 2003 been running a free education programme under Mwai Kibaki and they are paying a heavy price for it. Is it quality or quantity? Many classrooms are congested, there is acute shortage of qualified teachers, classrooms are lacking, textbooks are in short supply, and a host of other problems. Yet, it may be worth trying.
From 1963 to 1966, Nkrumah introduced free education in Ghana for all elementary schools. There were no school fees to be paid and there was free supply of textbooks. Had it not been that magnanimous state intervention, some of us would not have completed our elementary education. However, the policy was not a totally free education because we had to buy our own khaki uniforms for boys and girls’ frocks for girls. Those in secondary schools were mostly in boarding houses and they paid boarding fees for accommodation and food. However, education in general in Ghana was heavily subsidized by state grants and subventions, with the missionaries chipping in their lot.
My late uncle, Nana Ayirebi Acquah, was the Chairman of GET which built quality secondary schools all over Ghana. In short, education cannot be totally free because to go to boarding house from your village, you have to bear the transport cost. You also have to pay for your medical fees and exam registration fees. Your parents had to give you pocket money to meet contingencies. We used to go to teacher training college with our wooden ‘chop-boxes’ laden with gari, shito, sardines, cornered beef, Horlicks, Ovaltine, Milo, Blue Band margarine, Tate and Lyle and St Louis sugar, Ideal milk, detergents, fried fish and kenkey. Nkrumah practised eleemosynary economics or economies of state largesse, which helped to redistribute the national wealth. Of course, many saw him as pro-socialist and pro-communist.
For the twins of health and education, whose provision is under-provided and under-consumed in a free market, there is need for state intervention. At the universities, loans were introduced to finance students during Lt General Ignatius Kutu Acheampong’s regime in 1975 for those straight from sixth form, and they used to jubilate and shout,” the millions are flowing”. However, it is doubtful whether these loans have been fully recovered. I have come across colleagues who worked in Botswana. They tell stories of free supply of school textbooks in that country, and how students tear up the books at the end of the year because they expect to get free new ones. This is an example of how freebies are abused and they lose their value. State subsidy of education and healthcare may be recommended as timely intervention to bridge the income gap. However, its implementation may be subject to some abuse by the implementers. Currently, some MPs in Ghana are approached by their constituents to help them get admission in Senior High Schools for their wards on partisan basis.
Is this fair? Is it not cheap politicking? Is it not part of the Spoils System? Much as I recommend some form of free education in Ghana, I would also caution that those wishing to implement such a policy should do a thorough Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA). Besides, intervention in the educational sector is not the only viable option to bridge the yawning income gap between the rich and poor. In Mauritius, Namibia and Kenya, their elderly citizens above 60 years are paid non-contributory state pensions from state-funded schemes supported by overseas outfits such as DFID in the UK. In Namibia, elderly citizens of 60 years and above receive the equivalent of 60 dollars monthly.
Why cannot we introduce such an enlightened scheme in Ghana? Of course, just as we have to examine the sustainability of free education, we also have to do the same for pensions for the elderly. I am at least happy that our past governments have tremendously improved the lot of our cocoa farmers by introducing the Akuafo Pa Cocoa Scheme in conjunction with Cadbury Schweppes of UK to pay fair prices to our cocoa farmers. This programme needs to be extended under SADA to cover shea-butter, yam, cashew nut and other exportable crops. Poverty alleviation should be attacked on all fronts by using strategies which are long term and sustainable.
Under the NYEP (National Youth Employment Programme), we expect to see low-interest rate loans introduced to help SMEs and start-ups, which the youth come up with in the form of micro finances. Each of the District Assemblies or local governments in Ghana should set up scholarship schemes to help needy students to fund them in the Senior High Schools. Perhaps, soup centres should be set up to feed destitute people in the country. NGOs should take up the challenge to institute many poverty intervention strategies, because the government alone cannot carry the burden of poverty. Otumfuo;s Educational Trust Fund should be emulated by all chiefs in Ghana.