Thursday, April 23, 2020

Free Education in the DRC

Free Education in the DRC
By Francesca Dishueme

The administration of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the country where the majority of my family was born and raised, announced an initiative to enforce free education for primary school-children. A policy which has been introduced in the past and guaranteed by the constitution. The refund of school fees is in the works. I have my reservations.

While it is written in civil law, the ideal of compulsory education is simply not met throughout the DRC. Enrollment numbers are not suitable for a country nearing 81 million inhabitants. According to Northwestern University, enrollment rates stand at “40% overall for primary and secondary schools, and attendance is even worse in rural areas of the east where ethnic conflict persists”. In 2017, a national study on the DRC conducted by UNICEF found that an average of 95% of Congolese children are not participating in early childhood education or primary education. With the battered history and context of the DRC, government spending is a national concern. Unfortunately, a lot of progress has been at a snail's pace due to mismanagement of funds and corruption. There are so many systemic issues at play with the DRC and the education sector is no different.

Relatively, the public education I have seen in America while attending a public school myself is, granted, one that's ideal compared to places around the world. I'm familiar with “free education” being somewhat circumstantial. This past year, my fees for taking my chosen courses came out to $147. That’s just for classes. In my high school career (3 years), my family has spent around $1,000 for fees.

School fees are mandatory. They go directly towards providing adequate supplies and materials, teachers' salaries to recognize their labor and continuous training, the upkeep of school maintenance, ensuring transportation as a way to acknowledge the wide radius of students. Technology, lunches, courses, etc., etc.. Fees are the indirect costs to allocate for a school’s infrastructure and resources. So, it does act as a condition to getting an education.

America strongly enforces the law that requires a child to attend school for however many days out of the year. It’s an obligation to send your child to school. For low-income families at a greater disadvantage, they can be accommodated in order to maintain equal opportunity. For example, lunch fees would be reduced or completely waived if a family expressed financial insecurity. All in all, the system does its best to cater to a student's situation. The American school system as a whole centralizes and develops the change-makers of tomorrow because it’s free in its’ delivery. Access to education is free whereas tuition is not.

In the Congo, a Central African country with high unemployment and extreme poverty, struggle and stress find a home. The scale of urgency and vulnerability often forces the children to step up to the plate. So in too many cases, the decision is made to exclude education for the sake of reducing expenses. It’s not fair for children to strain themselves in their search to supply their family’s income. It’s not right for a child to choose between survival and education. That alone makes me incredibly frustrated. Theoretically, free education sounds beautiful. Right now, households in DRC are the major source of funding a school receives. That should not be the case, the Government should help foot the bill. “Promising to provide “free” education is not only in keeping with international standards and requirements, it is popular with people.” says Dr. Christina N’tchougan-Sonou, who has directed education projects in Africa for over 20 years. But reform needs to be practical before it is introduced to families that have been regularly under-served by former education policies. “If a school cannot collect some money from the parent, and the government doesn’t send the funding they promise (payment of teacher salaries, school building construction and maintenance, teaching materials), then the school directors don’t have anything to work with and sometimes have to close a school.” As mentioned, the chance of Government spending to actually reach the education sector and families is slim.

Congolese children often share their plea for access to quality education and a roadblock routinely mentioned is the adversity they face due to school fees. Of course, educational inequality should be eradicated and it is the Government’s responsibility to invest in its children. But, how in the world are schools to be funded? The new initiative for free education takes a commendable stab at raising school enrollment, but fails to address quality of education. Especially if there should be a sudden stream of enrolled students, the resources don’t stand a chance.

Mostly free education is a reasonable goal for the best interests of the schools and the children. I’m hoping for a more multi-sectoral response and better oversight by the higher-ups that can correct education management and accountability for DRC’s school network. Eliminating fees is a ways to go looking at the country’s trajectory. Before the kids get accustomed to a fleeting prospect and become even more disoriented by instability, questions should be raised. Will free education lead to the ineffective regulation of schools?

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Combating COVID19 From New York to the Congo: An Interview with Bibi Ndala

Bibi Ndala speaks at The People’s Forum in New York City

What do you do on a day to day basis in the battle against the coronavirus?
Bibi Ndala: The situation in the field guides my daily tasks. In the early days of the outbreak, I was coordinating and actively participating in the enrollment of clinics and hospitals to the Public Health Laboratory (PHL)'s eOrder system to facilitate the transmission of their specimens. Another aspect of my daily duties relates to problem resolution, which is a liaison role between hospitals and the laboratory to ensure that issues with problem specimens are resolved to minimize the impact on turnaround time. I also trained some of the staff that were hired to support the agency's efforts.

What are some of the key challenges that you face in carrying out your duties?
BN: Because this is an unprecedented situation, there is no real guideline in dealing with this outbreak. For most of us working, I believe that is the source of most of our daily challenges.

How do you cope with the stress and emotional challenges of being on the front lines in this battle against COVID-19?
BN: First, I am grateful to support the nurses and doctors treating patients by easing the testing process of their specimens. The Department of Health provides a lot of wellness and mental health support resources to the staff at PHL. Finally, I have a great network of friends and family that have been very supportive.

You just finished working on the Ebola task force in 2019 with doctors, activists, and policymakers. How does the coronavirus outbreak compare to what you witnessed with the 2019 Ebola outbreak in the Congo?
There are many lessons to be learned from the Ebola outbreak, especially for the Congolese government. Yet, it is hard for me to compare it to the current pandemic. Although insecurity in the region made the response challenging, most of the procedures applied during the Ebola outbreak were based on lessons learned from previous outbreaks. In the case of the novel-coronavirus, the modus operandi is not well known. Further, health systems are being challenged like never before, revealing how much more we need to do in terms of global surveillance and emergency preparedness.

You visited health clinics and centers in the Congo in January, how prepared do you think the Congo is to address an outbreak of COVID-19?
It is not a secret that the DRC has an ailing health system suffering from decades of negligence. The country lacks the medical equipment to respond to the outbreak appropriately; we are talking about respirators, oxygen pumps, test kits, consumables, and personal protective equipment. The good news is that they have the structure and the lessons from the recent Ebola outbreak to work with, along with some skilled health workers dedicated to their work.

You recently shared your experiences and offered advice to Congolese youth who have taken the initiative to educate the residents of Kinshasa about the challenges and best practices to combat coronavirus. Does being engaged in the battle in New York give you particular insights that you can pass on to your comrades in the Congo?
First, I want to say that I am inspired and encouraged by the youth who are fighting to take control of the country's narrative. Although my involvement in New York is more technical, I have access to resources beneficial to their initiative. Unfortunately, the social conditions in Congo make it very difficult to apply the recommended preventive measures to combat this outbreak. Beyond the actions taken by youth organizations in the capital, the government needs to provide its citizens with the resources to apply the preventive measures effectively.

Anything that we haven't asked about your experience in New York and the Congo that you would like to share with our readers?
I want to stress the fact that these are unprecedented times. In Congo, like in New York, it is important not to let fear and panic get the best of us. It is important to remain connected to reliable sources of information because there is a lot of misinformation circulating on coronavirus. Finally, we are fighting this pandemic together.

Bibi Ndala is a graduate of the Masters of Public Health program at New York University with a concentration in Global Public Health. She currently works as a City Research Scientist at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Public Health Laboratory. She has ten years of experience as a medical technologist at McGill University Health Center. She recently launched the organization ELAKA to support and educate expecting mothers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bibi also serves as volunteer coordinator for Friends of the Congo and Congo Love.