Accolades vs. Accountability: a “Nobel” Education in Liberia

-by Briana Thompson, The Accountability Lab 

Students registering for class at the University of Liberia last week

The recent denouncement of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee has again highlighted governance issues in a country still recovering from a devastating conflict, which was in large-part caused by a lack of accountability by those in power. After Gbowee’s comments, a consultant working with the Liberian government told the Daily Maverick, “some people defend her [Sirleaf’s] actions by saying that there are so few qualified people in Liberia, and the ones that are qualified are precisely the ones that were connected or in power before the war…so she is appointing the only qualified people, and those just happen to be the ones that are also connected.” Isn’t this, the lack of qualified Liberians, the bigger issue?

According to a 2008 Harvard University report: of the approximately 230 million students enrolled in tertiary institutions, across the globe, a meager 3 million come from Africa. Indeed, Liberia now ranks 182nd out of 187 countries in the UNDP Human Development Index– at a time when around 75% of the population is under the age of 35. This is certainly not the result of a lack of demand for higher-education- the University of Liberia had about 23,000 applications for 6,000 places this year, for example. Rather, it is an issue of lack of capacity and resources, low standards and endemic integrity challenges, which are reported to range from bribery, to teacher absenteeism, to sex for grades.

These problems are financially damaging- direct and indirect corruption is “a roadblock to greater prosperity” in Liberia, as Secretary of State Clinton pointed out on a visit to Monrovia earlier this year. Perhaps more costly, however, are the social and political effects of these dynamics. Countries rely on universities to produce future political, business, and civic leaders. Conversely, an education system that generates and sustains corrupt behavior becomes the launching pad from which these problems can permeate throughout government, the private sector and civil society. Furthermore, corruption creates a disincentive for students to learn if they are forced or are able to pay their way through school- while ill-acquired degrees and accreditations constitute a direct danger to the public as inadequately trained professionals enter the workforce.

Liberia is one of very few low-income countries to have shown some progress on international corruption indices, but the country still has a long way to go in terms of creating a qualified workforce and – as a result- truly beginning to put in place solutions to nepotism and lack of accountability in governance. Dealing with accountability issues in universities would go a long way towards restoring confidence not just in the government but in in the minds of Liberian citizens themselves- who deserve better.

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Making power-holders accountable in the developing world

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