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Free SHS promise: The last big populism in two decades of multipartism in Ghana (Part II) Free education programmes around the world


Free SHS promise: The last big populism in two decades of multipartism in Ghana (Part II) Free education programmes around the world

28 September 2012

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The story is frequently told about free education policies in some countries around the world. I have heard that in the Netherlands, “students are paid to go to school”. So a few months ago, I asked a number of Dutch university students whether that is true. Yes, it’s true. But here is the whole truth. Dutch students do not actually go to school for free. They pay fees. The students (usually post-high school students) are only paid allowances, and how much their parents earn determines how much they are paid.

Knowing how much a parent earns is possible because in the Netherlands, just like in many other highly organized societies, workers regularly file their tax returns. Then you might say: “What is the big deal if the Dutch do not give their students entirely free education, after all the citizens must be wealthy.” It’s actually a big deal. There are poor people in the Netherlands too, and with their population standing at nearly 17 million, there are jobless people, too. So what the government does is to give to each person according to his/her need --- mostly in the form of subsidies but not “freebies”.

And it makes great economic sense that students are paid allowances, the quantum depending on what their parents earn. This way, the children of millionaires do not have to receive the same allowance as children of the poor. But in Ghana, we are being promised “free SHS education for all” regardless of the fact that some parents have enough wealth to be able to support their children.

The Netherlands situation is similar to what happens in many developed countries. Of course, Finland and Norway are two of the few countries where education is virtually free. However, the hard cold fact is that both Finland and Norway have just about 5.5 million people. But what is Ghana’s population? I’m pretty sure that upon hearing the “free SHS” promise on the campaign trail, some Ghanaians have already made grandiose plans to add more children to the number they already have.

After all, they will go to school “free”, up to the SHS and will receive medicare “without paying”. What’s wrong with you folks? Meanwhile, the wealth countries like Finland and Norway have created for themselves can allow them to do these things. But have our leaders any idea how to create wealth? Here, I have shown you that successful economies only do things that make economic sense. That is how come they have money to spend on developing countries like Ghana, in the form of aid.

You must have been wondering why I have focused so much on the Dutch. Here’s why. When we have to feed our young ones in some few basic schools across the country in the Ghana School Feeding Programme (GSFP), the government of Ghana is not entirely responsible, financially, for such a modest social intervention.

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The Dutch government contributes substantially towards that project, and it should interest you to note that when the Dutch signaled their intention to withdraw support for the programme some time ago, it sent a huge panic across the corridors of power. Why? That’s an indication that the politicians who initiated this programme had no clue how to raise money internally for such a modest programme. So why do they think that all 25 million Ghanaians are political party fanatics and ideologues who are excited about populist promises like “one-time health insurance premium” and “free SHS”?

Sadly, I have come to learn that Nana Akomea is the frontman for the “free SHS” preaching group. His track record as a politician? As Minister for Manpower, Youth and Employment, he had no workable idea how to raise money to pay the meagre allowances due employees of the National Youth Employment Programme and these folks would go unpaid for several months till many had no choice but to drop out of the programme. So what goads him into leading the “free SHS” campaign? Mere populism?

Replicating Kwame Nkrumah’s vision

Now, there are those who claim since Kwame Nkrumah was able to institute free education for the Northern Regions of Ghana, it should be possible to do that now for the rest of the country. One critical issue that we cannot gloss over is this: What was Ghana’s population when that policy was instituted? Since Ghana’s population started to balloon, do you remember how many times, in the last two decades, SHSs in the northern regions have threatened to close down because several weeks into a new academic year, government has been unable to release feeding grants to enable these schools to run?

And why haven’t we been able to sustain the “glorious state” in which Nkrumah left our public universities, where students were being fed at university? The answer is simple: the population explosion, coupled with the ineffective political leadership that we have had since then is responsible. So would you present-day politicians be kind enough to stop pointing us to what Kwame Nkrumah was able to do for his generation of Ghanaians and Ghana? Stand by your own records, your own uninspiring records, records that show you have no idea how to raise money from our own resources for us to undertake simple projects like National Youth Employment, National Identification Project, Presidential Palace, Population and Housing Census, National Constitution Review, and what have you?

After all, free education for the northern parts of Ghana was not the only thing Nkrumah did. He established industries and thereby creating jobs too. So why are the politicians not making noise about these ones? Perhaps telling us the concrete plans they have for job creation will not sound populist enough to attract the necessary votes? Indeed, the only record our politicians can boast of in the last few decades, as far as industrialization is concerned is how skillful they have been in divesting the state’s interest in the Nkrumah-established industries in the name of “government has no business doing business.” If government has no business doing business, then where are the jobs?

Meanwhile, the problem of late release of funds for our SHSs is not limited to the northern sector schools alone. Between 2009 and 2011, I had the privilege to sit in Mfantsipim School PTA meetings. I came to appreciate how the heads of our second cycle schools, even those of the so-called elite schools, operate under great difficulties. Helloooooooo Mr Kwame Mieza Edjah, Headmaster of Mfantsipim School, long time no hear……At the dawn of the four year SHS programme, government told Mfantsipim how she could not be helped immediately to put up a new dormitory block to take care of the extra year, and that government was focusing on deprived schools for the time being. So what happened?

Mfantsipim devised a strategy, and the strategy was to convert a technical education block into a dormitory block. But where would the funds come from? The PTA Executives had to appeal to parents to assist, and so levies were imposed on each student. In a number of these meetings, I saw Ms. Gloria Akuffo, former minister for Aviation, who was a parent too. At one point, she led an effort to appeal to the parents to assist the school because government alone could not do it. She insisted that what she was suggesting is done in Wesley Girls’ High School too, and saw no reason why “Mfantsipim parents” would not be willing to go to the aid of their wards. Indeed, this kind of situation, where parents had to be called upon to assist the schools went back several years. But all of a sudden, in the name of politics, these same politicians look us in the face and tell us they have the magic wand to make SHS entirely free. What is happening? Populism here, populism there, populism everywhere.

It is time to go back to the fundamentals. We need water, regular supply of electricity, truly affordable housing and jobs. We need well-resourced university laboratories, too. Why do politicians set their own priorities and pretend to be proposing solutions to them? Why do they behave like those proverbial examination candidates who set their own questions and then proceed to answer them. Why don’t they address the needs of the people? Many communities in Ghana have been crying for water for decades. At least these people are not asking for “free water”. But our politicians pretend not to hear these cries. Or rather, they have no clue how to solve this problem. But then they claim to know better what the people really need --- free SHS education, one-time health insurance premium. They are happy the people are holding onto their “Kufuor Gallons”. How more populist can it get?

The other day, I heard Mr John Kufuor say the time for free education is now. Thank you, Mr. Kufuor, for that wonderful insight! Unfortunately, the debates are now about to move into a higher gear; we have gone past the days of rhetoric. As President, you had the chance to show us what was economically and politically feasible, and what was not. At least you showed us it’s possible to make a promise on the campaign trail and turn around to ‘dishonour’ it after securing the mandate of the people! Remember your rhetoric about prices of petroleum products as we went into the 2000 elections? Retire in dignity.

Meanwhile, going into the 2000 elections, there were many more promises: to replace slums in our cities with modern communities, to build railways to connect regions, and to provide affordable housing. But for eight long years, we saw no evidence of the fulfillment of these promises. Then another government came with a so-called STX deal to provide “affordable housing”. But where are the houses? Ahead of the 2008 elections, Ghana was regularly plunged into darkness.

There was a lot of storm in the media as to how the problem of irregular electricity supply could be addressed. In those days, I remember the opposition quickly let loose its “energy experts” who went chest-beating, who would propound one theory after the other as to how the problem could be addressed. Now, here we are, the energy experts are now in charge but it looks “darker” than before. Helloooo Dr. Kwame Ampofo, Helloooo Mr. Ato Ahwoi...How are you? Long time no hear. What’s wrong with us folks?

Part III, the last in this series follows shortly. It looks at the future.

From: Israel Deladem Agorsor (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )



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