I'm reading back through my past few entries – particularly the ones from right before and after I came back to Liberia – and am somewhat embarrassed at how negative and how painfully introspective they are. Even after only having been back at site less than a week, the question of why I wanted to come to Liberia in the first place no longer seems like a reasonable or necessary query. I wanted to come because I like this kind of work – it's challenging, thought-provoking, and (more frequently than this blog might incline you to believe) feels worthwhile. Above all – it's interesting, and I feel like I learn a great deal from it.
Anyway, enough of that.
It turns out that part of the absentee problem last week was caused by a small conflict with regards to teacher salaries. As I may have explained before, the school day is actually broken up into two sessions with two different groups of students – a morning session that lasts from 8-1 and then an afternoon session that runs from 2-6. Theoretically, this should break up the enormous classes without adding considerably to the teacher workload, as teachers should be able to simply repeat the lessons they planned for the morning session in the afternoon. In reality, the morning and afternoon sessions are not really on equal footing. The morning classes are still much larger than the afternoon classes, and teacher and student absenteeism is much higher in the afternoon – perhaps because teachers and students alike are tired by that point in the day, or perhaps simply because it's really, really hot in the afternoon, which makes it hard to concentrate or even stay awake.
In any case, as I understand it, teachers who teach both the morning and afternoon classes have been getting paid twice as much as those who teach only one session. However, this past payday, the government apparently decided not to release double salaries to the teachers, and only released a single salary. In response, most teachers here stopped teaching in the afternoon, and actually instructed all of the students to go home. Fortunately, this issue seems to have been resolved; teachers are again getting paid their full (or rather double) salaries, and so are (slightly more regularly) attending classes, which means that the students are also coming to class more consistently.
I'm glad that the issue seems to have somewhat worked out, but the whole thing just reinforces (again) how fragile and dysfunctional the system is. The teachers don't necessarily care about their jobs – they did not hesitate to screw over the students in this situation – but to be honest there isn't much incentive for the teachers to care. Many of them are not teaching because they love teaching; they are teaching because it's a job that pays money, and I'm sure that ideally they'd rather focus on their own families and children than a bunch of unruly kids who don't particularly want to learn. Once again, it's a catch-22 in which everyone loses: The teachers have little motivation to teach without decent salaries, but the government can't afford to pay decent salaries. The students therefore get a shit-poor education, in which they are not highly invested, and with a poorly educated population, development and economic growth stagnate. With a lack of economic growth, the teachers won't get paid, and the whole cycle continues.
Of course, that is an overly simplistic way to look at the situation. I'm sure there are some or many critical factors that I am overlooking. Once again, I'm reminded of the viewpoints put forward in The End Of Poverty and The White Man's Burden. If I were Jeffery Sachs (author of the former), I would insist that this cycle could be broken by an infusion of cash from the developing world. If I were William Easterly (who penned the latter), I would caution that my efforts as an outsider are bound to come up against a host of unforeseen blockades, and that instead of funneling my cash through the government and the Ministry of Education, I would be better served supporting less centralized, smaller-scale, more “grassroots” endeavors. Fortunately, for more reasons than one, I am neither of those people. Instead, I am a lowly Peace Corps volunteer, and can therefore rest comfortably in the fact that it's not my job to solve the problem of how to develop the country. Instead, I'll just focus on my one tiny part, sympathize with teachers, students, and government officials alike, and be thankful (once again) that I grew up in America and not Liberia.