Education advocacy in the DRC: Changing public opinion on the right to education
Jacques Tshimbalanga is national coordinator in the Congolese education coalition. Recent events show some of the main challenges the coalition faces in their pursuit for quality education in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Three young students from a local community in rural DRC met one day after school. They had sex. They were only 16, 15 and 12 years old and hence the act is illegal in the country. Somehow, their act was videotaped with them fully recognizable. The video was shared on social media and within a few days it had gone viral and reached every city in the country causing a stir. It also reached the Minister of Education who immediately ordered that the students be expelled from their school – he went even further and demanded them permanently excluded from any educational institution in the country.
The national coalition for education defended the students, arguing that they can’t legitimately be denied an education because of a mistake like this. The minster altered the decision to make it cover only the catholic network of schools. Again, the coalition opposed the minister, arguing that the catholic schools make up 60 percent of all public schools and are the only once accessible for the students in question. The decision would in practice deprive them of their right to education.
But then two things happened which illustrate that things are changing in the DRC.
Education used to be seen as a privilege and not a right
First and foremost, the coalition saw public opinion favor the kids and their right to an education. Only a few years ago, the perception among the Congolese public would be that education is a luxury or a privilege. Now, it is seen as a human right and something that should be ensured for all.
Before 2009, tuition fees and other contributions paid for by the families constituted an average of 73 percent of the education expenses. The state covered only 23 percent and the rest was supplied by international NGOs – meaning that education was only for those who could afford it. After years of campaigning and advocating for free public education by the coalition, fees are now removed and public education genuinely free.
“Now we have parents and local communities actively fighting for their children’s – for all children’s - right to quality education. And we see that same perception spread from the public to the politicians and power holders. You cannot overestimate the importance of this shift in mentality and the potential that follows when able to mobilize the local communities in the fight for change,” says Jacques Tshimbalanga.
He cannot help but feel proud about this development as he feels it closely connected to the activities carried out by the National education Coalition since its formation in 2009. Another main goal for the 75 organizations, unions and networks that constitute the National Education Coalition in the DRC has been to establish themselves as both a critic and watch dog as well as a constructive partner to the government and education authorities.
“Historically, public criticism is seen as an attempt to undermine the authority of those in power. And that is not taken lightly. But more and more often, we are accepted as a legitimate dialogue partner and our inputs seen as valid,” says Jacques Tshimbalanga.
A very special invitation
In the case above, the education coalition mended things with the Minister who finally decided to allow the kids to return to school and continue their education. Around the same time, members of the coalition were – for the first time ever – invited to the Ministry of Education to partake in a workshop.
“The workshop was fruitful, and the experience of being able to present and openly discuss our research and ideas in this forum was a big thing to us. A chance to establish us as someone the politicians and powerholders can work with in a constructive manner,” says Jacques Tshimbalanga.
The workshop was about alternative financing for education – a theme that is high on the coalition’s agenda. Since the coalition came together in 2009, we have advocated for an increase in the national budget for education which was then at 7 percent. In 2015 it was decided to raise the budget line once again, and in 2020 it reached 22 percent.
Still, recent estimates suggest that the public budget for education covers an average of 1 USD per child per year while other estimates show a need to at least triple the budget to close the current gap – and much more investment is needed to approach the goal of education for all.
Need for alternative sources of funding
Around the country, classrooms are too few and in bad condition. Many students are learning without any materials at hand. Many teachers go without a salary. And way to often you will find each teacher with up to 100 students and a very limited chance of delivering quality education. Hence, learning levels remain low and drop-out rates high – especially in the rural areas. Realizing that it will be difficult to finance quality education from the national budget alone, the coalition has intensified its search for alternative financing.
Due to the decentralized governance system in the DRC, the coalition has started to look to provincial governorates, which have some income of their own but are currently not assigning anything for education. Another option is to earmark a share of the tax laid on the extraction of natural resources for education as has been done in other countries. A third is a similar earmarking policy of the tax on mobile communication. Finally, the coalition is working to establish an independent fund for education that both public and private sources could contribute to.
“I am happy to say that our ideas were well received at the workshop and with the increased support and engagement from the public I must say, that we remain optimistic in spite of all the challenges,” says Jacques Tshimbalanga.
- The National Education Coalition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was established in 2009.
- It has a total of 75 members constituted by local organizations, the Congolese teachers union and networks of media and researchers.
- The coalition aims to cover all 26 districts in the DRC, which is the largest country in Sub-Saharan Africa.
- The DRC is among the poorest countries in the region and estimates show that there is a budget of around 1 USD per student – less than one third of what is needed as a minimum. Source: World Bank
- On average, a Congolese child receives 9.1 years of schooling, though translating into 4.5 years of Learning-adjusted Years of School (2020 estimate). Source: World Bank
- Poverty in the DRC is high, remains widespread and pervasive, and is increasing due to impacts from COVID-19. In 2018, it was estimated that 73% of the Congolese population, equaling 60 million people, lived on less than $1.90 a day (the international poverty rate). As such, about one out of six people living in extreme poverty in SSA - live in the DRC. Source: World Bank
- The coalition works to truly establish quality education as a human right and to mobilize local communities in the quest to secure the funds and political framework to improve the education system. The coalition also work with local and national authorities to find other sources of income to close the gap in educational budgets.