While cash may be a little tight around the holiday season, there are some basic expenses most families don't have to budget for. That includes, for example, having to pay fees every day simply for our children to go to school. But in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I am today, thousands of struggling moms and dads are still paying school fees even although the country's government has ordered them to be abolished and is fully committed to free school education. Sadly, the noble aspiration has yet to become an everyday reality. An estimated 11 million families still have to pay for their children to have an education. Almost 75 percent of school finance still comes from ordinary families, and the average fees are $44 per year, per student. The tragic result of that is that 40 percent of pupils drop out of education before they have even finished their primary schooling.
Charging for school shuts millions of children out of a basic chance to learn. Denied the oxygen of opportunity, they will never obtain skills that are needed for work in a country that, if well-educated, has enormous natural resources to exploit. Charging for learning is one of the reasons why the Democratic Republic of Congo has, out of all African countries, the second largest out-of-school population at 3.5 million children. One out of four children never start primary school, and only 60 percent of those who start actually complete their primary education - among girls, it's only 30 percent. Most of these children cannot afford to continue school because their parents cannot meet the costs. Thus, another generation loses the chance to better itself.
So this week, I met with the president to discuss an ambitious plan to make schooling free and universal for everyone by the end of next year. I have seen with my own eyes why it is essential. On the way to the meeting, I travelled along roads with dozens of school-age boys and girls walking aimlessly, some of them begging -- all of whom should be in a classroom, learning basic skills that will equip them for the rest of their lives. The DRC education budget has risen from 6.5 percent to 13.8 percent in the past two years. And while teachers' salaries have increased, the national coffers of one of the poorest countries in the world are big enough only to pay teachers a paltry $90 per month. Think about that. That's an average pay of $3 a day, or 37 cents an hour, even for a qualified teacher. This is unacceptable not only in the West but everywhere. Parents are asked to pay school fees to top off the teacher salaries, and even then, it is still not a living wage. You may think that charging poor people to go to school is a vicious idea that should have been left behind in the 19th century but the Democratic Republic of Congo will need an extra $500 million simply to complete the abolition of school fees. And as its population inevitably grows, the DRC will also have to find the money to increase primary school capacity by 50 percent over the next 10 years. At the same time, they have to pay to construct classrooms urgently needed today in the most remote rural areas. On top of that, they have to provide the books and equipment, including computer technology, that are now essential for children to have the best possible start in life. The costs indeed are daunting and might deter a government less committed than today's DRC President, Prime Minister and Education Minister. But as they recognize, the consequences of doing nothing are far, far worse. The U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.K. Department for International Development recently signed an agreement to implement a bold, five-year $180 million program to help nearly half a million children in the DRC go to school and another 1.4 million learn to read by 2020. The Global Partnership for Education has also recently joined the coalition now assembling to back the education ambitions of the DRC with $100 million over four years. But the international community will need to do more in the new year if, by December 2015, no child is to be denied the right to go to school or to face a closed classroom door because her parents are not able to pay a fee.
Sourcing for statistics: Department for International Development, United Kingdom (2014). "Overview of Education in DRC." London: Department for International Development.