As the world celebrates International Literacy Day today, there are few countries being more closely watched than Kenya. In 2003, when newly-elected President Mwai Kibaki announced during his inauguration that primary school would now be free for all Kenyans, over two million additional children poured into school. The cause of universal free education was thus linked from the start with the new hopes for a stable democracy in Kenya.
There is no question that early 2008 was at least a temporary set-back to many of those hopes. After the economic and democratic gains that had come with free elections in 2003 and an economy that had surged to 7% growth in 2007, ethnic violence exploded this January amidst charges that Kibaki supporters had rigged votes in the December 2007 Presidential elections. Over 1300 Kenyans died before peace was brokered. Beyond the tragic loss of life, school was disrupted for hundreds of thousands of children displaced by the violence, while a decline in tourism and the steep rise in oil prices appear to be cutting growth in half for 2008. To top it off, in early July, Finance Minister Amos Kimunya was forced to resign due to his suspicious sale of Kenya's Grand Regency Hotel.
And yet despite all this bad news, I returned from a week in Nairobi this summer feeling optimistic about Kenya. Yes, the power-sharing agreement between now Prime Minister Ralia Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) candidate and President Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity (PNU) is unusual. Yes, peace was partially bought by splitting existing ministries in two to create ministerial slots to satisfy powerful advisors in each party. But the benefits of peace - however it was garnered - are enormous for Kenya. And Odinga - the likely winner of the election - showed real statesmanship by accepting the number two spot in the interest of that peace. However strained this political marriage between Kibaki and Odinga appears, it does seem to be functioning. And the resulting stability is starting to pay dividends. In July, France gave the green light to its citizens to both visit and invest in Kenya again. The partial privatization of Kenya's telecom company, Safaricom, was dramatically oversubscribed. With some luck on oil prices, growth could easily return to 6-7% levels by 2009 or 2010.
And in a bright spot, one area where this coalition government seems truly united is on education. Kenya made international news in 2003 by eliminating the terrible practice of charging even poor parents fees for each child they send to school - a practice that denies tens of millions of your people - especially girls - an education in much of the developing world. The announcement of free education by President Kibaki brought 1 million new children into school in one week! Since then, enrollment has gone from 5.9 million to over 8 million. Now Kenya is taking the pioneering step of eliminating fees for secondary school - even though it will cost the government ten times the amount to cover the cost of secondary school as opposed to primary school. While parents still face the expenses of boarding, uniforms, and travel, the abolition of fees has again led to a surge in enrollment.
While President Kibaki and his first Education Minister George Saitoti - both of the PNU - deserve great credit for pushing the elimination of fees, the Orange Democratic Movement seems just as committed. When I met with Prime Minister Odinga in his Nairobi office, he told me that the same education goals were in the platforms of both parties because "we all agree that education will be the ultimate engine of Kenya's economic growth."
The Ministry of Education has garnered international respect through both excellent civil servants like Permanent Secretary Karega Mutahi and Basic Education Secretary George Godia as well as their decentralized and transparent system for dispersing funds to local school districts. Rather than hold the money in the Ministry of Education, Kenya ensures that every shilling gets to the local level by depositing a per-child grant of 1,020 Kenyan Shillings (approximately $15 USD) to local banks accounts for each school. The headmaster is then required to post the amount received in plain view (which I saw firsthand in school after school that I visited) and work more closely with parent committees on how to spend the money that anything I had witnessed in the United States.
While Kenya is stepping up to the plate with serious reforms and the financial commitment to replace lost school fees - including for 4,000 secondary schools - they cannot do it alone. The overwhelming funds needed are for teacher salaries - which typically make up 80% of school budgets. What Kenya most needs from the international community is help with the recurrent costs that would come with hiring the 47,000 new teachers that current Minister of Education Sam Ongeri says Kenya needs to handle the additional three million students while focusing on quality.
This financial reality demonstrates how essential it is for donor nations to not only start filling the $9 billion annual financing gap needed for universal basic education, but also to ensure that such support is, as Prime Minister Gordon Brown stresses, long-term and predictable. Poor nations that are worried that assistance will only be short-term will hesitate to bring on new teachers, fearful that their funding will be cut-off just as those teachers have been trained and deployed. And without an influx of new teachers, the admirable effort to bring in millions of new students will mean exploding class sizes and decreasing quality.
Everywhere I went in Kenya there were high hopes that if Barack Obama were elected, these concerns would finally be heard. But no G-8 leader should need to be the child of a Kenyan parent to know that both educational reform from nations like Kenya and financial support from donor nations like the United States will have to be long-term to paint the most optimistic future for Africa.
Gene Sperling is Director of the Center for Universal Education at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was formerly National Economic Advisor to President Clinton