Fixing One of the World's Most Broken Education Systems

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When David Coltart took over as Zimbabwe's minister of education, only 2 percent of schools were open.

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Zimbabwean opposition leader David Coltart, left, meets with President Robert Mugabe, right. (Reuters).

Last week, I sat down with David Coltart in the Cato Institute's new library in Washington, DC, to talk about Zimbabwe. I had not seen Coltart in three years and I was eager to find out what was the political and economic situation in his country since the 2008 power-sharing agreement that, among other things, made him into the only white member of Zimbabwe's cabinet.

Coltart was in town lobbying for the removal of targeted sanctions on Robert Mugabe and his inner circle. While Coltart, a human rights lawyer, is a vocal opponent of Mugabe -- and a member of the rival political party -- he says he believes that the sanctions cause the country more harm than good and provide the autocrat with a convenient scapegoat. Dressed in a suit that has clearly seen better days and sipping a real coke (no ice!), Coltart opened up about his love for his country and hopes for a better future.

What was the state of education in Zimbabwe when you became the minister of education in February 2009?

In 2008, we only had 28 full teaching days. When I took office in February 2009, 98 percent of all schools were shut and 90,000 teachers were on strike. Exams from the previous year were still unmarked. There was no money for education in the government's budget, and textbook-to-pupil ratio was 15-to-one. My department was not computerized and our data collection system had collapsed. Basically, the education system was in an extreme crisis.

What have you accomplished since taking over and what are the most pressing challenges remaining?

First, I established an open-door policy and a rapport with teachers' unions, which the previous minister ignored and treated with suspicion. I allowed parents to pay performance incentives to teachers whose salaries were a mere $100 per month back then. Those policies resulted in teachers returning to work and today the teacher attendance rate is excellent. I set up an education transition fund that allowed the USA, UK, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand to bypass Zimbabwe's government and help to finance our education system directly. I also managed to break a domestic textbook publishing cartel -- three Zimbabwean companies that colluded to make windfall profits. I authorized UNICEF [the United Nations Children's Fund] to hold an international tender and the cost of books came down to 70 cents from five dollars. Textbook ratio fell to 1-to-1 and is now the best in Africa.

The review of the national curriculum remains a problem. Last reform of the curriculum was in 1986. It is clearly very outdated, but some in ZANU-PF [Zimbabwe African National Union -- Patriotic Front, the ruling party] are being obstructionist, because they fear the introduction of civic education and a more objective, non-partisan history syllabus. Another problem is that teachers are still paid only half [$400] of what their South African counterparts earn. We also worry about the physical security of the teachers. Teachers are held in high regard -- especially in the rural areas -- where the ZANU-PF has traditionally been relatively strong. Teachers are usually victimized during elections, because people vote in schools and teachers are viewed as sympathetic to the opposition. My worry is that in case of renewed violence, teachers will be targeted and leave again.

The Movement for Democratic Change, a Zimbabwean political party of which you are a member, has been in a power-sharing agreement with Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF since September 2008. How has the relationship between the two parties evolved over the last three years?

It started as very tense and distrustful. Later it has evolved into a more functional relationship, not quite cordial, but functional. There is some close cooperation between the MDC and more moderate elements within the ZANU-PF. There has even been the occasional support in the cabinet and parliament for policies proposed by the MDC.

Considering that the ZANU-PF has retained control over the police, military and the Ministry of Information, what has been done to increase political freedom -- including freedom of information, speech, and assembly -- in Zimbabwe?

The media laws have been relaxed. Two independent newspapers -- The Daily Newsand Newsday -- are operating freely and doing well. Unfortunately, there has been little liberalization when it comes to the broadcast media, such as the radio and TV, which remain under ZANU-PF control. Internet is uncensored and widely available, but it is relatively expensive. Freedom to protest is limited by the Public Order and Security Act.

How were the events of the Arab spring perceived in Zimbabwe? What do you think are the prospects for political awakening in Africa in general or Zimbabwe in particular?

The Arab Spring was met by a mixed set of emotions. The ZANU-PF was horrified and tried to clamp down on videos of protests in North Africa, and responded by arresting anyone who suggested that similar protests would be a good idea in the Zimbabwean context. The civil society proved remarkably unresponsive. A lot of people are tired of the struggle. Let us also not forget that much of the human capital -- our best and brightest -- have left Zimbabwe and live abroad.

Do you expect the next parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be held next year, to be peaceful, free, and fair?

I don't expect them to be completely peaceful or totally fair, but I am hopeful that they will be much freer than last time. There is potential that they will be the best elections so far. The legal environment has improved. We will have better election laws this time around. Also, one of the key benefits of being in the same room with our opponents for three years is that they treat us with diminished hostility.

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Marian Tupy

Marian L. Tupy is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. He is the editor of HumanProgress.org.

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