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More Minuses Than Pluses Before Dakar in Congo
By Lyne Mikangou
Inter Press Service

     BRAZZAVILLE, Apr 11 (IPS) - Like many countries, Congo-Brazzaville is preparing to attend the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, from Apr. 26 to 28. But this central African country will have more problems than breakthroughs to report.
   Congolese non-governmental organisations (NGOs), working in education and school personnel unions, have called for a ''week of action'' in Brazzaville to alert the national and international community of the need for guaranteed universal education.
   As a prelude to the global education summit, the African Student Parents' Association (FAPE) and a coalition of education NGOs organised a week of events from Apr. 5-10.
   ''The world will sit up and listen to the ideas which come out of Dakar. It will be an important, not-to-be missed event, especially for a country like the Congo, which is still reeling from a newly-ended civil war and whose educational system is in total disarray,'' said Martin Itoua, the president of FAPE, whose headquarters are in Brazzaville.
   The Dakar meeting will take stock of the progress on the 'Education for All' or EFA goal, although Congolese NGOs continue to lobby government decision-makers to make education a priority.
   A petition was drafted by the Congolese NGOs demanding multilateral support for rebuilding the country's decaying educational system.
   The petition, signed by some one hundred NGOs, urges the government to place a higher priority on literacy and the informal education of young people and adults, to provide educational institutions with teaching materials, and to computerise the educational system.
   Also among the petition's recommendations are improved wages and working conditions for teachers, a guaranteed school calendar, classroom hours, and greater involvement of civil society in management of the educational system.
   In addition, the NGOs are also calling on development aid organisations to help the Congo rebuild after having been destroyed by civil war.
   Other points covered in the petition are the radical reduction or outright cancellation of Congo's debt in order to reverse the cycle of poverty and conflicts.
   Justin Koumba, the president of the National Transition Council (CNT-Transitional Parliament), declared that school attendance rates in the Congo are constantly dropping. The rate for girls is even worse, he says.
   ''We must recognise that we're not doing enough to reach those thousands of children still working in the fields or wandering the streets or our cities,'' says Koumba, who is also the chairperson in charge of coordinating citizen group NGOs.
   According to him, ''We're not doing enough to improve the working conditions of teachers, who toil in overcrowded classrooms for pathetic salaries.''
   According to a 1999 report written on the EFA programme by FAPE, together with the UN children's agency, UNICEF, it appears that the school enrollment rate in the Congo, one of the few African countries where it used to be 100 percent, dropped to 78.9 percent in 1998.
   Conflict and its aftermath also increased the illiteracy rate -- 24.9 percent. Literacy for men is pegged at 83.1 percent, while for women, the rate is 67.2 percent. The average dropout rate is 7 percent.
   Koumba reaffirmed the need for basic education for all children.
   ''The most important thing we can do for these children, who lack almost everything, is to give them a basic education adapted to their needs. It's their right, and it's our duty,'' he declared.
   He also acknowledged that education is probably the most effective means of keeping population growth under control, reducing infant mortality, eliminating poverty, and nurturing democracy, peace, and sustainable development.
   The Congolese public are waiting impatiently for these recommendations to be put into practice.
   ''Too many recommendations, too little action,'' says Romuald Okoti, a teacher in a local primary school.
   ''I'm tired of all these conferences and other forums which sometimes are just so much talk. Even though goals get set and the same things get stated over and over, there is no effort to make all the talk a reality,'' he says.
  This article is free of copyright restrictions and can be reproduced provided that Inter Press Service is credited.
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