Education in Liberia: A Case Study in Maximizing Your Philanthropic Investment

Liberian schoolchildren face a number of obstacles. NGOs on the ground are out to help -- and modest philanthropic investments can keep them going.
Liberian schoolchildren face a number of obstacles. NGOs on the ground are out to help — and modest philanthropic investments can keep them going.

By Murray Bass

Liberia is a West African nation formed as an American colony by freed slaves in 1820. It became an independent nation in 1847 but remains one of the poorest nations in the world. The nation still suffers from the devastation of its civil war, which ended in 2003 and destroyed much of Liberia’s engines of economic progress, including those based on the investment of foreign capital. Liberia is perceived as very high risk for the investment of that capital. There is almost no local market for goods because there is almost no availability of spendable income.

The prospect of a reasonable return on foreign investment capital is close to nil. In a crazy sort of way, that fact is a positive aspect for the investment of philanthropic capital. The return on investment of philanthropic capital is not financial, but is the prospect of human development and the improvement of the human condition.

The people of Liberia are, for the most part, very deep in poverty. Even skilled labor can earn only a few cents an hour. Teachers typically earn about $40 a month. From a practical point of view, every Western philanthropic dollar invested in Liberia goes many times farther than the same dollar would invested in Europe or the United States. A common-sense approach to charity in Liberia is not to do things for them but rather to help them do things for themselves. That way more of the investment remains in Liberia. Over time, local capital can accumulate.

Liberia’s economic situation plays an important role in its current and planned development of citizen education. My own experience with education in Liberia illustrates this perspective well.

Liberian kids line up to receive free school supplies.
Liberian kids line up to receive free school supplies.

The logistics of philanthropy aren’t always as easy as they sound

About two years ago I received an email from a woman named Brenda Moore. In response to the Ebola epidemic, Brenda formed an NGO called Kids Educational Engagement Project Liberia (K.E.E.P.). She asked for some educational supplies for Ebola orphans and other children who did not have access to education. The supplies she requested were extremely simple and cost about $1 per child.

My nonprofit, Tools of Learning for Children, was in time qualified as an approved agency for Feed the Children, which serves as a distributor for product donations from Western corporations. We were able to acquire about 15,000 composition books for K.E.E.P. at no cost. But we discovered, to our chagrin, that freight and shipping expenses to move the material to Liberia was far from free — about US$4,000.

While there is an abundance of donated materials available that would fill the needs of K.E.E.P. and other NGOs on the ground, funds for freight and shipping have not been so abundant. At Tools of Learning for Children, we’re careful not to ask for materials until we have the money to move them to places like Liberia. So it makes sense that building a freight and shipping fund has become a project of the highest priority for Tools. In addition to the composition books, we have also been able to supply simple educational materials for several thousand children.

Children receive their daily lesson at a schoolhouse in Liberia.
Children receive their daily lesson at a schoolhouse in Liberia.

On the ground: Improving education in Liberia

One would think that a nation’s capital would be affluent. Not so with Monrovia. This was confirmed on a face-to-face basis when I met with Odysseus Gbor, a Liberian pastor whose ministry is sponsored in part by a local church. Pastor Gbor runs a school-orphanage in Monrovia with 250 children, another school in Monrovia with 200 students, and a third school on the outskirts of the capital, also with 200 students.

The orphanage-school is staffed with 13 people, total payroll $500. He confirmed that they do not have the basic materials they need to teach children properly. We were able to connect him with Brenda Moore, and she has agreed to help him source such necessities.

Moving forward, K.E.E.P. plans to develop what they call “resource centers” across Liberia. These are to be seeds of learning for areas that have no access to schools.

Each resource center will have two classrooms, each housing 40 students. They’ll be equipped with CD players, laptops, projectors and a portable sound system, allowing teachers to deliver state-of-the-art curriculum.

Classrooms would be available for community gatherings. And third room will house a library and computer facility with 15 computers — where students and adults can access information and learn to use technology for research. The planned design also includes a storage area for the distribution of basic educational materials and first aid, as well as feminine hygiene items for young women so they are able to stay in school.

The planned design also includes solar panels with excess battery capacity to accommodate up to 180 rainy days.

Philanthropic investment can drive educational improvement

Murray Bass, founder of Tools of Learning for Children.
Murray Bass, founder of Tools of Learning for Children.

The estimated cost to build and wire one of K.E.E.P.’s 4,000-square-foot resource centers is about US$80,000. Total cost of the facility as described would be between $160,000 and $200,000, including equipment — a doable figure if larger partners come on board. Totals also depend on the cost of the solar panel system. Most facilities in Liberia are powered by high-powered diesel generators, which remain an option to cut costs.

Yes, philanthropic investment dollars go a long, long way in the Liberian environment — about $200,000 for a facility that would cost many times that amount in the Western world. Each resource centers as planned would have an annual operating budget of $10,000.

In short: Education occurs one individual at a time and tends be the basis for future growth. The very low costs of educational material per child provide huge rewards in the number of literate humans created. Investing in the development of humanity is a highly sustainable investment and a great reward.

Images courtesy of the author

Murray Bass is an 88-year-old blind author of weekly columns for the Fairfield Daily Republic. He formed a nonprofit, Tools of Learning for Children, 16 years ago to help young children learn to read.

I invite you to help us help K.E.E.P Liberia. If you want to make an investment, tell us how you want your investment used. Basic materials, freight and shipping fund, the development of resource centers, or for annual operating expenses. Email Murray Bass at mzb60@comcast.net.

Tools of Learning for Children is an American 501c3 non-profit. Corporation donations are tax deductible. We have no payroll or overhead except for the expense of a Post Office box. All volunteer.

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