Education on the Rise in Liberia

Adult basic education is giving young adults in Liberia much more than just a second chance.

Liberia’s civil war concluded in 2003, but this 16-year period of strife left the country with significant wounds that have yet to heal. Among the casualties of the conflict was the forced closure of most schools, robbing an entire generation of the chance for a formal education.

This generation has now reached adulthood. And as Liberia embarks on an ambitious effort to revamp education for all—an effort that the country’s Minister of Education has described as "mess to best"—its attempt to improve adult basic education (ABE) may be as important as anything being done in the K–12 sector. Classes in literacy, numeracy, and livelihood skills are not just giving tens of thousands of adults a second chance at an education, they are also fundamentally changing how young adults see themselves.

“You barely have to recruit for adult basic education programs in Liberia because so many people want to go to school,” says EDC’s Sarah Nogueira Sanca, who directed the USAID Advancing Youth Project, an adult basic education and workforce development program, from 2011 to 2017. The project helped more than 22,000 Liberians between the ages of 13 and 35 develop literacy, numeracy, and life and work readiness skills.

Classes in literacy, numeracy, and livelihood skills . . . are fundamentally changing how young adults see themselves.

Nogueira Sanca says that for many Advancing Youth participants, taking the project’s ABE classes gave them a sense of standing in their communities—something that many of them had never experienced before.

“Learners are proud to learn how to write their name and speak in public,” she says. “They are eager to build numeracy skills so they don’t get swindled in the market. And they want to learn skills to have a livelihood, which is a tangible thing they can use to improve their lives and build standing in their communities.”

Night classes gave many Liberians a second chance at an education.

The power of education

Two years ago, Helenah Farway could not read or write. But when a neighbor told her about the ABE classes being offered by Advancing Youth, she jumped at the opportunity to participate.

By attending night classes, she learned how to read and write. She also learned carpentry through an apprenticeship program, where she built chairs, beds, and small furnishings for Liberian homes.

Farway is proud of how far she has come, and she hopes that other Liberians learn from her example.

“I want to tell my Liberian girls: you should not underestimate yourself in society,” she says. “I don’t care how old you may be. You can still make it in life if you are determined. I never knew that I was going to be here today. To be smart, to be able to read and write. I never knew.”

Farway is not the only one to walk this path.

Fofee Ndorbor, a 25-year old from Lofa County, spent most of the post-war years finding odd jobs until he learned about the new ABE classes. As part of his training, he learned how to set up a small-scale village savings and loan association (VSLA)—a critical need in his community, which was far away from any organized banks.

The VSLA system is simple, consisting only of a small lockbox and three keys distributed throughout homes in the community. But the process to create and manage one is complex. Over a lengthy training process, trainers from Advancing Youth’s local partners helped Ndorbor and his peers learn how to save and manage funds, track deposits, and develop club policies that promoted transparency. The training made a significant difference: in the first year, Ndorbor’s VSLA collected 216,085 Liberian dollars from 30 contributors.

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“People come to borrow money to get a loan,” says Ndorbor. “And when they borrow money, they pay it back with interest, so the money continues to grow in our box.”

Then there’s Jenneh Toukao. Before enrolling in Advancing Youth, the 39-year-old from Monserrado says that she felt “like a nobody in society” because she had stopped going to school before the end of third grade.

But ABE classes—“night school” as she calls it—turned her life around. She learned how to read and write. She also learned how to make soap and do basic auto repair, marketable skills that she has leveraged into financial independence.

“Before, I used to go and say to my family can you help me get food to eat,” she says. “But today, I can put my own pot on the fire to eat.”

Toukao gets emotional when she talks about the difference that a second chance at education has made in her life.

“I thank God that I am among the women that people respect in my community,” she says. “This is the result my night school has given me.”

Program participants in Monrovia learned how to make and sell soap.

Looking to the future

EDC’s Denise Clarke-Reeves, chief of party for Advancing Youth, enjoys hearing these stories because they show just how much basic education can foster both hope and economic development. These stories have also helped keep interest in ABE alive among policymakers.

“We have been able to get discussions about adult basic education on the table, and this has resulted in more efforts to fund these programs at the county level,” she says.

One advocate is B. Dio Harris, the director of Alternative Learning Programs for Liberia’s Ministry of Education. He says that alternative basic education fits into the country’s plans for the future.

“There a lot of young people, even older people, who missed out on education. So there should be an appropriate program that [supports] this population,” he says.

In fact, many critical pieces are in place for adult basic education to continue growing in Liberia. The Advancing Youth team recently handed over a full ABE curriculum to the Ministry of Education. It also teamed up with ministry partners to create a set of program-quality standards that will be used to evaluate future ABE programs throughout the country.

Clarke-Reeves believes the work in Liberia is not just about economic development—it’s also about improving outcomes for future generations. These successes will help pave the way for thousands more Liberians to get the education that they never had.

“Once parents understand the value of education, there’s a greater chance they will send their kids to school,” she says. “I like to think we have laid the foundation for that.”