Posts Tagged ‘education’

The Situation in Swaziland

September 17th, 2011 No comments

Depending on what news outlets you regularly follow, you may have recently seen a few headlines coming out of Swaziland:

  • Annual Reed Dance – where all the maidens dance topless before the King.
  • Protests in the Streets – various groups and organizations demonstrating over a variety of issues.
  • Schools close down – lack of money forces the education system to shut down.
  • Big South African Bail out – Our closest neighbor gives the country a financial boost.
  • Wikileaks releases Swaziland cables – The ambassador’s comments are made public.

Since some of those headlines could certainly induce worry for those of you that know us, I wanted to take the time to share the situation as we see it on a daily basis.

First, there are a few broad themes you need to understand about the country:

  • Swaziland is a constitutional monarchy with a king, but also houses of assembly (senate / parliament).  In the case of Swaziland that means a really big government and a whole lot of bureaucracy.  Unlike England that has a similar system, King Mswati III has a whole lot of power in running things.
  • Swaziland is in deep financial trouble.  The government is simply too big to be supported by the streams of revenue that exist.  The country has high need (largely stemming from the HIV / orphan crisis) and low income (70% live on less than $2/day).  This has caused the type of problems you would expect: unpaid bills, promises without delivery, loss of services.
  • Most Swazis love their King, although there is a small but vocal contingent that want to see a more democratic system with less power (and money) going to the King.  This group tends to be less traditional, more educated and in general fairly civil

In one way or another, most of the recent press comes from some combination of these factors (except for maybe the dancing-topless-virgins thing). 

The bailout from South Africa was necessitated by the dire financial situation of the country.  However, the amount (roughly 3.4 million USD) is only enough to cover about a month and a half of government salaries.  So, by the time it arrived, most of it was spent and nothing was accomplished.  This "bailout" largely just served to accentuate the poor financial management of the government.

The protests have mostly been put on by groups that are upset because they are not getting what was promised to them: students are marching because they haven’t received their scholarship; nurses are protesting because they haven’t been paid on time; the teachers are upset because government hasn’t provided their share of education costs. 

Part of the principals/teachers protest has been to shut down the schools.  So far most students have missed 3-4 days of their final term of the year.  However, the actual effect is variable as some schools have continued to operate.  Unfortunately, the whole thing is largely political maneuvering and it is the kids who lose.

The financial crisis has been a rallying point for many of the pro-democracy groups in the area.  Many of them see the monarchy as a huge financial drain that must be addressed and they see the the King and his allies as the ones responsible for taking things the direction they have gone. So, the push is for more representation from the populous of the country and less power/money going to the king.  But, you have to remember that even if those points are valid, most Swazis are very happy and dedicated to King Mswati.

Then, on top of all of this, wikileaks just released cables from the US Ambassador commenting on the situation outlined above.  I haven’t read the cables, but from what I can gather, they are mostly just formal statements about the country and its leadership that any westerner who has been here two weeks could plainly see.

Now, a couple things I want to point out.  First, for the most part, Beth, Mikayla and I have not been directly affected by any of the things going on.  Financially we are not dependant on the government so there are no major worries.  Second, the protests / actions that are going on here have been largely very peaceful.  There has been a few instances where things have gotten out of hand, but no more so than what happens occasionally at demonstrations in the United States.  I think when people hear "African Protest" they picture machine guns, tanks and riot police.  Here it is mostly just a bunch of educated people marching in the streets with banners while police look on.  I am not saying that there are not things going on that I raise my eyebrow to, but nothing is happening that makes me feel unsafe.

Of course, there are a lot of indirect aspects of these situations that have and will affect us and those around us.  First, the children in our child care program have been out of school and that means that it is up to our staff to construct learning opportunities on the fly for 120 children.  Second, because government is not paying its bills, there are a lot of services that aren’t available.  This has mostly just lead to inconveniences, but I am unsure how things will progress.  There is a real worry that provisions for AIDS medication may be interupted and that could severely hamper our work.  Third, security is heightened so it means more road blocks and things like that, but again, those things are mostly just annoyances.

Having followed news out of Swaziland for over 3 years now, and having read up extensively on the history of the country, I can say that the nation (especially the monarchy) is at a very interesting point.  I have no idea how things are going to play out, but I fully expect Swaziland to be much different when we leave it than when we arrived.  Thankfully, there is nothing that indicates to me that our safety may be threatened.  There are no militias jockeying for power, no soldiers looking to over throw the government, no fires being set or vigilante justice running rampant.  If anything, people of Swaziland are just wanting to make sure their voices are heard and that the country they love has the promise of a bright future.

While I am glad some of the issues of Swaziland are getting global attention, I also realize how things might look those on the outside.  Honestly, the ongoing issues (HIV, AIDS, TB, orphan care, etc.) are much worse than any of the political issues that might occasionally make the news.

Universal Health Care & Universal Education

August 18th, 2009 2 comments

This health care debate is getting out of control.  We seem to have reached the point where no one is listening anyone and both sides consistently descend into the type of demonization where everyone who doesn’t agree with you is a Nazi.  Therefore, it is not my goal to convince anyone to change their view on the issue, but rather to present a different way of looking at it.

Health Overhaul Protest

At the end of the day, there is one question under-girding this whole debate and no one seems to be approaching it directly.  Rather than arguing over the merits of a single payer system vs. co-opts, or arguing over how much government intervention is acceptable, we must first as this: Is healthcare a right? How you answer that question is going to determine how you approach every other question.

For the last century we have generally assumed that education is a right of every American.  Before the mid 1800’s the school systems were nearly all private and it was not until the Reconstructionist movement following the Civil War that nearly the entire country offered “universal education.”  We have reached the point where no one questions the appropriateness of using tax dollars to ensure every American the chance to graduate high school.  Of course reform is needed, there are inefficiencies that need to be addressed, and problems the system faces; but no one is arguing we should cut off access to education just because people can’t afford it.  Again, this is because we assume education is a right every citizen is entitled to.

So what about health care?  If we think it makes sense to extend education to everyone, why not basic medical care as well.  After all, our Declaration of Independance understood the presence of certain inalienable rights including “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  In my book, basic health care falls under the right to life.  And why wouldn’t it?  Do we really think the ability to be healthy should be a privileged only extended to the rich, those with good jobs, and those who are already healthy?  This is the debate we need to engage first before we get into the logistics.

Let’s jump back to the discussion of universal education because I think there are many parallels we can learn from.  First, both are expensive.  In America, according to the Education Department, we spend roughly 7% of the GDP on education — most of that comes in the form of tax dollars.  By comparison, health care consumes 14-17% of the GDP depending on which source you use.  Apples and oranges right?  Well not really.  If you look at countries with socialized medicine, their spending levels are dramatically lower.  Spain spends 7.6%, the UK spends 7.7% and Canada 9.6%.  [ASIDE: Did you know the average health insurance company spends 12% on administration, while Medicare/Medicaid only spend 2%]

Beyond just looking at cost, I think many of the charges leveled against universal health care can be dispelled by looking at our universal education system.  One of the most persistent questions concerning a “public option” has been how can fair competition exist a for-profit private company and a government entity.  The same question of competition could be asked of the education sector: How can any private education institution compete with public schools who offer free tuition?  If you ask me, private schools do just fine.  There are plenty of people willing to pay more for exclusive environments.  Just look at private colleges.  Even though they generally cost 2-3 times what a public university does, enrollment is still strong.  Why is that?  Because even when there is a free (or cheap) public option, people still want exclusivity and choice.  In a recent town forum discussion, a University of Colorado student asked Obama how private companies could be expected to compete with a government run plan.  That is a good question for sure, but the irony lies behind it.  This student is receiving a government subsidizes university education, and asking his question to a person with a degree from Harvard – the oldest private university in the nation, and coincidentally, the first corporation in our nation.  The costs are not even close.  UC tuition is 4-6K per semester while Harvard is 17K.  That is not fair competition is it?  Yet which school would you rather have a degree from?  When you offer a good product, there is always competition.

What about the rationing of care?  You would think that since the government is picking up the tab for everyone’s primary education, they would need to ration educational expenses — you know, get rid of the people that cost the most.  In practice, the opposite is true.  Special education students are given more resources and extra services despite the fact it is of increased cost.  Additionally, even though a public education option exists, parents have the option of seeking additional interventions on their own.  No one is kicking little Johnny to the street because he costs an additional $1,000 per year because he need speech therapy.

Our education system is not perfect.  There are blatant ineffeciencies and places where reform is clearly needed.  There are areas where we are not providing the services we should, and times where the government is overstepping its bounds.  But at the end of the day, people are not looking to throw out the whole system.  Why?  Because we think education is a right, and when we believe this we are willing to work with the system even if it is not perfect.

Considering health care a right is not some crazy liberal thought — it is widely held by the richest countries in the world.  The following countries have universal  health care: Afghanistan, Argentina, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Cuba, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iraq, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Oman, Portugal, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.  We are not breaking new ground, we are simply exploring an understanding of human rights that is already commonly held in developed world.

When we argue against universal health care, we are arguing against the worth of another human being.  I am convinced in 100 years it will be as inconceivable to deny health care to people as it is today to deny education.

10 Things (to do before I die)

July 17th, 2009 3 comments

Today Beth and I look to the future with our list of 10 things we want to do before we die.  Some items on this list represent things we already have in the works.  Other items represent things we simply need to make happen.  Finally, a few things on this list are so far out there, I have no idea how to make them happen, but by listing them, hopefully I will move that direction.

  1. Live overseas – Beth and I are very serious about spending a significant amount time in a place where our worldview is forced to expand, and where life is redefined.  Furthermore, we want to make sure Mikayla is a part of this experience.  You can read more about our plans to move to Swaziland in the next few years here, here and here.
  2. Know everything about something and something about everything – This is taken from a quote by Thomas H. Huxley, but does a great job at summing up my educational goals.  I do foresee a time when I pursue a Ph.D., but even if I don’t, I want to be intentional about knowing enough about one subject that I can be a resource to others.  Likewise, I want to know a little about everything so that my perspective of the world is more rounded, and so I can share in the appreciation others have for their passions.  (I love talking with people about what they do for a living — especially if they are really excited about their job).
  3. Adopt a child – Beth and I have been committed to adopting a child since our first conversations about our future plans.  It just makes sense — with so many children without families, why wouldn’t we bring on of them into our home.  Plus, Mikayla is so perfect (healthy, content, good looking), I think we could only go downhill.  I am even ready to get fixed.  Chances are we will adopt while overseas.
  4. Get my pilot’s license – This has been a goal of mine for quite a while.  There is a good chance I will begin training in the next 6 months.  While it is expensive, when you compare it to other educational costs, it is no more than a semester of graduate classes.
  5. Live off the grid – There are two reason behind this.  1.) I want to be a better steward of creation.  2.) I want to live more simply.  There is a good chance this will occur while we are in Swaziland, but if it doesn’t, I want to make sure it happens when we get back.
  6. Speak at least one other language fluently – So far I have ancient Greek and Hebrew under my belt from my days at Asbury.  But being able to ready 2,000 year old texts doesn’t do you much good when you want to communicate with someone today.  Right now Beth and I are beginning to work on our siSwati so we can speak the second national language of Swaziland.  It might not be the most practical language (only 1M in the world speak it), but it will certainly help us with our time overseas.  Once we are back, I may work on my Spanish.
  7. Watch a space shuttle launch – Not as profound as some of the other items on my list, but ever since my 5th grade class did a whole unit on space and learned about the whole launch process, I have been fascinated.  I think it would be awesome to see a launch live — especially a night launch.
  8. Visit all 7 continents – I have 2 down and will get a 3rd shortly.  Antarctica will be tough, but if I get the other 6, I am pretty sure I could make it happen.  I actually have several friends who work there during the southern summer.
  9. Complete an epic backpacking trip – I doubt I will ever complete the AT, the CDT, or the PCT, but I want to do something major.  Maybe it won’t even be stateside.  I want to experience the thrill of completion along with the time to reexamine life that comes with such a trip.

    Grave Peak sunset.  July 4, 2001

    Grave Peak sunset. July 4, 2001

  10. Celebrate my 50th anniversary, walk my daughter down the aisle, die content – How is that for a final goal?  I list these last and together because these require a lifetime of dedication.  I want to be happy with my life when it is through and be able to say I have been a good husband a good father.

Honorable Mention: Camp overnight in an interstate mediumHere is the place I have my eye on… easy access, wide area, cover of trees.  Anyone up for it?