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EPDC Spotlight on Liberia

Sarah Gates, Research Intern, EPDC

Country Context

Liberia is a low-income country on the West Coast of Africa, bordered by Sierra Leone to the west, Cote D’Ivoire to the east, Guinea to the North and the Atlantic Ocean to the South. 44.5% of the country’s 4.1 million reside in urban areas, and 55.5% reside in rural areas. Notably, 83.2% of the population is between the ages of 0-39 years.

Figure 1. Map of Liberia

Liberia has a unique history, as the first black independent country in Africa and the first African country to elect a female head of state, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  In the last two decades, the country has been troubled by a 14-year long civil war coupled with political mismanagement and severe corruption, as well as the recent Ebola outbreak, which resulted in more than 3,000 deaths.

The Liberian civil war, which began in 1989, wreaked havoc on Liberian society and economy.  Physical infrastructure in and around the capital of Monrovia was destroyed; businesses fled the country; and the system of governance collapsed, leading to severe human rights abuses.

Peace talks led by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in August 2003 ended the war through the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement by Liberia’s three warring factions.  A two-year transitional government was installed, accompanied by the United Nations Mission to Liberia (UNMIL).  UNMIL has since remained in Liberia, with June 30, 2016 set as the deadline for Liberia to assume complete security responsibilities.

Since 2003, the political situation has stabilized, with the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president in 2005.  Until mid-2014, Liberia was demonstrating steady economic recovery as well, as outlined in its medium-term development strategy, the “Agenda for Transformation.”  However, this progress was significantly reversed by the 2014 Ebola outbreak, which resulted in at 4,808 deaths, as of June 8, 2015.  According to the World Bank, real gross domestic product (GDP) growth, which was estimated at 8.7% in 2013 and projected at 6% for 2014 before the crisis, decrased to about 1%. The Ebola crisis is likely to continue to have a substantial impact on the country’s economy.

Education Context

Liberia has a 6-3-3 formal education structure. The official entry age for primary school is 6.  Secondary school is divided into lower secondary (or junior secondary), consisting of grades 7-9, and upper secondary (or senior secondary), consisting of grades 10-12.  The school year officially runs from September to June.  Through the 2013 “Agenda for Transformation,” free and compulsory education was extended to grades 7-9.  

Liberia is significantly behind most other Sub-Saharan and low- and middle-income countries in terms of its performance on education indicators.  Challenges to education are significant: they include the 14 year-long civil war, through which much of the trained workforce was killed; tens of thousands of children were either killed or abducted into armed forces; and schools were destroyed. Another major challenge to education has been the 2014 Ebola outbreak during which schools were closed for seven months, disrupting the normal school cycle.  

Corruption, teacher absenteeism and abuse of resources and power have been noted as big challenges as well and the importance of addressing them has been widely recognized.  For example, the Education Management Information System (EMIS) in Liberia, through collecting school census data and using GIS technology to map schools, has been used to identify the presence of ‘ghost’ schools and target misused salary payments.  

This blog post uses school census data collected in 2014 through EMIS to highlight some of the major school-level education trends. EMIS operates under the Ministry of Education’s Department of Planning, Research, and Development and collects data from administratively-defined schools in order to provide a snapshot of how schools are performing.  In 2014, data were collected from 4,038 of 4,460 identified schools.  Estimations were made for the 422 schools that did not return questionnaires (Education Statistics for the Republic of Liberia, 2014). 

Most schools and students are located in Montserrado county, where many schools are private

Many of Liberia’s primary and secondary schools and students are concentrated in and around the capital of Monrovia, located in Monsterrado county.  In 2014, there were 949 primary schools in Montserrado county and 130,272 pupils, followed by Nimba county, with 573 schools and 64,481 students (Figure 2). 

Figure 2. Number of students and schools by county

It is also worth noting that most of Montserrado’s schools are private (574), followed by religious/missionary schools (189) (see Figure 3).  This pattern is not the case across Liberia’s other counties, where the large majority of schools are public.  Montserrado is also, by far, the county with the largest number of secondary schools (523) and students (90,236).  Like primary schools, the majority of these schools are private.

Figure 3. Number of schools by type, school level, and county

Enrollment Rates Remain Low

According to Liberia’s Education for All National Review, enrollment rates across all levels increased considerably from 2005/6 to 2013/14. However, they remain notably low.  Looking at Figure 4, primary gross enrollment rates average at 57.68%, while secondary gross enrollment rates average at 23.62%.  Net enrollment rates, which indicate the proportion of children of the official school age who are enrolled in school, are even lower, at an average 25.29% for primary and an average 10.17% for secondary. 

Figure 4. Gross and net enrollment rates by school level and county

Percentage of Overage Students is Remarkably High

Looking at Figure 5, many students are overage, especially at the secondary level, with overage students hovering around 95%. This pattern is hardly different at the primary level, where an average 91% of students are overage.  95% or more of students in River Gee, River Cess, Grand Bassa, and Grand Gedeh counties are overage. Late entry to grade 1, high rates of absenteeism, and high repetition rates may account for the high rate of overage students, but it is unclear what the primary driving factor might be.

Figure 5. Percent of overage students by school level and county

More EPDC Resources on Liberia

Visit the Liberia country page to see more data and find other information related to the education system in Liberia on the EPDC website.


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