Zimbabwe Renewal - the Role of Education and Health

We talk a lot in Zimbabwe about empowerment – Zanu PF interprets that in terms of its own creed of indigenisation and a slogan from the war which means “power to the people”. Like the slogan often repeated by the President that “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again” these slogans bear little relationship with our current realities. The truth is we have never been so disempowered and with our use of the US dollar we can hardly call ourselves totally and proudly independent. Aside from that, we owe everybody money and cannot pay anyone and any businessman knows full well what that means in terms of our “independence”.

Empowering people involves many things and independence is an important issue – but not in the sense that Zanu PF uses the term. It’s important to give people power by granting them the capacity to make a living and the right under law to own and control the assets they use to sustain their daily lives – especially their homes. The reality is that freehold title rights are one of the foundations of economic growth and real democracy. But if you are from a poor disadvantaged family there are two things that you must expect from your Government if you are to be empowered so as to be able to pull yourself out of poverty – that is access to education and health services.

If you are born poor, the one thing that can open the future for you is a decent education. I was born to a poor family – privileged because we were white in a society that automatically gave us special opportunities on the basis that we were white. I went to state funded schools which were at the time absolutely world class and was able to acquire a basic qualification from my high school which allowed me first to go to College and then to University. I was the first and only member of my immediate family to secure a university degree; I did so by working throughout the whole time I was at University.

A man I worked for at the start of my career said to me that a qualification would have little real value in the pursuit of my chosen career as I would have to unlearn much of what I had been taught and instead learn to understand the complex world I was going to work in where specific and specialized skills and knowledge would be required. My qualifications would open the door to that world, but that was all. But the start of the process begins when that young child walks out of the mud hut in which they were raised and goes to the nearby school to begin his or her education.

It is one of the most important of the UN Millennium Development Goals that the global community should commit itself to making it possible for every child in the world to get a decent education – at least at primary level. My own view is that we should be aiming higher and should try to guarantee every child at least 10 years of formal education. It’s not enough to guarantee places in a classroom – such education must be of a high standard. Teachers and school heads are the key to that and these employees in all countries should be afforded the status of an elite who receive above average salaries and benefits.

Once the foundation educational skills are learned, we should then try to ensure that every child is able to acquire the skills that would enable them to make a living. Only about 25 to 30 per cent of children are academic and the others should be put through a different type of education to facilitate subsequent skills training that might be appropriate. We used to have such technical schools and the need for these should be reviewed in all societies. In industry and commerce we should encourage and facilitate the creation of apprentice posts and trainee positions which would enable school leavers to explore the world of work and give employers the opportunity to assess young people as prospects for future employment.

How such educational systems are to be funded is a moot point but my own preference is the student grant system which then leaves the rest of the costs of operating schools to the desired standard to the community and parents. It also allows each country to budget educational funding on an affordable and equitable basis while limiting the extent of the States obligations but enabling it to reach every child in their society.

The second critical issue in any society that wants to empower their people in a meaningful manner is in the provision of health services. This is a complex area of public policy and the potential for failure and costs spiraling out of control are great. The developed countries in Europe and the Americas have all made mistakes and are now confronted with the need for reform. The efforts by President Obama to reform the healthcare system in the USA are a prime example.

In Zimbabwe we have a system of medical aid societies which help individuals and families to fund health care when needed. Under this system I make a monthly payment for each member of my family to a society – a portion goes to fund an insurance scheme in Ireland and the balance is used to create a fund that then pays for our basic health needs. There may be shortfalls and these are funded by the family in addition to their monthly subscriptions.

This system is both affordable and efficient – last year the overhead costs of our particular society were equivalent to 7 per cent of total revenue. In my view such systems need to be extended to everyone, at the moment only one million people are covered by existing schemes. The objectives should be to be able to access, based on a simple means test, those who cannot pay for the full cost of medical aid and should therefore receive a grant from the State that is enough to give poor families basic health cover.

Many would argue that this is not affordable – but the reality is that if State resources are spent in this way, the whole of the healthcare sector would become self financing. The system might be extended, as it is in Zimbabwe, to the point where healthcare providers are required to negotiate their fees and charges on an annual basis with the medical aid societies.

Under such a system, all healthcare agencies – doctors, clinics and hospitals, would be required to compete for clients and all health services and would be run on a business basis. Agencies that were sloppy, rude and indifferent to their clients would soon find themselves unemployed or closed down. Those that excelled would thrive and prosper. Innovation and enterprise would characterize the whole industry.

Universal access to real, quality education and health care should be the goal. Can we afford it? In my view, yes we can! If we concentrate our resources and ensure that State support enables every child and adult access and affordability. The systems we create to deliver these systems must be self governing and sustaining and the people must be given the power of choice. Do these things and the world would change; certainly hundreds of millions of young people would be able to transform their lives in short order.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 23rd May 2014