How Does Corruption Affect Volunteers?

Corruption is part of day-to-day life in Kenya, and it’s a topic I’ve largely avoided, since as a Peace Corps Volunteer blogger, it’s important to respect the Peace Corp’s partner organizations by not talking about the terrible things they do.

I will say this, though: corruption lowers my motivation.

Corruption in education exists on different scales, and both have been in the news recently.  This is great, because rather than citing my own experiences that might get me (or others) into trouble, I can just talk current events.  Let’s start with big time corruption.

Britain just announced that it is halting a payment of $30 million that would have gone to the Kenya Ministry of Education.  It wasn’t that long ago that they withheld $16 million, claiming that Kenya stole a lot of the last round of money, which triggered the Kenyan government to “look into it” and fire some middle management.  The upper levels of government, including the Minister of Education, were left untouched.  Apparently unsatisfied with the token effort, the US followed England’s lead and halted their own $7 contribution.  This is a total of over $50 million dollars being withheld because England and America are pretty sure that the Kenyan government will just steal it.

To put that amount of money in perspective, I spent a recent afternoon crunching numbers with my counterpart, and we concluded that the amount of money collected by our school in order to house, feed, and teach a student for an entire year, including their dorm fees and three meals a day, was about $200.  At that price, England and the US are withholding enough money to cover over 250,000 such students!  Of course, that number of students would imply that Kenya doesn’t steal the money, which based on the accusations, it seems they would.

As a volunteer teacher here, these numbers depress me.  I sometimes fantasize about building a computer lab for my school, for example, but I feel silly and naive when I consider the fact that, if money actually was used correctly year after year, which it would be if people actually cared about education, the school would already have a computer lab!

This brings the topic to small-time corruption, recently dubbed “Quiet Corruption” by the World Bank in their assessment of the abysmal state of the on-the-ground education effort in Africa.  It’s a great essay and I highly recommend reading it.  It quantifies what most volunteers already discuss with each other constantly: Kenyan teachers don’t care.  An estimated 20% of teachers are absent at any given time.  An additional 12% are on school grounds, but not in the classroom when they should be.  The study doesn’t even get into what percent of the teachers are in the classroom, but talking on the cell phone, reading the newspaper, conversing with the teachers who are avoiding their classes, or sleeping.  I imagine if they could quantify that, it would paint an even more depressing picture.

I believe these numbers, and if anything I think they may be optimistic.  This is the other problem when considering a project like building a computer lab: if the teachers don’t care enough to teach, why would they put in the time to make use of the lab?  And for that matter, as is discussed in the World Bank essay, the computers themselves have a good chance of being resold by the teachers after I leave, so why bother?

This report not only confirms my own doubts, but it makes me think more specifically about the sad state of early education here.  When I was training in Loitokitok, I read a book called “The First Days of School,” which introduced me to the concept of “Academic Learning Time,” the idea that you have your scheduled class time, and then you have the percent of that time that the teacher and the students are actually there together, and a percentage of that time when the teacher is actually “teaching,” and then a percentage of that time that the students are paying attention, and then finally, a percentage of that time where they are actually learning anything.  When you consider that before fourth grade, the school day here ends before lunch, that the teacher likely is not familiar with the students’ first language, that the teacher is often absent or tardy, the “Academic Learning Time” approaches zero, even if the teacher is motivated, which is unlikely.

So I must admit that my motivation for build a computer lab, just like the “Academic Learning Time” concept, also approaches zero.

I hear this struggle from other volunteers all time, with questions like: “Why should I work my butt off if I’m surrounded by teachers who don’t care enough to even show up?”  “Why aren’t they just fired?” (The World Bank blames the teachers unions for that one.)  “Why should I bring in money from the US if they’re already pocketing the money that’s supposed to go to the kids?”

Well, the short answer is to do what you need to do to motivate yourself.  I can only speak for myself, and I admit that I’ve psyched myself out of doing big projects like the computer lab.  I refuse to feed money into a system I don’t trust, and that’s how I end up putting so much time into a floppy disk I can use in the old computers that have no value rather than into buying newer computers that might be locked up or resold after I leave.

I do, however, find that I can put my time into the classroom without feeling like I’m being taken advantage of.  (Other volunteers are given a heavy load so that the teachers can have more time to relax in the break room—I’m lucky that’s not my situation.)  I can also do after-school activities without feeling like my time is politicized, and that is perhaps the biggest safe haven for the de-motivated volunteer who sees corruption all around and starts feeling more angry than hopeful.  After-school activities help no one but the students, and for that reason my daily library/computer time is often the most pure, and most satisfying, part of the day.

If this topic interests you at all, go read the World Bank essay!

2 Responses to “How Does Corruption Affect Volunteers?”

  • Amen Paul, thanks for saying what we all feel. Although I must say I do know a few ( well more like one and a half) teachers who actually go to every class, and are never tardy, and actually teach, I wonder how in the world they keep up their motivation, considering they have been at this for years! This makes a bit more motivated. PS Answer your phone!

  • 🙁 i feel u. just do the best with what you are given, change what you can, and accept the rest as what it is.

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