Liberia: How Bridge-LEAP Program is marred by alleged sexual exploitation, corruption & lack of transparency (Part1)

Students in a Liberian school

The Plenary of Liberia’s House of Representatives on Thursday,  authorized its joint committees on Claims & Petition and Education to review a petition seeking 20 percent increment in the Education Budget for FY 2024.

Plenary decision came after a conglomeration of Civil Society Organizations under the banner Education Budget Advocacy Coalition, sponsored by USAID/ Civil Society Activity- CSA petitioned the House of Representatives Education Committee for such increment.

“In Liberia, the state of education stands at a pivotal juncture, where the potential for a brighter future for our youth is impeded by persistent challenges encompassing school supplies, teacher remuneration, educational infrastructure, early childhood education, and insufficient budgetary support. Although the Liberian government acknowledges the paramount importance of education, as enshrined in Article 6 of the 1986 Liberian Constitution guaranteeing equal access to educational opportunities and facilities for all citizens, substantive actions to address the escalating educational needs remain wanting”, the petition stated.

They added that the Liberian government, in alignment with its commitments under the Incheon Declaration of 2015 and the Dakar Framework of 2000, pledged to allocate a minimum of 20% of the national budget to the education sector, despite witnessing a gradual increase in the Liberian education sector budget in recent years, rising from 12% in FY 2023 to 16% in the FY 2024 draft budget, the government has struggled to fulfill its obligations.

The petition added that stakeholders have deeply recognized the pressing necessity for transformative policies to tackle critical issues concerning school supplies, teacher remuneration, educational infrastructure, early childhood education, and bolstering budgetary support to local education offices in the education sector.

“This narrative aims to offer a concise overview of these challenges and set the groundwork for advocating for effective solutions and heightened budgetary allocations. The petition brief aims to Propose comprehensive solutions and advocate for a substantial increase in the education budget of Liberia”, it added.

Meanwhile, the joint committee is expected to review the instrument preceding a report to plenary.

Amidst this petition to the Honorable House of Representative,  new research report produced by the Coalition for Transparency and Accountability in Education (COTAE), headed by the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL), titled : “Report on the Implementation of the Liberia Education Advancement Program (LEAP) 2017-2022”, has revealed unspeakable tales of corruption and lack of transparency in the Liberia Education Advancement Program (LEAP), which came into being on the back of ‘improving access to quality education’.

The Liberia Education Advancement Program (LEAP), initially known as Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) was initiated by the Government of Liberia in 2016 and saw the government transition public schools into private management in an effort to improve access and quality in education.

During the early years of LEAP, independent monitoring and evaluation reports – some commissioned by the Government of Liberia and the Ministry of Education – established that the prime provider, Bridge International Academies (BIA), also known as Bridge Liberia, paid teachers inadequately and required them and other school staff to work longer hours without extra benefits; kept students in school longer than usual without providing meals; and had a very poor relationship with stakeholders in the community (parents, teachers, local education officials, civil society, etc.).

Furthermore, they found out that the company’s costs were far higher than those of its competitors, and that “higher costs do not necessarily correlate with higher learning gains”.

1 The LEAP lacked transparency, resulted in transferring unqualified teachers to other public schools (with full backing of the Ministry of Education) and introduced class caps that denied many students, access to their original schools. Several years later, many of the initial concerns and controversies about LEAP in general, and about Bridge International Academies in particular, remain. Concerns regarding sustainability still linger, as providers are struggling to mobilize the requisite resources to fund their operation. Of the eight LEAP providers who began operating schools in 2016, four have dropped out of the program mainly due to lack of funding. Brac Liberia, Omega, and More Than Me (which later became Hill Top), have all exited the program, some abruptly doing so without adequate notice to the schools and communities in which they once operated. Stella Maris never actually took over management of the schools assigned to them throughout the program.

  1. Controversies around BIA’s treatment of teachers and other education staff persist. During the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, the company reduced the salaries of several staff by over 90%, against the government’s regulations and guidelines. Upon the intervention of the Ministry of Labour and other authorities, including the Liberian Legislature/Parliament, this decision was later reversed.

Lack of accountability, transparency, and meaningful engagement with stakeholders are also among the major issues characterizing the program. Financial information on BIA’s operation and activities in Liberia remains inaccessible. To date, there is no publicly available, independent audit and detailed financial reporting that clearly demonstrates how much Bridge International Academies has mobilized and expended on LEAP and the schools assigned to it in Liberia. Moreover, successive decision-making around the expansion and scaling-up of LEAP has not been evidence-based, transparent, and inclusive, as civil society and other stakeholders have not been meaningfully engaged and consulted.

Furthermore, there is an apparent conflict of interest in the overall management and oversight of the program, which may be associated with its arbitrary expansion and other related decisions. A former top official of the Ministry of Education who helped to introduce the program and presided over the initial expansion decisions became Country Director of Bridge Liberia in 2021.

The report recommends that there is a need for greater transparency, accountability, inclusion, and evidence-based decision-making by the Ministry of Education around the LEAP. Any plans on its further expansion should be halted, due to the poor conditions in many of the schools being operated by the private providers, the questionable labor practices followed by the providers and other concerns characterizing the operation of the main provider, Bridge International Academies (BIA).

To overcome some of these concerns, itis pivotal that the Ministry of Education as well as BIA provide adequate, credible, and timely information to the public on the financial and other resources mobilized for and expended on the program. This is important to enable civil society, media, teachers, parents, communities, and other stakeholders to have the necessary information to properly engage in the decision-making process around LEAP.

As part of its oversight responsibility, the legislature should require the Ministry of Education and BIA to produce and publish independent and comprehensive financial reports on LEAP finances, especially on BIA’s financial records as the program’s lead partner.

Furthermore, civil society, the media, and other stakeholders should increase their monitoring and follow-up efforts and constructively engage with all relevant activities and processes related to education in Liberia, especially specialized education programs impacting the entire public education system and therefore the realization of the right to free, quality public education, such as LEAP.

It may be recalled, since the 2016/2017 school year, the Partnership School for Liberia (PSL) Program, rebranded in 2018 as Liberia Education Advancement Program (LEAP), has been a key program in the Liberian education sector. The program began with 93 school schools and eight (8) private providers, namely: Brac Liberia, Bridge International Academies, More Than Me, Omega, Rising Academies, Stella Maris, Street Child and Youth Movement for Collective Action. The providers were required to pilot diverse methodologies to improve teaching quality and learning outcomes in their assigned schools, which would then serve as basis for continuation and expansion of the program.

“Liberia’s traditional public school systems couldn’t solve this [learning] crisis on their own. Additional resources and approaches were required to support and complement their existing efforts.

LEAP is designed to improve school management and accountability, enhance teachers’ and school administrators’ abilities to deliver quality learning outcomes, and optimize delivery models that the Ministry of Education can apply throughout all of Liberia’s public schools.” However, the Ministry of Education’s decision was not without disapproval, as it came amid intense criticism from a diversity of stakeholders, including teachers, parents, civil society organizations and others. Their concerns related to the poor human rights record of the prime provider of the program, Bridge International Academies (hereinafter referred to as BIA or Bridge Liberia); the lack of transparency regarding the decision-making around the introduction of the program; the overall sustainability of the program; as well as its implications on the right to education in the country.

Barely one year into the program, most of these concerns were independently confirmed. Research conducted by the Coalition for Transparency in Education (COTAE), that monitored the first year of BIA’s activities in Liberia, established that the company paid teachers poorly; allowed teachers and other staff to work longer hours without extra compensation and benefits; kept students in school longer than usual without providing meals; had a poor relationship with stakeholders in the community (parents, teachers, local education officials, civil society, etc.); and lacked a clearly defined sustainability plan.

Furthermore, it was revealed that the company’s costs were far higher than those of its competitors; that it lacked financial transparency and accountability; it transferred unqualified teachers to other schools; and introduced a cap for classes denying many students access, including students who were already enrolled in those schools when they were given out to BIA to manage. The marginal gains reported, such as teachers’ increased classroom attendance rates and improved monitoring of schools, were overshadowed by the company’s problematic practices violating national laws and undermining the right to education for many Liberian children.

The impact of the LEAP program was also evaluated by the Centre for Global Development (CGDEV) following the program’s first  and third years. It summarized the impacts of the program (a) over a longer time horizon, (b) on a range of outcomes beyond test scores, and (c) distinguishing the average impact of the outsourcing policy, which was modest overall, from the larger effects of some specific private operators.

After one academic year, the study found modest improvements in learning outcomes and several important caveats: students in outsourced schools scored higher in English and mathematics, but costs far surpassed original projections, and some providers engaged in unforeseen and harmful behavior, I including mass removal of students and efforts to conceal serious sexual abuse allegations, complicating any assessment of long-term welfare gains. Measuring the impacts of the program after the third academic year revealed similarly modest results. It highlighted that beyond the first year, treatment effects on learning gains plateaued, corresponding to a slight increase in reading fluency for students enrolled in first and fifth grade in 2015/2016, respectively. It also found that outsourcing increased dropout rates among the students originally in partnership schools and negative effects on pupil-level enrollment emerged in the first year due to mass expulsions by one private operator, Bridge International Academies. In schools where enrollment was already high and class sizes were large at baseline, the program led to a significant decline in enrollment. Students enrolled in partnership schools at baseline in 2015/2016 were 3.3 percentage points less likely to be enrolled in any school after three years (from a base of 85%). This negative effect was attributed not to the students.


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