Opinions of Thu, 16 Aug 20186

On Free SHS: Let’s not misunderstand Ken Ofori-Atta

The current government is seeking to improve the economy but continues to spend its gains on settling massive debts from the previous administration. In the meantime, media focus since the mid-year budget review has oscillated between VAT and Free SHS.

The sticking point, it would seem, is whether government should accept financial contributions from alternative sources to partly fund the Free SHS programme.

Ken Ofori-Atta’s reflection about creating a platform for those willing to contribute financially to the Free SHS programme is emphatically aligned with the values of Corporate Social Responsibility.

That same reflection does not in any form distance him from President Nana Akufo-Addo’s agenda. Ofori-Atta’s reflections are much unlike the arguments being expressed by those with neither an understanding of the fiscal environment nor an overarching view of the conversations that led to the introduction of the ‘Voluntary Education Fund’ in the 2018 Budget.

The macroeconomic gains registered by Akufo-Addo’s government are real. These gains have translated into positive household narratives -- where a senior secondary school going child is not only enjoying free education but is also not burdened by dumsor. And by eliminating nuisance taxes, government has shown real commitment to reducing of the cost of living for the hardworking Ghanaian.

In spite of these efforts, government is still faced with huge debts inherited from the Mahama administration. This, certainly, has dented resource availability. Nonetheless, President Akufo-Addo’s campaign promise to provide Free SHS for young citizens -- as he moves the country towards a Ghana Beyond Aid – still stands.

Minister for Finance, Ken Ofori-Atta’s suggestion that the “rich" could contribute towards the Free SHS scheme during an interview with Citi FM’s Bernard Avlè, shortly after his presentation of the 2018 mid-year budget review, does not go against the President’s agenda. On the contrary, Ofori-Atta’s suggestion is about creatively and efficiently providing a parallel source of funding to help sustain the free SHS programme, as government deals with the huge debt overhang.

Giving back to society

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), built on social values, provides an avenue for easing the burden on government. Indeed, CSR is about responsibility, sustainability, and giving back to society. It speaks to corporate citizenship. And encouraging an understanding between corporates, civil society, and government also speaks to participatory governance, where government and society collectively find sustainable solutions to pressing issues.

Civil society groups have shown acceptance of the Free SHS Scheme and also encouraged the involvement of other actors – alongside government – in the funding of what can be seen as an opportunity to make our country one that we can all be proud of.

In 2017, as government began deliberations ahead of the rollout of the Free SHS, pundits reflected on the rules of engagement for corporates and well-meaning groups and individuals.

As a result, one of the reasons for introducing the ‘Voluntary Education Fund’ in the 2018 Budget was to ensure the Free SHS initiative did not exclude philanthropic contributions from alternative sources.

Concretely, some business associations, think tanks, multinational companies, and wealthy individuals have expressed interest in contributing towards a voluntary Free SS educational fund, which promises to serve as a springboard for developing the educational sector.

The Voluntary Education Fund speaks to the need to engage corporates, among others, as government seeks to develop Ghana’s human capital. This stance becomes even more relevant at a time when government is poised to creatively harness funds to invest in other strategic areas in education like Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET).

Cases in point

The Voluntary Education Fund could also help complement GetFund in the construction of new schools, the maintenance of old schools, and the development of educational facilities and programmes, for instance. When elite schools like Wesley Girls go cup-in-hand at a Parents & Teachers Association meeting for contributions towards some of their programmes, one understands that rejecting contributions from private channels is as surprising as it is unwise.

A recent ¢1million philanthropic initiative by the McDan Foundation to build a new six-unit classroom block in Teong village in the Upper East region shows that capable Ghanaians are indeed willing to lend a hand in the development of our future leaders.

Aside from corporate entities and private individuals, our faith-based organisations have also expressed interest in voluntarily helping to sustain Free SHS. To make Ghanaians accept that it is possible to sustain Free SHS, civil society could perhaps begin to explore the possibility of instituting Old Students’ Association leagues for dedicated old students to keep supporting educational development in Ghana by directly supporting their old schools.

Let us not misunderstand the Minister for Finance: The president’s Free SHS scheme is here to stay for good. But that does not mean corporate entities, civil society groups, and well-meaning Ghanaians willing to give back to society should be turned away. Indeed, such a move would fall short of logic.

Columnist: Prince Moses

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