Thu, 04 Mar 1999

Children are our future

A tragic impact of the economic crisis that seems to have escaped public attention is the high rate of children dropping out of school. Many parents -- impoverished either from losing their jobs or because their meager income has been eroded by inflation -- have stopped sending their children to school, even when education is provided for free, or virtually free. Many cannot afford to pay a tuition fee heavily subsidized by the government, let alone fork out precious money for books, uniforms and school supplies, costs of which have soared along with prices of other basic commodities.

The dropout statistics are so staggering they should have sounded alarm bells among the country's decision makers and politicians of something terribly amiss with this country. The gross oversight indicates that many of those in authority are too preoccupied with more populist issues as they focus steadfastly on the June 7 general election.

In Jakarta, only 70 percent of all school-age children can still afford to pay their tuition fees, according to Kompas daily. Nationwide, the school attendance rate of children aged between six years and 18 years has fallen to as low as 54 percent, from about 77 percent before the crisis began in mid- 1997. Currently, some 4.5 million children attending school are on the verge of quitting for financial reasons. The massive nationwide campaign to help provide scholarships for children from poor families has raised funds to support only 1.6 million of them.

The economic crisis has virtually wiped out all the gains Indonesia painstakingly made in the last 30 years through the promotion of universal education, including in such noble programs as nine-year compulsory schooling and the foster parent and foster children schemes. If there was one good thing the previous repressive administration did for the advancement of this nation, it was the strong attention and resources it committed to promoting universal education. However, judging by the impact of the crisis on the education sector, we appear to have lurched back to square one.

Look beyond the sobering statistics, and we find even more disturbing aspects of the education crisis. The high dropout rate exerts severe consequences for the people affected, and for the nation as a whole, which will be felt long after the economic crisis is resolved. It is a human tragedy of immense proportions, so large we probably will not know its ramifications until they emerge, or begin to hit us, in a few years time.

The most immediate impact is that a large proportion of our people are growing up without the benefit of gaining knowledge they would have learned from school. Put bluntly, it means a huge number of Indonesians will remain ignorant, armed with little valuable skill for their survival.

It is hardly comforting as we move to a new millennium promising global competition as the name of the game. How this crisis will impact Indonesia's overall competitiveness in the new globalized economic era defies the imagination. But if any indication can be gained from the present condition of Indonesia, where 76 percent of its workforce only has an elementary school background, we can expect an uphill struggle for the nation to just stay afloat.

And ignorance will be a major obstacle to the quest to move to a democracy and a civil society. The massive pool of people uneducated about their civic rights and duties will be easily exploited and prey to power-hungry politicians.

The high dropout rate is a tragedy for the nation and its future. Yet the biggest tragedy of all is that we are letting this happen right under our noses. This government, although transitory in nature, will go down in history as one that shamefully neglected the needs of its children and sacrificed the nation's future simply because it was too busy feathering its own political nest by playing power politics.