Save the Children decries deficiencies in education

Six years after returning to power, the Sandinista government has made some notable progress in delivering rural healthcare. Education, however, is much sadder story

Nicaragua’s high levels of inequality and marginalization are not being helped by a public education system that is underfunded and underperforming, according to the head of Save the Children, a U.K.-based non-governmental organization that promotes children’s rights in 120 countries.

“Young people [need] an opportunity to really learn to think for themselves, and by and large the education system is clearly not providing that opportunity,” says Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive officer for Save the Children International.

Whitbread, who was in Nicaragua for a three-day visit last week, said she was shocked to see the disparities in development between the city and the countryside. While Managua has “many of the trappings of a middle-income country,” she says rural villages in the countryside still look like some of the poorest parts of Africa.

Children in rural Nicaragua are still living in extreme poverty and marginalization (photo/ Tim Rogers)

“You have communities like the ones I visited yesterday in La Dalia (Matagalpa), where the majority of the population is living in shacks with plastic walls and no toilets—it’s shocking,” Whitbread told The Nicaragua Dispatch in an interview. “These children are growing up in the same conditions I see in other parts of the world, in the least developed countries in Africa.”

Whitbread says the Sandinista government “needs to be held to account by those communities and by Nicaragua’s civil society organizations and encouraged to look in places like La Dalia…and not look away.”

Government officials, Whitbread insists, must “think about all of Nicaragua’s children, and not just their own children.”

Aid cuts affecting children

Save the Children began work in Nicaragua 25 years ago and focuses on six program areas that reach approximately 995,000 children living in situations of poverty and social exclusion. While human-development indicators have improved in recent years in Nicaragua, Save the Children reports that “progress to reduce poverty and improve access and quality of education and health services has been slow and limited” in areas where it works, especially Jinotega, Matagalpa and the Caribbean Coast.

In addition, the group says the global economic crisis and “political tensions” have affected support previously provided to Nicaragua by donor countries.

The organization laments that “the reduction in bilateral development cooperation has had a direct impact on children.”

Improvements in rural healthcare

It’s not all bad news. Despite the grim reality in Nicaragua’s countryside, Whitbread says there have been some notable advances being made in access to rural healthcare.

She says the communities in which Save the Children has partnered with the Ministry of Health, there has been a 50% drop in child mortality rates over the past three years.

“These were children who were dying from preventable illness, pneumonia and diarrhea. With simple interventions—a community-based response with volunteer health workers—you can stop children from dying,” Whitbread says. “And in this day in age, there is no reason why children should be dying.”

Whitbread says Save the Children’s work with the health ministry has been so effective that Nicaraguan health officials are planning to broaden that experience out into a nationwide policy, which will put the country on a much firmer footing to meet its UN Millennium Development Goals of reducing child mortality rates by two-thirds by 2015.

“On health, the government is really beginning to show some determination to get the child mortality statistics down to where they need to be,” she says.

But some of the government’s public health policies—especially the total ban on life-saving therapeutic abortions—are downright addlebrained. Save the Children has joined other international groups in denouncing Nicaragua’s draconian ban on the life-saving medical interventions as a violation of women’s  and children’s rights.

“We know what happens in countries where that approach is taken—women’s health is severely affected because they will seek alternative methods [for abortion],” Whithead says. “It’s just very, very unfortunate. It’s not an evidenced-based approach [to delivering healthcare], it’s an ideological-based approach.”

But the government’s church-pandering is inconsistent, she notes. Whithead says access to contraception, which the church also frowns upon, has actually improved in rural communities under the Sandinista government.

The issue of teen pregnancy, however, has not improved. Nicaragua still has the highest teen pregnancy rate in Latin America—a level comparable to only the most backwards regions of Sub-Saharan Africa. And that, Whithead says, goes back to the failings of the education system.

“It has been statistically proven around the world that a girl who makes it through secondary school is much less likely to have children at a young age,” Whitbread says. “So getting kids educated is basic.”

High teen pregnancy rates are also due to gender stereotyping, she adds.

During a visit to a community in Tuma-La Dalia, Whithead says a 15-year-old student gave a presentation on gender stereotypes, listing off the most commonly perceived roles that define men and women in society. Topping the list of male roles were the words: “provider” and “violent.” Topping the females’ list of gender roles was “sex object.”

“It was mind-blowing,” Whithead says. “It painted the picture of the environment in which the children are growing up and the expectations on young men and women. You’re not a man unless you are violent and you are not a woman unless you are an object of sexual desire. And that also leads to teen pregnancy.”

Last in Class

While Nicaragua’s children face many challenges of equality and exclusion, the public education system is ill-equipped to deal with the situation.

The government, worrisomely, doesn’t seem overly concerned with fixing the problem. Instead, the government continues to reduce spending on education. A budget reform passed earlier this month reduces spending for education next year to 3.5% of its Gross Domestic Product, down from 3.7% this year. While the bottom line will actually be a slight increase since the total budget has increased, the reduction in percentage of budgetary spending suggests that education is considered a lesser priority. Analysts argue the government should be spending nearly twice that amount to improve its substandard school system.

Money that is being spent on education seems to be focused mostly on padding enrollment numbers, rather than improving the quality of education (Nicaragua has the worst-paid teachers in Central America).

“The focus has been on quantity –getting the kids into school, which is important, but not at the cost of quality,” Whitbread said.

The organization’s CEO says when she visited Nicaraguan schools she saw “much older kids in younger classes who are still not able to read and write.”

The government needs to do more to turn classrooms into actual learning environments, Whithead said.

“It’s not just the money, it’s the policy. There needs to be a real commitment to improve education and to get kids learning thinking skills,” she says.

While there remains a lot to do in all areas of early childhood development in Nicaragua, the government’s overall commitment to education doesn’t appear to be as strong as its commitment to healthcare, Whithead claims.

“I think we are seeing more movement in health than we are in education,” she said.

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  • Aurora

    Thank you for this good article. Actually In some areas also where is not the presence of save children the level of health care is alarming. For that reason. I think the government is always reducing the budget to education and health care and putting money to the army and police. We need to prioritize basic education. Even it is sad to see lack of material in the classroom and one teachers and students underfed caused by the depressing salaries in Nicaragua and rice of food price

    Also, I think the government has a national plan to creative dependence to him. For example, to give zinc laminar and providing some material to built house. I don’t say it is wrong completely but it is producing dependence to be helped. It is loosing the values and courage to say ” I built my house in my own capacity”. because later your family has a moral debt to the government that used our taxes incorrect for their own benefit manipulating the necessity to the poor people.”THAT IT IS UNFAIR”


  • carole lapidus

    I was deeply gratified to see the critique of the Nicaraguan public education system.I have been visiting the country annually since 1999 and have been working with a non-profit with the mission of improving education. I think of the system as 19th C. with what I call the copy and recite method. Critical thinking and experience based learning are the goals for children beginning in early childhood.Issues of child abuse and domestic abuse are rampant and have an impact on the children.Too many children are frightened of adults.Thanks again for writing critically of the public education system.

  • Ken

    Not sure, but based upon other articles, I think the administration has a comprehensive education reform agenda in the pipeline, which it believes will attract big foreign money to help finance. This doesn’t help the current kids, of course, but I don’t think the administration is unaware or unconcerned.

    • Abu Sharif

      What is in the ppeline? That wpould be interesting to knlow, because … it is not true. And can’t be true.

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  • Abu Sharif

    I see and hear a lot each day about the public health system in the country side. It is mainly horror stories. Missing medicine, destroyed health posts, unmotivated doctors, deficiently trained doctors, especially from Cuba, which has a high level health system, but does not transfer it practically to Nicas. And all the time politics, party politics of course. Public health in the countryside is in a very bad situation, I do not know, where STCh gets its information on “progress”.

  • Luciana Rojas

    It’s “progress” considering how bad was 6 years ago. Awww Nicaragua, Nicaraguita!

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  • Joseph

    Giving the people basic health services makes the government “heros”. Education gives people the ability to think on their own and see how other people in our world live . . .scary to the Nica government. Keep them poor and depend on government healthcare, but otherwise, keep them under control! Illiterate and unskilled . . . Wrong!