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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

How Aid and Government are Failing Higher Ed in Liberia

Professors Robert and Bropleh

Today I stopped by the University of Liberia, which is situated right between (and across the street from) the massive UN Mission to Liberia (UNMIL) building and the equally large Liberian capital building. I had the chance to sit down with Professors Bropleh, the Associate Dean of Engineering, and Professor Damalo Robert, the Director of Computer Information Systems.

It turns out there is no computer science program offered at all. I asked if they knew of any student that was a programmer, if there were any groups that did some type of hacking on their own. Nothing. Below is the sorry story of this saga.

The computer science center story


On April 27, 2007 the president opened the new “Center for information and communication technology” at the University of Liberia. It has 150 computers, a VSAT connection and a video conferencing machine. Sounds good!

That operation was shut down 6 months ago.

The power and the building are paid for by the university, but the nice internet connection cost about $5000 per month and no one was paying the bill. There is some muddy story involving Socketworks Global’s digital bridge project and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), where Socketworks put in a $100k+ expecting to be reimbursed by the IFC, only to have it not happen.

“In post-conflict Liberia, where students cannot absorb a fee increase for education, SocketWorks is self-funding the initial investment and seeking support from the World Bank to subsidize the student subscription fees. This is the first time SocketWorks is changing its business model to accommodate donor subsidies.”

What we’re left with is a padlocked door to a 150 working computers, with a dormant VSAT connection sitting unused in the middle of the demographic that could do the most with it. The very same demographic that will be called upon to lead the next generation of government and business in Liberia.

Aid money and Liberia’s higher education

Since the war ended in 2003, there has been well over a billion dollars of AID money pumped into this country. It appears as if the young children are more important than the older youth, as almost all education money is funneled to primary schools. On average, out of an engineering student population of 500 students, only 30 graduate. There is a whole generation missing out on real higher education opportunities.

The University of Liberia is an eyesore – a mess of buildings falling apart and crumbling before your eyes. That might be okay though, as the Chinese have built a brand new university complex 30 miles out of town, which is supposed to go into use next year. Maybe they have other plans for this land now, but in the interim, it just seems an embarrassment to the system – both government and aid organizations.

What next?

It seems such a shame to have the futures of this current generation of “could be” programmers and developers held hostage by a system not of their making. Where the very purpose is to be educated in areas that will help the country exponentially in the years ahead. It makes you wonder…

We see the big tech foundations dumping their money into all kinds of projects. With a running cost of under $100k per year, why doesn’t some white knight from a big tech company put their money here? Surely this is a place and a project worth that much. That number equates to an accounting error for most of them anyway.

I find myself torn between excitement of the potential that these 150 computers represent and the disappointment of the current muck up.


  1. Indeed, such a shame. This situation is unnecessary. The opportunity costs the country is incurring because of this is through the roof.

    Quite likely, a company could profitably offer a proper IT education in return for – say – a 5 year contract with the company. Could be a very fair deal to all.

    Current situation is simply stupid.

  2. This is very sad… But its also very muddy, there must be some other missing link, or links, as to why this failed. Then add in the the Chinese effort, and it seems reasonable further support for this project might not be prudent. I can’t fault another organization for not stepping in funding wise, when this crashed so badly. I think the only possible solution is to get to the bottom of what caused the failure, ie remove the mud and bring to light what all the issues are. Until the failure modes are known, and the solutions in place to prevent such from happening again, further investment, especially in this economy is unlikely.

    By the same token, once such is in place, talk about a great investment for the future, not only for Liberia, but for the world.

    Obviously there are some key players in this who have already made significant investment. What are those folks saying, what do they see as the solution. Its rare for any organization to just throw up their arms and walk away, especially over such a short time period, from startup to closing.

  3. Hash

    Thanks for sharing your travels with us.

    This story is truly disheartening. I keep thinking that I am missing something if the root cause of the shutdown of the lab is the issue of Internet connectivity fees.

    I ask because it seems to me that a lab with 150 computers, event without an Internet connection, can still be a fantastic teaching and self-study tool.

    – Steve

  4. I wonder how many such “failures of access” exist across the developing world?

  5. Could it be that a smaller scaled down version (say 15 computers) requiring say $500 per month lab, which may have had the chance of being sustained from hourly charges may have worked. Also, using it for commercial training as well could have helped offset the costs.

    I’m not a big fan of 150 computer labs in Africa because of the the running costs associated with them.

  6. Michael Keating

    March 6, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Most of the aid to education is bypassing the University. In the case of the University of Liberia a new President, Dr. Emmet Dennis, has just been named. His job is a massive one: organization, infrastructure, ethics and endowment. After President Sirleaf he may have the toughest job in the country. It’s hard to see how Liberia can progress without at least one credible research institution.

  7. Charles Reafsnyder

    March 10, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    The missing link for Liberia is access to internet bandwidth at internationallu competitive rates. The SATV suppliers to Liberia currently have no land-based competition and charge approximately $5,000 per megabit per month! Neither the University of Liberia nor many others in Liberia can afford monopolistic rates. By contrast, my university pays $12 per megabit per month. Until the monolopy on bandwidth into Liberia can be broken, the current rates being charged will deprive the University of Liberia and most Liberians from the information resources available to much of the rest of the world with the attendent damage to Liberian education, economy, health and political development.

  8. “Indiana University is moving forward with plans to help the University of Liberia gain Internet access. James Wimbush, dean of the Indiana University Graduate School and professor of business administration in the Kelley School of Business, recently visited the West African nation and says the country continues to suffer the aftereffects of a civil war that ended in 2003. He says a top priority could be to provide technical assistance in laying fiber optic cable to link the University of Liberia’s three campuses. ”


  9. Benjamin Blie

    May 12, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    I am very grateful for such an article,but feeling ashame of many great Liberian businessman and so called money people in Liberia,that they will see such a big opportunity to invest and complained on government and the international community of not putting their in money into to it. When will we learn?The University of Liberia just give an entrance to over ten thousand or close to twenty students in which they just needed two thousand robbing about twelve thousand and more of funds.Why can’t the facultive of LU plus the person that put in their money put their brains together and make something of that investment.The little one’s are spoon feed and LU where we teach business and economics too are crying for help to maintain investment on campus.It sound silly to me. Let us stop begging Liberians,let us stop corruption and use our head to make the best of little we have.The investment is already there,make the best of it.

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