Teachers’ Struggle for Income in the Congo (DRC). Between Education and Remuneration

Research Project (to be discussed at the Winter Academy) by Cyril Owen Brandt.

Cyril Owen Brandt is currently a PhD candidate at the Amsterdam Institute of Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam. He is researching teacher pay in contexts that are conflict-affected and lack functioning public administration.

As the ambivalent role of education for sustainable peace building is gaining increasing attention in international debates, it is important to analyze the conditions under which education is taking place. The provision of education in so-called conflict-affected and fragile countries depends on a range of factors, among which teacher remuneration plays a pivotal role.

The Congolese education sector is characterized by a gradual retreat of the state in the provision of education and an increasing authority and decision-making power of local actors. The predominance of uncodified practical norms causes constant negotiations between different actors. Among these, teachers have the particular role of providing education to the students. They must do so in a multi-scalar context of reconstruction agendas, inadequate payment, erroneous administration, practical norms and competition between schools for students. Moreover, there are a range of ambiguous effects from global and national agendas, e.g. around free primary education.

Previous studies have outlined the structural impacts on teachers, but none focused on their agency. If teachers are still coping with their very basic needs due to their income situation, quality of education is not the primary or sole concern of their everyday actions. Hence, they have developed a range of strategies to exercise their agency in relation to their income.

Teachers must invest time and money for different purposes in order to be registered and paid. They do so vis-à-vis governmental brokers in a corrupt environment. At other times, they have common objectives with parents with whom they cooperate. Moreover, there is not one teacher employment status, but a range of de facto statuses. For instance some teachers are only paid locally by parents and do not receive any governmental money.

The research design is based on the Extended Case Method and was conceived in order to allow a thorough analysis of the complex multi-scalar political economy concerning the school and teacher registration system and teacher payment. Theoretical choices include the Strategic-Relational Approach and a focus on Real Governance.

Currently, I am doing research on teacher agency in relation to the remuneration system in the Democratic Republic of Congo. More specifically, I am trying to find out how teachers exercise their agency in relation to their income, given that the official government salary is meagre and paid irregularly. This research is positioned in debates about education and conflict/peacebuilding, (un)intended consequences of global educational agendas, salary provision in conflict-affected and fragile states and teacher agency. I argue that teachers’ lived realities are marginalized in the formulation of policies.

My work is so far informed by five months of empirical qualitative research, conducted in 2013. I adopted a multi-scalar approach in order to analyze the various structures that govern the education sector and teachers’ employment conditions. First, the Congolese education sector is characterized by a hybrid governance in which the government oversees the education sector and ought to pay teachers whereas religious institutions manage the school and hire teachers at the local level (Lund, 2006; Raeymaekers, Menkhaus, & Vlassenroot, 2008; Titeca & de Herdt, 2011). This situation in the education sector is linked to the country’s history: due to the colonial legacy, religious networks are the main providers for education and non-state actors in general play important roles. The Catholic Church is the largest provider for education in the DRC. Although the religious educational networks belong to the public education sector, they are partially autonomous from the government. Moreover, private entrepreneurs and government officials invest in private schools, which have become competitors for students. Finally, parents are important non-state actors as they finance large parts of teachers’ salaries.

Moreover, the DRC has suffered from conflict and civil war for the last twenty years and is currently regaining stability. The country is currently in a (post-)conflict situation and can be labelled as ‘fragile’. This means that there is a necessity to look at the real governance, i.e. uncodified norms and practices, instead of simply looking at the official procedures (de Sardan, 2008; Titeca & de Herdt, 2011). I intend to challenge Western notions of ‘fragility’ and ideas around the Weberian state through ethnographic fieldwork and empirical insights into the functioning of the state. Moreover, the education sector is highly politicized e.g. when parliamentarians get involved in the registration process of schools in their electoral zones. Hence, there is a need to look at the “politics of education”.

Second, international donors (esp. DfID, World Bank, AFD concerning primary education) and agendas play an important role. The DRC is embedded in tacit and explicit international discourses and agendas, notably around Modernity, Education for All and Free Primary Education. These are either imported directly through international donors or implemented through national government agendas. In either case, agendas are never simply implemented but subject to local reactions and actions. It is argued, that these agendas are not negative per se, but that their specific impacts on the local level in the DRC can lead to problematic development. Currently, there are four national agendas that are highly ambivalent: Mbudi, Gratuité, Bancarisation and the new Framework Law for Education. Critical scholars working on globalization and education have provided good examples about the “unintended consequences” of global agendas in national context (e.g. Zuze & Leibbrandt, 2011).

However, it might be worthwhile to look more critically at such concepts: there is an inherent political economy in the formulation of national agendas. In the case of free primary education in the DRC, I would like to discuss to what extent the “unintended consequences” are in reality mere collateral damage for the actual intended consequences. FPE was announced in 2011 before presidential elections and only two weeks before the beginning of the school year. The entire reform was a farce, as parents are still paying large amounts directly to teachers. Unintended consequences are hence a misrecognition of the realities of the school communities and a misallocation of payment responsibilities. Hence, the intended consequences encompassed presidential propaganda and a shift of responsibility from the national to the local level. Teachers’ realities are disregarded at the policy level in favour of political slogans. Such events must not always be the case, but merit closer attention.

Finally, these conditions are manifested in teachers’ employment conditions. Teachers in the Democratic Republic of Congo face a range of difficulties: They teach in dilapidated facilities, receive little training and face an ever-decreasing reputation (Mokonzi & Kadongo, 2010; Verhaghe, 2006). Overall, the government does not pay one-third of all teachers. Teachers who are paid only receive a meagre income. The sector is poorly regulated and teachers might work for years before becoming officially registered and paid (Mokonzi & Kadongo, 2010).

In consequence, teachers’ employment conditions do not allow them to concentrate on pedagogy, but that they constantly invest a considerable amount of time and energy in activities that are related to income-generating activities. Hence, they exercise their agency in relation to their income mainly in two fields: first, teachers strive to have their school and themselves accredited and registered by the government, in order to be able to receive financial support and income. In this process, they face governmental brokers who sit at the interface between the local and national level. Several practical norms need to be respected in order to for the government officials to treat a teacher’s dossier (e.g. the right amount of bribes). Second, teachers act in relation to their sources of income: government salary, the “motivation fee”, corruption vis-à-vis students and side-jobs. My research has yield important, empirically-grounded insights into the embededdness of teachers’ everyday actions in the global and national education policies. For instance, teachers receive a monthly “motivation fee” from students’ parents in order to compensate for the meagre official income. Through high enrollment rates in the last years, which can be linked to the Education for All agenda, many new schools are built and a fierce competition between schools for students, and their money, has emerged. Teachers need to advertise their schools, and negotiate the motivation fee in the way that it is high enough for teachers to stay at the school and low enough so that students can afford it.

Overall, teacher agency often takes place in interaction with other actors. Such interactions can be motivated by complementary goals or structured through conflictive ones. Complementary interactions take place especially with parents and religious officials and conflictive ones often occur vis-à-vis government officials.

Moreover, the education sector is not neutral and exclusively pedagogical, but embedded in society. Teachers who are paid inadequately might engage in and perform ‘corrupt’ practices. Besides the official curriculum, these practices influence the students and might become part of what is considered accepted behavior. This might negatively influence social justice and peacebuilding (e.g. Bush & Saltarelli, 2000; Davies, 2009).

My research intends to problematize the notion of Peacebuilding by showing the daily processes and struggles people (here: teachers) are facing. Social Justice is an important aspect of Peacebuilding, and I am looking at Fraser’s conceptualization of Recognition, Redistribution and Representation. How are teachers supposed to become agents of Peacebuilding as long as there struggle is not recognized, as long as they are not represented e.g. by adequate teacher unions and as long as they are not paid sufficiently? In other words, there is an underlying cultural political economy that constrains teachers’ ability to deliver education and to become critical pedagogues.

Therefore, if education is to play a positive role in peacebuilding processes, teacher remuneration is among the major challenges and prerequisites that need to be taken into consideration. In consequence, teacher remuneration and the provision of teacher salaries in (post-)conflict regions ought to be a priority in current research on the relationship between education, conflict, peacebuilding and social justice.

My research design does justice to the complexities and peculiarities of the Congolese school system by taking into account the multi-scalar nature of governance, the weak institutional setup, and cultural as well as material aspects. Scholars use the concept of Real Governance and negotiated statehood to describe the Congolese education sector. Real Governance replaces the normative idea of a failed state and instead analyses how “practical norms” regularize procedures and mechanisms in an environment of low institutional capacities and little applied formal laws (de Sardan, 2008; Titeca & de Herdt, 2011).

In my research, the Strategic-Relational Approach (SRA) complements the idea of real governance by analyzing the dialectics between structure and agency (Jessop, 2005). It conceptualizes the multi-scalar approach to governance, from the international arena to the centralized governance in the capital, to the urban centers and rural areas.

Furthermore, in combination with Critical Cultural Political Economy of Education (Dale, 2005), the SRA (Jessop, 2004) allows a conceptualization that includes material (e.g. salary) and semiotic (e.g. discursive) aspects. I can thus show the influence of practical norms on the multi-scalar political economy and teacher practices. For instance, my earlier research revealed that government officials often referred to the African culture of solidarity when explaining how they receive “gifts” from teachers for their services, whereas the teachers considered it power abuse and corruption.

In order to facilitate research on these complex issues, my approach is multi-scalar, qualitative and ethnographic (Burawoy, 1998; Mathers & Novelli, 2007). Taking place in the capital, as well as other urban and rural areas, my data collection is diverse: participant observation, school visits, semi-structured and informal interviews, focus groups, collection of salary schemes as well as pictures and other documents. Interviewees include i.a. teachers, parents, officials and union leaders. During my recent research I included elements of action research by taking teacher dossiers from rural schools to the Ministry of Education in order to solve their payment problems.

All in all, this critical research allows me to hear and include the voice of teachers who are treated unfairly by the government and suffer from maldistribution and misrecognition. I explicitly relate this to postcolonial notions of the “subaltern” and the necessity to shed light on such matters from different perspectives instead of relying only on dominant voices (Spivak, 1988). Unless teachers’ voices are heard and their situation is improved, it cannot be assumed that they become critical agents of social justice and peacebuilding.


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Bush, K. D., & Saltarelli, D. (2000). The Two Faces of Education in Ethnic Conflict. Towards a Peacebuilding Education for Children (p. 54). Florence: UNICEF. Innocenti Insight.

Davies, L. (2009). Capacity Development for Education Systems in Fragile Contexts, (August). doi:10.2816/12196

De Sardan, J. (2008). Researching the practical norms of real governance in Africa. Discussion Paper. Africa Power & Politics. Overseas Development Institute, (5), 24.

Lund, C. (2006). Twilight Institutions: Public Authority and Local Politics in Africa. Development and Change, 37(4), 685–705. Retrieved from http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/j.1467-7660.2006.00497.x

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Mokonzi, G., & Kadongo, M. (2010). Democratic Republic of the Congo. Effective Delivery of Public Services in the Education Sector. Open Society Institute. Une étude d’AfriMAP et de l’Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. Retrieved from www.afrimap.org/english/images/…/AfriMAP_DRC_Edn_full_EN.pdf?

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Spivak, G. C. (1988). Can the Subaltern Speak? In C. Nelson & L. Grossberg (Eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (pp. 271–313). Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Titeca, K., & de Herdt, T. (2011). Real governance beyond the “failed state”: Negotiating education in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. African Affairs, 110(439), 213–231.

Verhaghe, J. (2006). “Notre beau métier”: Ensuring the Quality of Primary School Teachers in the DRC. Unpublished.

Zuze, T. L., & Leibbrandt, M. (2011). Free education and social inequality in Ugandan primary schools: A step backward or a step in the right direction ? International Journal of Educational Development, 31, 169–178. doi:10.1016/j.ijedudev.2010.06.013

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