Free education in Somaliland: filtering state policies

In the above cases, we have shown how the symbolic power of the Somaliland state manifests itself. Although not always producing the intended effects, it was still able to structure relations and interventions. Yet, this symbolic power is not absolute. In the next case, we further illustrate the negotiated nature of this symbolic power, which is sometimes insufficient for state policies to be implemented. We do so by looking at the case of free primary education.

Due to historically limited policy-involvement from the state – as outlined in the historical section above – it was striking when in 2011 Zamzam Abdi Aden, then minister of education, announced that all public primary schooling was to be fee-free. According to the current director of primary education, the idea was to: ‘increase enrolment especially for IDPs [internally displaced people] and the poor. At that time [before the introduction of “free primary education”] they didn’t go to school. Now every child has access’.79 However, the policy was apparently unsuccessful: soon after the introduction of the policy, fees were collected again. A teacher explained that ‘the principal met with parents and told them that they wanted to collect fees again. They accepted […] Before [the policy,] the teacher earned US$50, now it’s US$100. But everything is back to normal. Besides that, we earn more’.80


Prior to the introduction of free education, parents paid approximately US$1 per child for one month of admission in public primary schools. The income from fees were spent on salaries for cleaners, as top-up salaries for teachers and to cover other running costs. In order to financially facilitate the policy measure, the government increased the budget for education and doubled teachers’ salaries from approximately US$50 to US$100,81 as mentioned by the teacher above. However, the government did not allocate any funding for running costs, such as general maintenance of school buildings, office supplies, benches, water or chalk. The school could therefore not be maintained without reintroducing school fees, which is precisely what happened.

Although the state policy was rejected (i.e. fees are being collected again) it still changed access to education in some schools. For example, a female headteacher explained how a deal to make education free for the poorest children was made with the parents:

We [the school management and the parents] had a meeting. The parent group called in the parents and we discussed with them and then they finally accepted [collecting fees]. They should pay fees again, but those from low-economy families should be able to come for free; parents with, for example, five students should be able to get some for free; and if the father has passed away it should be free also.82

In a different school, a similar system was created. A young, newly-appointed headteacher explained that he decides who merits poverty-based exemptions from school fees, based on whether he feels they are ‘poor enough’: ‘I see the physical situation of the child. The facial features, the kind of clothes they are wearing, how the parent looks like and so on. Also sometimes I know the people living in the neighborhood.’83 The headteacher explained that he exempts fees for some children in large families. For example, if a parent can only afford school fees for two of seven children, he would let all seven children to attend with fees paid for only two. In short, access can be negotiated depending on the economic status between the parent (or a representative of the child’s family) and the headteacher. It is important to mention that access to free education varies between schools. In some schools, the policy was completely rejected from the beginning, while in other schools the poorest parents have always been able to get free education or discounts. Moreover, different systems exist to attain from parents the finances necessary to run the school. In some schools, monies are collected directly from parents in the form of school fees, similarly to before the policy. In other schools, parents donate money on a case-by-case basis, when the school is in need of financial support. The different ways in which finances are mobilized from parents depends on negotiations between the school administration and the parent groups.

In sum, this case shows how the education sector is primarily organized locally. The final decision on whether or not to implement the policy is taken at the school and community level. In contrast to the previous example, the state policy, in this case, was rejected in most schools. Again, the actual organization of primary education in Somaliland is largely located outside the realm of the state administration. In this case, the state administration does not have the power to determine how access to education is regulated. Instead, negotiations between headteachers and parent groups regulate this access.

Moreover, this case further illustrates the two-way nature of symbolic power. In the first example (of the state recognition of a school) it was shown that the state’s symbolic power is co-produced by non-state actors. By actively looking for state-recognition, a non-state actor helped naturalize the state’s presence and symbolic power. The flipside of this is that when non-state actors decide not to support the state, they can. The state’s symbolic power is not sufficient to completely shape the local-level negotiations and override local-level power configurations. This is what happened in the third example: while a minority of schools partially implemented the policy, the vast majority of schools decided to reject it.

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