Like everything else in Zimbabwe, education has felt the impact of the crisis of government under President Robert Mugabe and of an economy contracting at a record rate. The advent of the unity government has revealed the scale of devastation in a sector that is key to the country.

When newly appointed Minister of Education David Coltart reported for duty three weeks ago, he was greeted by an astonishing scene.

"I arrived at the headquarters of the Ministry of Education, which is an 18-story building in Harare," said Coltart."The ministry takes up the entire building, and on the ground floor, I was met with the sight of Ministry of Education ladies with buckets of water on their heads, preparing to take the lift up, to as high as the 18th floor, because the building has been without water for well over six months."

It cost $800 to repair the pump that now brings water to toilets and water faucets in the building.

For Coltart, one of 16 ministers from the combined Movement for Democratic Change [MDC] serving in the new government, the un-repaired water pump has become emblematic of the skewed priorities of Mr. Mugabe's government, and of the degradation of the education system in the past decade.

"So, it is a profoundly shocking environment and a tragedy really, because, if you think of what ironically Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF did to boost education in the 1980s, in the 1990s, and we really have regressed to a situation, which sees our education system probably in a worse condition since before independence," Coltart said.

After taking power in 1980, Mr. Mugabe put education at the top of his government's list of priorities, spending 25 percent of the national budget on education during that decade. Money was spent to build schools and train teachers who were well paid.

Zimbabwe's literacy rate was soon the highest in sub-Saharan Africa at 96 percent, and its education system was held out as an example to the rest of the continent.

But from the early 1990s, the government spent less and less on education, so that by 2006 expenditure on education was only 13 percent of the national budget. By that time hyper-inflation had begun to bite, and diplomatic sources say that, in 2008, the value of government spending per child was equivalent to just 18 cents.

Coltart says the cumulative effects of all this have left schools in a deplorable state.

"I am told that virtually all the rural schools are closed, and most of the urban schools are closed, and even if they were open and we had teachers trying to teach, the vast majority of schools do not have desks, they do not have text books, chalk, exercise books. The buildings are in a state of almost complete disrepair," he said.

The impact on teachers has also been severe. Their once competitive salaries are now virtually worthless, eroded by stagnation and inflation officially pegged at around 231 million percent. In early 2008, teachers went on strike, but many teachers were simply unable to afford to go to work because their monthly pay was less than the bus fare for the same period.

Last month, newly appointed Finance Minister Tendai Biti agreed to pay public servants, including teachers, a monthly allowance of $100 in foreign currency. And Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Coltart each met with teachers' unions to try and persuade them to end the strike and bring their members back into the classrooms.

They agreed to do so, but Ofwald Madziva of the Progressive Teachers Union tells VOA they expect the government to address their salary demands soon.

"And, as a union, we have given the government up to around end of April to really move in a more practical fashion and see to it that there is a resolution to the salary dispute between teachers and government. And, if they don't respond favorably by the 30th of April, we certainly are going back to the combative mode and go for another strike action," Madziva said.

The problem for Coltart is how to fund teachers' demands, and to do that he needs to know how many teachers he has. But he found department records in a chaotic state.
 "One of the things that shocked me was that we don't have a computerized database, so our records are antiquated to put it mildly," said Coltart.
In the past year, many teachers left Zimbabwe - mostly for jobs in South Africa and Botswana. Coltart says has set up a team to find out how many teachers Zimbabwe now has, but believes the number to be less than 50 percent of a full complement of 140,000.
"I suspect that we have probably got about 60,000 teachers on our books - you know lawfully and officially," he said.
The unions have agreed to cooperate with Coltart to produce an audit of teachers; and Coltart has already appealed to western donor countries for more than $400 million in assistance to stabilize education in Zimbabwe over the next six months.

"But that gives you some idea of the extent of the crisis; almost half a billion dollars is required just to stabilize the education system at this juncture," Coltart said.

Coltart adds that to get education back to its former glory in Zimbabwe will take one billion dollars a year, money he says will be hard to find.

Diplomatic sources confirm that existing policies toward providing funding to Zimbabwe have not changed. Countries like the United States will continue to fund humanitarian programs, but will not bail out the unity government, nor offer development assistance until all abductees are released, progress is made toward restoring the rule of law, and a comprehensive macro-economic policy framework is worked out.

Zimbabwe has also appealed to the Southern Africa Development Community for $2 billion in emergency assistance funding. SADC plans a summit this month to discuss Zimbabwe's needs, and may adopt a plan to fund at least part of that.

But Coltart acknowledges handouts are not a long-term solution and that, before too long, Zimbabwe will have to take significant steps to get its economy up and running again. He notes that if the mining and agricultural sectors could be re-invigorated, it would go a long way toward achieving that goal.