Educational Challenges in Suriname

Written by Yehia Murad

Bridging the Educational Gulf: Unveiling Suriname’s Urban-Interior Disparity and the Imperative for Inclusive Reform

  1. Introduction

The right to education is a fundamental human right, enshrined in international conventions and recognized as a cornerstone of personal and societal development. In 2015, the UN adopted the Sustainable Development Goals initiative (SDGs) as a universal call for global economic and human development to be achieved by 2030.i Quality education is ranked number 4 among the SDG list, with goals that intend to eradicate gender disparity, illiteracy, and unaffordable education. This article addresses the educational challenges of Suriname, a country that is situated on the north-eastern tip of the South American continent, with a rich history and a vibrant culture. Although Suriname is signatory to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Agenda, the South American state stands as a testament to the enduring struggle for human rights, particularly the right to education. Looking at Suriname’s education system, this right remains elusive for many ethnic groups in its civil society, particularly among marginalised groups who grapple with the intricate web of political, social, and economic challenges that cast shadows upon their educational aspirations and limit access to such opportunities.

Both the quality and quantity of education depends on the capacity of the state to provide public services to its people. To address such challenges in education, it is essential that we look at Suriname’s state institutions, its ethnic cleavages, and the state’s capacity in delivering public services for its people. A strong state capacity is crucial for the provision of education, as the quality of education often reflects the state’s ability to ensure a monopoly over the use of force.ii This monopoly is essential in maintaining order and stability within the state’s territory, creating an environment conducive to the establishment and maintenance of educational institutions. Moreover, exercising jurisdiction over its territory allows the state to implement and enforce educational policies effectively.iii As the state expands its apparatus, it inevitably includes remote areas into its territory, which is significant for educational provision. This inclusion not only extends the reach of educational policies and resources to these previously marginalized regions but also integrates them into the broader socio-economic framework of the state. Thus, the expansion and strengthening of state capacity play a pivotal role in enhancing the quality and accessibility of education across the entire territory, contributing to the overall development and prosperity of the nation. In addition, assessing a country’s state capacity involves its jurisdictional limitations within its own people, whether it has the capacity to regulate certain cities and communities more efficiently.

1.2 The Problem

According to a report by UNESCO in 2020, Suriname has been struggling with an education system characterised by high drop-out and repetition, with low passing rates from primary to secondary education (an average that hovers between 50 and 60%). Furthermore, education in Suriname is also marked by deep disparities between urban and rural areas.

According to a report in 2007 by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), major disparities exist in the delivery and quality of education between the coastal areas and the interior of the country, where a large quantity of primary schools in the latter are managed by teachers with limited training.iv Suriname is divided into three distinct areas: rural, urban, and the “interior”. The government is in the capital city of Paramaribo (urban), where the majority of the population is also based. The rural areas constitute the northern coastal zone, which encompasses the districts of Coronie, Nickerie, Commewijne, and Saramacca. Lastly, the ‘interior’ is retained for the sparsely populated and forest covered hinterland that covers part of the Amazon, stretching towards the southern border with Brazil.

Remoteness is a major contributing factor for educational inequality in Suriname, in addition to its diverse ethnic composition, gender, incarceration, and poverty. Ethnic composition and remoteness are indirectly correlated and could be evocative of Suriname’s weak state capacity to deliver public services. This article addresses how both remoteness and ethnic diversity are the main obstacles for the state to increase its capacity in providing education as public service.

  1. State Capacity and Institutions

2.1 Commitments to Education

Suriname has ratified a multitude of international and regional human rights procedures, placing various responsibilities for the state to ensure the education of indigenous and tribal peoples. Such procedures include the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Convention on Eliminating all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). These multilateral instruments abet the rights of tribal and indigenous peoples to (1) have access to quality education without any forms of discrimination, and (2) establish their institutions and educational systems, providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.v

The binding state must comply with these rights, taking measures ‘in conjunction with indigenous peoples, in order for indigenous individuals, particularly children, including those living outside their communities, to have access to an education in their own culture provided in their own language’.vi Suriname is also binding to additional regional instruments, such as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which compels the state to commit to (1) the reduction of disparities in education between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, and (2) provide all Caribbean peoples with opportunities for constructive learning and personal growth in knowledge, skills, and attitudes from the earliest years of life, from the school system into the workplace.vii

2.2 Government Policy

Suriname’s constitution, drafted in 1992, guarantees the right to compulsory, free, and equal education.viii In addition, the constitution explicitly states that it is within its obligation to eradicate illiteracy and enable all citizens to attain the highest levels of education. With regards to Suriname’s diverse ethno-linguistic demographics, the government developed a development plan for the period 2017-2021 with a goal for an education system that reflects the multi-ethnic, multicultural and multilingual Surinamese society. The plan dedicates the design of programmes that would make education more accessible for all segments of society, including young and older citizens.ix Most importantly, the plan recognises the lack of quality education in the ‘interior’ region, explicitly citing challenges such as the ‘lack of fully certified, insufficient physical infrastructure, the language barrier, the distance from home to school, and the lack of good and safe drinking water and continuity of electricity’.x

The Ministry of Education drafted a comprehensive ‘Implementation Plan for Education in the Interior’ for the period between 2008 and 2015xi. The plan attempts to undergird the construction and the restoration of classrooms and schools, increasing the percentage of households who can speak Dutch, and increasing the number of qualified teachers. However, in 2012, the President of Suriname, Bouterse, ended the special education policies for the interior, claiming the lack of necessity to have a distinctive policy for education in the district.

3 Educational Status Between Urban and Interior

The disparity in education exists between the interior areas, specifically the district of Sipaliwini, and the urban areas, where the former repeat classes more frequently, leave school earlier, and score substantially lower than their peers in urban areas on the standardised testsxii. In addition, children in the Sipaliwini district complete primary education much later than their peers in the urban areas: in 2008, 1.2% of indigenous and maroon children completed primary school before the age of 12, in contrast to 24% of urban childrenxiii. From 1986-1992, the ‘interior’ region of Suriname witnessed an armed conflict which resulted in the destruction of the region’s key infrastructure, including bridges, roads, schools, and housingxiv. The Government of Suriname (2003) submitted a report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in which it acknowledges the abandonment of education in the interior, with students having to cover long distances, and a lack of sufficient housing for teachers.xv Since Dutch is the main language, education is completely in this language, with books and other materials completely in Dutch.xvi However, children in the interior regions of Sipaliwini speak their own tribal language at home.

3.1 Schools

The interior also lacks sufficient secondary schools, with 2 out of the 59 junior public secondary schools being in Sipaliwini, and no senior secondary schoolsxvii. Due to the lack of secondary schools, the majority of students from the Sipaliwini attend secondary school in Paramaribo, the capital, which can be very costly for their parents, who need to pay for materials, uniforms, and boarding school. In an interview by UNESCO (2020), Loreen Jubitana, director of the Association of Indigenous Village leaders in Suriname, states that children experience a culture shock when they move to the city for school, and this is the main cause for dropouts.xviii In addition, conditions of schools in Sipaliwini are deteriorating, with a lack of access to drinking water and low electricity.xix

3.2 Teachers

Another significant disparity between remote and urban areas is the former’s lack of qualified teachers. There are four training institutes for training in Suriname, none of them are in the interior region. Even though the recently graduated teachers are expected to teach at the interior for 5 years before taking up a position in the capital, they are unwilling to go to the interior due to the lack of electricity and drinkable water. The lack of adequate infrastructure within schools, housing, transportation, and logistics reduces the incentive for qualified teachers to live in the interior.

4. Conclusion

Both indigenous peoples and maroon groups have preserved their own forms of governance and are formally acknowledged so far that the tribal leaders receive a monthly stipend from the government. Although culturally distinct from each other, indigenous and maroon communities share a strong socio-economic and spiritual link with the natural environment. Notwithstanding ongoing modernisation processes, both groups, especially those situated further away from urban centres, are largely still dependent on the forest for their subsistence (hunting, fishing and rotational agriculture); housing, transportation in the form of dugout canoes and health care, using medicinal plants for a range of remedies.

The government of Suriname must reform its education system to become more inclusive to its diverse population. To introduce a more inclusive education system, the state must empower the local governments of the interior, which will also simultaneously increase its capacity to deliver other public services. Empowering local governments is crucial for data collection, opening the channels of communication between local governments at the grassroots, and the central government.

The Surinamese government must increase its monopoly over the use of force, simply by increasing its capacity to regulate its territory, and open channels of communication with its indigenous populations. To do so, the government must compromise to avoid polarisation between the interior and the urban areas of the country. Concessions in the form of political representation must be made to the indigenous peoples of Suriname. Lastly, the government needs to design incentives for teachers working in the interior, in addition to the investment in the development of locally based teachers. Public service provisions, including housing, healthcare, and amenities must be provided.

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Reference List

i UNDP. (n.d.) “The SDGs in Action” ://

ii Acemoglu, D., & Robinson, J. A. (2019). The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty. Penguin Press. ISBN (paperback) 9780735224407; ISBN (e-book) 9780735224391

iii Weber, M. (1919). “Politics as a Vocation.” In H. H. Gerth & C. Wright Mills (Trans. & Eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (pp. 77-128). Oxford University Press.

iv UNESCO (2020). “Rurality and Education in Suriname: Education and Inclusion of Remote Populations in Suriname”. Global Education Monitoring Report.

v UNESCO (2020). “Rurality and Education in Suriname: Education and Inclusion of Remote Populations in Suriname”. Global Education Monitoring Report.

vi United Nations. (2007). “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”.

vii Caribbean Community (CARICOM). (2018). CARICOM HRD 2030 strategy.

viii Suriname. (1987). Constitution of Suriname.

ix Government of Suriname. (2017). “Ontwikkelingsplan” [Development Plan] 2017-2021. Ontwikkelingsprioriteiten-van-Suriname-1.pdf

Government of Suriname. (2017). “Ontwikkelingsplan” [Development Plan] 2017-2021.

x Government of Suriname. (2017). “Ontwikkelingsplan” [Development Plan] 2017-2021.

xi MINOW (2008). “Implementatieplan Onderwijs Binnenland” [Implementation Plan for the Education of the Interior]. Paramaribo

xii United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) 2007. Concluding Observations, Suriname, CRC/C/SUR/Co/2.

xiii United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) 2007. Concluding Observations, Suriname, CRC/C/SUR/Co/2.

xiv UNESCO (2020). “Rurality and Education in Suriname: Education and Inclusion of Remote Populations in Suriname”. Global Education Monitoring Report.

xv Government of Suriname (2003), “Report submitted to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination”, CERD/C/446/Add.1, 1 October 2003. D%2fC%2f446%2fAdd.1&Lang=en

xvi Government of Suriname (2003), “Report submitted to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination”, CERD/C/446/Add.1, 1 October 2003.

xvii UNESCO (2020). “Rurality and Education in Suriname: Education and Inclusion of Remote Populations in Suriname”. Global Education Monitoring Report.

xviii UNESCO (2020). “Rurality and Education in Suriname: Education and Inclusion of Remote Populations in Suriname”. Global Education Monitoring Report.


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