(Elementary school in Dakar, Senegal. Stuart Russell)

Beginning January 2018, public schools in Senegal were paralyzed by a teachers strike that lasted four months. Students and parents wondered how all of the lost hours of instruction could possibly be made up. Such strikes are not uncommon in Senegal and many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. While access to education has improved over the past decade, the quality of education in Senegal remains a challenge. Improving education quality requires a better understanding of the incentives that teachers face, including those incentives that motivate strikes sometimes long enough to cause une année blanche, or a lost academic year.

Though public sector unions have the ability to effectively stop public services through strikes, previous political science research on accountability and public service provision in developing countries has not sufficiently considered these actors. Much of the prior research on unions in developing countries has described unions as manifestations of working-class interests and focused on the role of unions in state-level processes like democratization or economic development.[1] It is less clear how union membership in developing countries affects the individual behavior of front-line civil servants like teachers or health workers. Moreover, previous research on unions in developing contexts has focused on cases in Latin America, while unions in sub-Saharan Africa have received less attention.

With the support of a MIT GOV/LAB seed grant, I spent six weeks in Senegal in June and July 2019 to begin filling that gap. I conducted more than fifty interviews with the leaders of teachers’ unions, bureaucrats in the Education Ministry, school directors, and teachers. Most of these interviews took place in Dakar, but many were also conducted in the northern city of Saint Louis and the town of Dagana along the Senegalese border with Mauritania. My preliminary research focused on teachers’ unions, though future work may expand to additional sectors such as health care. The objective was to understand the role of unions in the Senegalese education sector as well as to consider how unions may influence accountability relationships and ultimately the quality of education.

Fragmented teachers unions

Through the interviews I conducted, I learned that teachers’ unions in Senegal are highly fragmented. In the early 2000s, union leaders took advantage of cleavages between different categories of teachers to create specialized unions for specific groups like elementary, middle, or high school teachers. Conflict between union leaders also fueled fragmentation. When some union members lost internal elections to head their organization, they simply left to create a new one. There can be substantial financial benefits to leading unions, so ambitious members have an incentive to split in this way. However, like the plethora of political parties in Senegal, many of the resulting unions have relatively few members and exist in name only.

The Senegalese state was obligated to hear each union’s grievances, regardless of their size. With more than forty teachers’ unions, fragmentation posed a serious threat to effective and timely negotiations. The difficulty of negotiating with forty unions at once motivated the state to organize elections in 2017 in which teachers voted for the most “representative” unions. Separate elections were conducted for elementary and secondary school teachers. Smaller unions still exist, but the state now only negotiates with the six unions that received more than 10% of the votes in these elections.

Power through benefits

Ministry of Education office in Saint Louis, Senegal. Photo: Stuart Russell.

I also learned that fragmentation does not mean that unions are powerless. Competition makes it hard for unions to effectively play the traditional role of negotiating better wages, but some unions offer other important benefits to their members. Most notably, the six “representative” unions are central actors in the management of teachers’ career advancements. Teachers submit paper applications to advance their formal status (i.e. from a contract teacher to a civil servant) or to be promoted to a higher pay grade. If teachers submit their applications through the regular hierarchy of the education ministry, it may take years for their application to be processed as the paperwork moves from department-level offices to ministries in Dakar. Moreover, it is difficult for teachers posted to remote schools in rural areas to follow up on the status of their application. Many applications submitted this way are never completed.

Union members can bypass the normal process and submit their applications through union representatives. Unions quickly shuttle applications from rural areas to the education ministry in Dakar and union leaders in the capital then bring applications to the relevant offices. Union leaders then supervise the applications as they are transferred between the education, civil service, and finance ministries. Leaders in Dakar receive dozens of requests daily from members in rural areas to follow up on the status of their application.

Unions control the process further because they have connections to brokers in the education, civil service, and finance ministries. These may be personal acquaintances of union leaders, but more often they are union members who used to be teachers but now have been appointed to ministry positions. The six main unions each have representatives at key ministry offices to whom they bring the paperwork of their members for expedited processing. If teachers submit paperwork through their union, they can receive a response in months, if not weeks.

Unions and the government

The ability of Senegalese teachers’ unions to control the careers of their members suggests an important and previously understudied role of public sector unions in African bureaucracies. African bureaucracies are regularly construed as environments where personal relationships are key. However, despite the depiction of these bureaucracies as personalistic in nature, the salient relationships within these organizations are poorly understood. Previous scholarship has suggested that ethnic or partisan relationships matter[2], but union relationships may be similarly important for understanding how civil servants advance in a context that is far from meritocratic. Moving forward, I hope to further explore public sector unions as an understudied factor affecting teacher behavior and education quality.

[1] Important studies highlighting the effect of unions on state-level processes include Valenzuela (1989), Collier and Collier (1991), and Levitsky (2003).

[2] Examples of previous work on ethnic and partisan relationships within bureaucracies include Iyer and Mani (2012), Hassan (2017), and Brierley (2019).