A case for educational justice in Africa

Affo, 29, was born in a polygamous family comprising more than two dozen children. He is the second child to have obtained a high school degree but the only one to have gone to university. For his seven years at high school, he had to balance his studies with part-time jobs to pay tuition fees and daily expenses. 

Affo was brought up in a place where educational opportunities are nearly non-existent. But Affo’s is not an isolated story. Rather, it’s common in Benin and the wider African continent.

If we’re serious about intergenerational fairness, we need to urgently address the education problems facing millions of Affos in Africa. 

A widening educational inequality is a global problem but its effects are particularly dire in Africa, given the low level of literacy and the failure of education systems to adapt to the constantly evolving dynamics of learning. 

While the global literacy rate stands at 90%, the average in Africa is about 70%. But this continental average does not provide an accurate understanding of the realities. Literacy rates vary widely by country. For instance, it stands at a sorry 19% in Niger and 38% in Benin. Guinea is said to have a literacy rate of 30%, 32% for South Sudan, 33% for Mali, 37% for Central African Republic and 38% for Somalia. 

Many African countries have pledged to commit to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s benchmark of allocating 15% to 20% of the annual budget to the education sector. Yet most have consistently failed to turn that pledge into a reality. Thus the channels of cross-generational transfer of capital — symbolic or material — are broken at best and, at worst, non-existent. The region also registers the worst education spending efficiency.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these dynamics by disrupting students’ education and learning. Worldwide, an estimated 1.6 billion students have been affected by the pandemic, with more than 24 million children potentially never returning to school as a result. The disruption is even more pronounced in Africa, because of the inability to shift to remote learning in many places, especially for children from poor and rural backgrounds. 

Insecurity, coupled with health risks, led to the closure of more than 1 640 schools in Mali, affecting more than 2.9 million children. About 30% of students in Uganda weren’t expected to return to school because of teenage pregnancies, early marriages and child labour. Similarly, when schools reopened in Kenya in January 2021, a third of adolescent girls and a quarter of adolescent boys between the ages of 15 and 19 didn’t return. 

The World Bank warned that the Covid crisis threatened to drive unprecedented numbers of children into learning poverty. Such educational challenges and inequities could further widen the already enormous gap between the rich and the poor.

Equitable quality education is fundamental for acquiring the skills and knowledge to meaningfully participate in society. Yet this is lacking in much of Africa. Although the continent receives immeasurably less international attention, the future of the world hinges on Africa’s ability to productively harness the energies of its booming population, which will only be possible through inclusive quality education and learning. 

The continent’s population will rise to 2.5 billion by 2050, more than China and India combined. Africa’s population could well increase to four billion people by 2100, according to the UN. One of six people on Earth today live in Africa, and the proportion could become one of four by 2050 and more than one of three by 2100.

With more than 60% of its population under the age of 25, Africa has the largest population of young people in the world, binding the future of the global labour force to that of Africa. This makes education an even more pressing issue, if only because adequate investments in quality learning and training will shape the continent’s ability to transform its population for growth and prosperity. It will also affect nearly everything about people’s daily lives — from employment and geopolitics to migration and trade — far beyond Africa, and for generations. As author, journalist and professor Howard W French rightly argues, the future of Africa is one of the most important issues facing humanity.

A new education framework for Africa

The blueprint requires redesigning Africa’s education systems to fit the needs and skills of the 21st century. Outdated curricula have left students without the practical and soft skills needed to succeed in today’s competitive world. (Not to mention the overcrowded classes, insufficient teaching materials, insufficient equipment, lack of laboratories and libraries — all of which lead to poorly educated and unemployable masses.) Africa ought to provide children with a dynamic and adaptive education framework that is accessible and inclusive. Such a framework should be student-centred and encourage creativity and entrepreneurship. The blueprint requires not only inputs from the students in developing adaptive curricula, but also promotes the four Cs — critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication. 

The new blueprint also calls for strengthened partnerships with stakeholders, including (and especially) tech companies and other private sector actors. This would play an invaluable role in helping eradicate technological illiteracy and respond to new demands.

One inevitable outcome of Africa’s population boom will be a rise in migration. Better education and learning outcomes on the continent could create the conditions for people to stay put and participate in the transformation of the continent. Even those who decide to leave would have acquired the capacity to meaningfully contribute to the growth and prosperity of their new places. This is already happening in many regions: in the US, African immigrants have a higher level of education than both the immigrant population as a whole and the US-born population.

Finally, the education framework will necessarily be inclusive of climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. Considering the fact that climate change could wipe out 15% of Africa’s GDP by 2030 and push an additional 100 million people into extreme poverty, these strategies are more than urgently needed. Africa will bear some of the harshest effects of the rising temperatures, although it contributes so little to global gas emissions and is the least financially capable of responding to the looming ecological catastrophes. 

There is a robust literature on the pitfalls of foreign aid in Africa. The continent receives about $60-billion in foreign aid a year, but that is significantly less than the estimated $89-billion it loses to illicit financial flows. One clear implication, but also a central challenge, is to cut off these illicit flows and channel them towards development projects, including the financing of the adaptive and dynamic education blueprint. In addition to breaking free from the cycle of dependency, moving beyond the aid mindset would ensure that African countries can set and implement their own strategic priorities with regard to renewed education.

Inclusive quality education that meets the dynamic job markets is the way out of the conundrums facing Africa. Although on a much smaller and localised scale, this is what my colleagues and I strive to do at Educ4All, a grassroots initiative I founded in 2013. It promotes the crucial role education plays in emancipating and empowering marginalised people. They take the driver’s seat because they know better the problems facing them. 

Pulling this off is a daunting task. But if American lawyer and politician William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) is right, then Africa’s destiny will not be a matter of chance but one of choice. Africa cannot afford to wait for external Messiahs. Meaningful change cannot be handed out; it has to be achieved internally, and prioritising effective and inclusive education is the right place to begin.

This is an abridged and edited version of an article first published by Africa is a Country. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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