If there is a universal lesson from the Covid pandemic for Africa’s education sector, it is that the continent must assume greater responsibility to address an unprecedented learning crisis that threatens the vision of a knowledge-based society able to survive in a global and competitive environment.
This concern, on how to guarantee inclusive and quality education for all children, is among the key issues that Africa leaders will confront during the Global Education Summit to be co-hosted by the Governments of Kenya and the United Kingdom in London starting on Wednesday July 28.
Although since the launch of the Millennium Development Goals (MGDs) in 2000 and creation of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) in 2002, initially known as Education for All – Fast Track Initiative (EFA-FTI), hundreds of millions of children in developing countries have been enabled to access education, at the onset of Covid-19 pandemic an estimated 260 million children were still out of school, and about 53% of those in school were not achieving the minimum learning outcomes, such as acquiring basic reading and numeracy skills.
Covid-19 has compounded this learning poverty, especially in Africa. Indeed, according to a UNICEF report of November 2020 titled “Covid-19: A catastrophe for Sub-Saharan children”, Covid-19 related school closures has forced 250 million of Sub-Sahara African children out of school and it is feared that millions of them will end up as permanent dropouts, adding to the one hundred million out of school children before the pandemic.
The multitude of impacts of the Covid pandemic have exercebated this learning crisis and also shone the spotlight on already-existing challenges to education that have not adequately addressed for far too long. Key among these challenges is the ever-increasing annual financing gap for education that is placing the future of millions of learners at risk.
The pandemic has also highlighted alarming inequalities within and across countries that must be tackled urgently in order to guarantee the fundamental right to quality education for all children, especially targeting those who are vulnerable and marginalized, such as the girl child.
Importantly, these disruptions caused by the Covid pandemic are a reminder that Africa’s vision for shared prosperity and inclusive growth is only realizable if countries equip their citizens with 21st century skills to thrive in an increasingly demanding and uncertain world. A key lesson is that Africa’s huge youthful population can be a demographic dividend only if it is provided with quality education and appropriate skills.
To achieve this vision, a post-Covid education agenda for Africa will require innovative, increased and well-targeted financing and efficient implementation arrangements. There must also be a clear, renewed commitment by governments to provide adequate and equitable financing to educational priorities, with additional support from donors.
This week’s Global Education Summit seeks to raise at least USD$5 billion from the international community to boost financing education in the developing world over the next five years. This much-needed development assistance will be crucial to support national education systems to recover from the long-term impacts of the pandemic.
However, domestic spending remains the most important source of financing for education in Africa. The bigger responsibility of closing the education financing gap therefore rests on the shoulders of African governments themselves; by increasing national budget allocations for education, ensuring that funds are utilized equitably and efficiently, and forging new and innovative partnerships.
This is a challenge that African leaders must confront head on, even as they contend with the economic strain that Covid is putting on national economies and budgets, the competing needs of other development sectors and limited external support.
To achieve the shared continental vision, African leaders at the Summit should commit to progressively increase financial allocations for education to the minimum global benchmark of 20 percent of national budget set by UNESCO, and endorsed by African countries at the Global Education Summit in 2015.
They should further commit to ensuring equity in access to quality education, including making available resources reach the most marginalized children, especially girls. Specific commitments on prioritizing gender equity should focus improving girls’ education and increasing investments for the inclusion of children with disabilities or other historically excluded groups.
Greater emphasis should be placed on improving learning outcomes in education systems by employing new techniques and proven methodologies, and by leveraging on technology to close the global digital divide.
Similarly, investments on education should aim at strengthening the capacities and improving the well-being of our teachers and recognizing the instrumental role that they play in determining learning outcomes.
African leaders must also pledge to ensure efficient use of available resources for education by improving accountability and transparency in the education sector, addressing systemic inefficiencies, including high repetition and drop-out rates, and eliminating gaps in the optimal management and distribution of teachers.
The journey towards an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa should start by recognizing that we know our challenges and we have the solution; all we need is the courage and commitment to administer the alchemy.
As Rwandan President Paul Kagame has often emphasized, it is the responsibility of Africans to contribute to the development of the continent to help it reach its full potential. Africans must therefore place themselves at the frontline in the quest for prosperity, independence, self-reliance and dignity.
In allocating budgets to various competing development priorities, African leaders must keep in mind that education is, according to Horace Mann, the 18th-century pioneer of public education, the greatest equalizer of the conditions of men. This is also underscored by a UNESCO’s International Commission on the Futures of Education which characterizes education as a bulwark against inequality and the greatest enabler of life of dignity and purpose
Furthermore, according to the World Bank, education is a powerful driver of development and one of the strongest instruments for reducing poverty and improving health, gender equality, peace, and stability.
Therefore, if African leaders and their development partners are serious about achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (MDGs) in Africa, they must prioritize funding for education, since education is the greatest enabler for achieving most, if not all, the other SDGs.
The writer is a former Rwandan Minister of Education and until his retirement in June 2020, he was the Deputy Vice-Chancellor in charge of Institutional Development at the University of Rwanda.