Education Holds the Key to Africa’s Development

South African graduates
South African graduates

My husband, Nelson Mandela, once described education as “the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” He was right. But I wonder if Africa’s political leaders really understand the critical importance of education for the future of our countries – and for the hopes of our children.

As a region, we have much to celebrate. We are now in the world’s high-growth league. Measured by GDP, exports, and foreign investment flows, Africa has made extraordinary progress. While the global economy has foundered, Africa has emerged as a new growth pole. Visit almost any major city in the region and you will see the signs of rising prosperity.

Yet, there is another side to the balance sheet. Poverty is falling far too slowly. After a decade of high growth, almost half of Africa’s population still survives on less than $1.25 a day. Why the mismatch between growth and poverty reduction? Part of the answer to that question is to be found in inequality: countries across the region are better at generating wealth than sharing it. All too often, the poor have been left behind, including the smallholder farmers that form the social and economic backbone of our societies.

The recent Africa Progress Panel’s report, Jobs, Justice and Equity, has drawn attention to wider problems. When it comes to the vital signs of human development, rather than the growth of GDP, the record of the past decade looks less impressive. Child death rates are falling far too slowly. Maternal health indicators are shocking, pointing to the grave risks facing women across the region. Country-after-country faces an epidemic of youth unemployment. That epidemic threatens to convert the growth in Africa’s population of young people from an economic opportunity into a demographic time bomb.

Education has the capacity to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Go to any poor rural village or urban slum and you will find Africans who share that view. Desperately poor and vulnerable people across the region see education as a pathway out of poverty for their children – and they are right.

The facts speak for themselves. One additional year of schooling in a poor country can add 10 percent to a person’s income. Children of educated mothers are more likely to be vaccinated and less likely to die before the age of five. In fact, UNESCO’s Global Monitoring report estimates that universal secondary education for Africa’s women would save around 1.8 million child lives a year. We know also that educated women are better informed about HIV/AIDS and placed to make informed decisions about their reproductive health. In Ethiopia, women with no education have fertility rates three times higher than those with secondary education.

Economists like to debate precisely why education makes a difference. But the real reason is simple enough, and it can be summarized in one word – and that word is ’empowerment’. It is through quality education that young people can gain the skills they need to secure decent jobs, and that smallholder farmers need to raise productivity and work their way out of poverty. And it is education that gives young girls and women the confidence they need to demand their entitlements.

All of which brings me back to Mr. Mandela and the power education has to change the world. Sometimes I worry that Africa’s political leaders and aid donors get so mesmerized by figures on economic growth and wealth that they lose sight of other indicators. How else do you explain why the most recent data on education have yet to register as a national emergency?

Here are the plain facts. Just over a decade ago, the world’s leaders promised that all children would have access to decent quality education by 2015. After some encouraging, even spectacular, early gains, progress has stalled. There are now around 30 million children out of school, with millions more dropping out before they finish primary school. And unless we act with a renewed sense of urgency these figures will look worse by 2015.

This state of affairs is indefensible. As the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and recently appointed UN Special Envoy on education, Gordon Brown, has put it, “you don’t break promises to children.” Yet, that is what we are doing.

Distressing as the enrolment figures are, there is worse to come. Far too many of the children that are in school are not getting a chance to develop their potential. The Brookings/This is Africa Learning Barometer survey shows that around half of Africa’s children will reach their adolescent years lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills, irrespective of whether they have been to school. Alarmingly, around one-fifth of children making it through to the last grades of primary school are unable to meet grade 2 test standards for their country. Bluntly stated, our education systems are failing our children.

There is a widespread tendency that I have detected across many governments to view the education crisis as a problem for education ministries. That tendency is unfortunate. In today’s knowledge-based global economy, education failures affect every section of society. They undermine economic growth and reinforce social inequalities. They deprive young people of jobs and hope, and industrialists of a skilled work force.

For finance ministers who believe that Africa’s recent growth performance can be sustained just through sound macroeconomics, incentives for investment, and spending on infrastructure, I have a simple message – think again. Countries like South Korea built economic growth on education. China and India are doing the same. Ultimately Africa’s growth prospects will be determined not by our region’s natural resources but by our human resources. Quality education today is the springboard for tomorrow’s economic growth and shared prosperity.

What needs to happen for Africa to unlock the potential of its children and youth through education? Of course, the answer varies from country to country. But four big themes stand out.

First, governments across the region need to target those who have been left behind. What children are able to achieve in education should depend on their effort and abilities, not on whether their parents are rich or poor, on whether they are rural or urban, or in which part of a country they live. I support calls for every government in the region to draw up a national strategy aimed at accelerating progress towards the exisiting 2015 Millennium Development Goals by narrowing inequalities. More equitable patterns of public spending, targeted support for the most disadvantaged schools and regions, financial transfers aimed at keeping children in school and young girls out of child labor or early marriage all have a role to play.

Second, it is time to get serious not just about getting kids into school, but about making sure that they are able to learn in school.As the above mentioned Africa Progress Report (2012) outlines there is a twin crisis in access and learning. We have to find another 1 million teachers for Africa. As important, we need to ensure that Africa’s teachers are equipped to teach. Too often, our children are being subjected to rote learning by teachers lacking the skills to deliver effective instruction, and lacking the support to improve performance. And too often they are sitting in classrooms lacking textbooks. This is not the route to effective learning.

Third, Donors need to spend less time reaffirming their commitment to education for all and more time acting on that commitment. Aid for education in Africa has stagnated in recent years at around $1.27bn annually – less than a quarter of what is required. This is in contrast to some African governments who have shown great commitment to investing in education. For example, in 2012, both Namibia and Lesotho spent over 25 per cent of their budget on education. Part of the problem for donors is that the education sector lacks a strong multilateral core bringing together donors, the business community, and civil society to support country efforts. There is no equivalent to the global funds for health that have made such a difference. That is why I support calls for the creation of a global fund for education.

Last, but not least, we must address the education crisis in countries affected by, or recovering from, armed conflict. Why is so little aid provided for the conflict zones of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than 1 million children are out of school? What is preventing the international community from getting behind a major plan for constructing an education system out of the ruins left by civil war in South Sudan – a country rooted to the bottom of the world education league? Where was the support for education when children uprooted by violence and hunger in Somalia arrived in refugee camps?

These are questions that the entire African community must address. I recognize, of course, that there are difficulties to be addressed in dealing with fragile states and countries affected by armed conflict. But those difficulties do not justify turning our backs on children who also have a right to education – and who desperately need our support.

If we want to see Africa continue to develop in a sustainable manner that benefits all its citizens, it is imperative that education be addressed across the continent both as a right and as a development priority.


Graça Machel is a member of the Africa Progress Panel and former Minister of Education and Culture in Mozambique.