Top Priorities for Africa in 2013: Narrowing Africa's Education Deficit

For Africa to achieve transformative progress, policy solutions must come from African sources. The Africa Growth Initiative of the US; The Brookings Institution brought together African scholars to provide policymakers with high-quality research, expertise and innovative solutions that promote Africa’s economic development. The Initiative also collaborates with research partners in the region to raise the African voice in global policy debates on Africa. The Initiative mission is to deliver research from an African perspective that informs sound policy, creating sustained economic growth and development for the people of Africa. Eight papers were published under the titled “Top Priorities for the Continent 2013-Foresight Africa”, which are reprinting here parts. This Article was written byKevin Watkins, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Center for Universal Education.

Tackling the systemic learning crisis will require deeper institutional reforms sustained over many years. No education system is better than its teachers—and nowhere is this more evident than in Africa. Many countries are facing an epidemic of teacher absenteeism, depriving children of their most valuable learning resource. Part of the problem can be traced to low morale and legitimate grievances over pay and conditions. But weak accountability of parents and the indifference of education administrators are contributing factors, pointing to the need for urgent governance reforms. The bigger problem is that systems for teacher recruitment, training and support are hopelessly out of touch with national learning needs. Studies in countries such as Uganda, Nigeria and Mozambique have found that fewer than half of their teachers are able to score in the top band on a test designed for 12-year-olds. Training and classroom delivery is geared toward mind-numbing rote learning, rather than problem-solving. To make matters worse, few countries in Africa have functioning national learning assessment systems, depriving policymakers of the flow of information needed to guide reform.
Addressing these issues is tougher than building schools or supplying them with textbooks, and the political pay-off is lower. Raising learning achievement levels is a long haul, not a sprint. But delayed action is not an option. While governments face tough reform challenges, there is a growing body of evidence on what works. A growing network of policymakers across Africa and around the world are looking beyond school access to learning. Many of these issues are set out in the Center for Universal Education’s Global Compact on Learning.
The third requirement is for governments to recognize the lethal interaction between early childhood disadvantage and failure in education. This year, 40 percent of Africa’s children will reach primary school age having experienced acute malnutrition, which has devastating and largely irreversible consequences for cognitive development and later learning. We know from recent studies in Mozambique that successful preschool programs pay high dividends in terms of learning achievement in later years (Martinez et al., 2012). Yet few children in Africa, especially those from the poorest homes, have the opportunity to benefit from early childhood provision.
Fourth, it is time for African governments and international donors to tackle head-on the deep inequalities in education opportunity—inequalities that reinforce wider disparities and hold back progress in education. Currently, most public spending systems invest more per capita on higher income students and better performing schools than on poor students and failing schools. The inverse rule should apply. More generally, African governments should be using the increased revenue flows from natural resources to finance education interventions targeting the poor. Is there any sphere of public investment with a higher return than well-designed programs that keep girls in school and out of early marriage, that enable children to escape exploitative employment and make the transition to education, or that prevent hunger? I doubt it.
Last, but not least, Africa’s aid partners have to step up to the plate. Over the past decade, they have promised much but delivered little. Development assistance flows for basic education in sub-Saharan Africa have stagnated at around $1.7 billion annually (UNESCO, 2011). When it comes to support for basic education in sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank’s International Development Association has been a conspicuous underperformer. And, in contrast to the health sector, education still lacks a dynamic, innovative and well-resourced global fund to galvanize action and deliver results. No country better illustrates the human cost of donor indifference than South Sudan. Seven years after the peace agreement, aid agencies have failed to put in a structured plan for the construction of an education system. This in a country with over 1 million children out of school, and in which fewer than 1 in 50 girls makes it to secondary school.
The U.N. special envoy for global education, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, has called on donors to deliver on a promise they made over a decade ago to ensure that no country committed to achieve the Education for All Goals would be allowed to fail for want of finance. As donors reflect with some intensity on the post-2015 international development targets, perhaps they could take some time out to reflect on the costs to their own credibility of breaking that promise.     

By Alula Berhe Kidani, 19/04/2013