Africa is facing a crossroads: allow an education crisis to become a generational catastrophe or invest in education as a means to a more prosperous future for all.
In the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted learning across sub-Saharan Africa. In many countries, children have missed at least 20 weeks of school – half an academic year. Child labour, early marriage, and teenage pregnancies are on the rise, meaning that millions of children and young people – especially girls – will never return to classrooms even when schools reopen.
The pandemic is worsening a pre-existing learning crisis. Africa has the highest out-of-school rates, the highest rates of exclusion, and the highest adolescent pregnancy rates. Only one in five children in Africa can read and understand a simple story by their tenth birthday.
The Global Education Summit on July 28-29 will be a crucial test for African governments and the international community to prove their commitment to delivering quality education for all children in a post-pandemic world.
Hosted by President Kenyatta of Kenya and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, the Summit will ask donors to commit at least $5 billion over five years to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). This investment will help ensure learning for 175 million girls and boys, get 88 million more children in school, and reach 140 million more students with trained teachers.
However, while reversing the trend of the declining aid to education is badly needed, African governments are the principal source of education funding. Domestic budgets finance teachers’ training and salaries, school infrastructure and maintenance, provision of learning materials, and administration and management of the education system. Therefore, only governments can turn the tide of Africa’s learning crisis into a wave of opportunity.
Today, children account for almost half of Africa’s population. By 2055, there will be one billion children on the continent. If properly skilled, this vast human resource could help lift hundreds of millions of Africans out of poverty — a dividend that would benefit both the continent and the world.
Education is the key to economic and social benefits such as higher incomes, improved health, better livelihoods, gender equality, advanced entrepreneurship, and innovation. For girls, education opens doors to better jobs, later marriages, higher family incomes, and healthier children. GDP in Africa could be 2.5 times higher if the benchmarks for both education and health were achieved.
To stem the loss of learning created by the Covid-19 pandemic and enable future generations to reap these benefits, African countries will need to prioritise education and commit to major investments in education now.
So it is deeply alarming that per capita education spending in sub-Saharan Africa could fall by more than 4 percent if governments reprioritise domestic budgets as a result of Covid-19. We must not let this happen. Now is the time to commit to a future in which every African child can get an education that gives them a fighting chance to realise their full potential.
Governments should make sure schools are equipped to provide a safe learning environment for both teachers and students and fund catch-up programmes to make up for lost learning.
Where schools are closed, adequate resources should be made available for remote learning and to maintain and expand student support programmes such as school feeding.
Beyond maintaining and increasing the amount of domestic financing for education, governments should also ensure investments in education are inclusive, targeted more carefully towards the most marginalised children, and well accounted for.
Africa should also prepare for future shocks by investing in digital learning and literacy and leveraging technology in the classrooms. This will ensure students can keep learning through future school closures, whether due to pandemics or to natural and climate disasters.
As we recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, Africa has a unique opportunity to build back better. The green and diversified economies of the future begin with a generation of educated young people with the skills they need to thrive in the 21st century.
The Global Education Summit will therefore ask African leaders to “raise their hands” and pledge to maintain their education budgets at pre-Covid levels and work towards a global target of allocating at least 20 percent of public spending to education.
With bold action and a vision for the kind of human capital Africa will need to grow and thrive in the future, we can ensure a more secure future and shared prosperity for all of us.
Jakaya Kikwete is former president of the United Republic of Tanzania and board chair-elect of the Global Partnership for Education.