Poverty, Inequality and Africa’s Education Crisis

The Africa Learning Barometer, a new interactive produced by our colleagues at the Brookings Center for Universal Education, indicates that only about half of sub-Saharan Africa’s 128 million school-aged children currently attending school are likely to acquire the basic skills needed for them to live healthy and productive lives. The center’s research further suggests that if you are a poor, female child currently attending school in a rural region you are far more likely to not be learning the critical skills, such as reading, writing and math. While these gender, income and regional learning gaps exist in most sub-Saharan African countries, they are most salient in South Africa, Uganda, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Botswana.

Taking aside the legacy of colonialism and racial and ethnic inequalities in some of these countries, a number of other factors explain the continuing disparities in learning between rural and urban schoolchildren in sub-Saharan Africa. Considering the significance of rural poverty across the continent, it should come as no surprise that rural schoolchildren are the most disadvantaged from a socioeconomic perspective when it comes to access to a quality education. Rural schools generally have less qualified teachers and not enough teachers for the number of children enrolled in school. This is clearly evident in the low teachers-per-school ratios and teacher-to-pupil ratios in most rural African regions. The reasons for these low numbers in rural Africa are many and very much linked to poverty and other inequalities and socioeconomic conditions. For example, teachers generally prefer urban to rural schools because urban areas offer greater opportunities and higher incomes. There is also a better quality of life in urban areas, with better access to good infrastructure, other services (such as healthcare) and general public goods.

In contrast, rural areas in Africa are often characterized by poor or nonexistent infrastructure and little or no provisions for other critical social services. This in turn negatively impacts the quality of education for rural-area children since even getting to school is a more difficult challenge and illness of a pupil or a family member may force the pupil to drop out of school entirely. Students in rural regions of Africa are further disadvantaged by the fact that their parents are generally uneducated. Again, we see that other socioeconomic conditions and inequalities greatly impact the quality of education in rural areas compared to urban centers.

To address Africa’s education crisis, African governments must implement policies that reduce poverty in rural areas, such as improving infrastructure, health and sanitation conditions, and modernizing the agricultural sector. While urbanization is certainly good for Africa’s industrialization and economic growth, a synergy between rural and urban development needs to be maintained if the quality of education in rural Africa is to be improved. African governments can also provide incentives, such as an additional bonus for teachers who accept positions to teach in rural schools. For their part, Africa’s development partners could support initiatives and programs that specifically target rural schools in order to help improve learning outcomes in those areas.

The continent’s education crisis is serious and it adversely affects rural areas more than urban ones. African governments and their development partners should not underestimate the long-term consequences of continued poverty and socioeconomic inequalities in rural areas. These conditions will only continue to exacerbate the education and learning gaps between rural and urban African schoolchildren. And in turn, poor quality education in rural areas will only continue to perpetuate long-term poverty in the region. It is a vicious cycle that African countries and international donors must work together to solve.

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