Fostering African Growth through Education

Editor’s Note: In a keynote address to the USAID Africa Regional Education Workshop 2010 in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, Rebecca Winthrop discusses the role of education in promoting the potential of a growing African continent. She highlights the crucial need for a shift towards improving quality and using education as a proactive tool to address the issues of the youth bulge, conflict and violence, and climate change. She suggests in her keynote address that by engaging with others outside the education sector, practitioners can develop a greater appreciation for the transformational role education must play in building the future of the continent.

Thank you for inviting me to share some of my thoughts on education and development. It is an honor to be here and a privilege to speak after the President of Tanzania, his Excellency Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, whose commitment to education is inspiring. A special thanks to Aleta Williams and Yolande Miller-Grandvaux for including me in such an exciting conference. I have been to several large USAID conferences in the past but never one with Grammy-Award winning artists and heads of state. Clearly, the Africa Bureau has class.

Introduction: Education’s Challenges

At the Center for Universal Education at Brookings, I spend a lot of time thinking about global education and development issues. For example, I am concerned that there is an estimated $11 billion financing gap to achieve universal primary education as outlined in the Millennium Development Goals – even after national governments allocate their resources and donors make good on their pledges. This figure does not even take into account the resources needed to ensure an education of good quality, which we know is not a reality for many students. Nor does it include the costs for reaching the most marginalized children and youth, which will take extra work and require creative strategies and substantial time and resources. And this amount does not begin to take into account the costs of significantly expanding post-primary education; this is a topic we can no longer avoid as the new expanded cohorts of primary students are now graduating with no place to go.

I worry that at least at this moment in time, there does not appear to be any hope on the horizon for meeting this financing gap. Donor fatigue seems to be setting in for the education sector. For example, the Dutch, who have been important education supporters, are talking about shifting their priories. The education community has not yet found creative ways at the global level to harness private streams of financing, something which our health colleagues have accomplished quite successfully. Companies such as Nike and Apple participate in a program where half of their profit from certain products is donated to global health causes. Why couldn’t some of these innovative financing approaches benefit the education sector? More importantly, I worry that we as education specialists spend too much time talking to each other and not enough time engaging with others, including ministers of finance, health, and the environment. We need to do a better job of making the case to those outside our community that education can contribute to solving the most pressing problems of our day.

The Promising Role of Education in an Emerging African Continent

Powerfully articulating why education is central to achieving a better future, especially for the poorest countries in Africa and in the world, should not be difficult to do. While the picture I have just painted at the global level may look bleak, when it comes to Africa, the conversations in the halls of the Brookings Institution are much more positive. I want to share with you one of these conversations, highlighting not only the promise of Africa but also the central role of education in achieving a better world.

Sub-Saharan Africa is on the verge of joining the ranks of one of the world’s new economic powers, along with Brazil, Russia, India, and China – what economists refer to as the BRICs. We are entering a multi-polar world where there is no longer one dominant super-power. Instead, there are several powers and the engine of global economic growth comes from multiple sources. Africa has the potential to be one of these new economic hubs.  Sub-Saharan Africa has a trillion dollar economy that has grown faster than Brazil and India in nominal dollar terms over the last 10 years. The IMF has projected that it will grow faster than Brazil over the next five years, from 2010 to 2015. It has also been quite resilient during the global financial crisis, recovering faster than Latin America, Europe, and Central Asia. With a projected growth rate of 4.5 percent in 2011, Africa can no longer be ignored. 

In an excellent speech last month, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Managing Director of the World Bank, argued that it is time Africa saw and presented itself as the fifth BRIC – an attractive destination for investment and not just aid. To move from vision to reality, she discussed “the big push” needed on multiple fronts:

  • First, Africa’s infrastructure must be greatly improved, enabling the continent to integrate its economies – both regionally and globally.  Unlike the other BRICs, Africa is not a singular state, so this investment is crucial to realizing this vision.
  • Second, economic volatility must be managed.
  • Third, and most important for us, a large expansion of skills and ultimately human capital is needed.

Making a Game Changer: The Crucial Shift towards Quality

Clearly, education – and all your work on improving education in Africa – is an important part of developing the skills needed to transform Africa into a global economic powerhouse. However, one dimension of education in particular, as many of you are well aware, is essential for economic growth: quality learning. Enrollment and completion, which are easier to measure and have been a major focus during this past MDG decade, are not the key to Africa becoming one of the BRICs. We have very good data, especially in studies led by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Wößmann, that demonstrate empirically and causally that it is the cognitive skills of a population – and not school enrollment or number of years in school – that are strongly related to individual earnings, distribution of income, and economic growth. Indeed, their study shows that this is true even when controlling for other factors like well-functioning economic institutions. Education also plays a role in more stable and equitable economic growth, helping to guard against the boom-bust cycles that can be so detrimental. 

While, as we have heard previously, Africa has made important progress in increasing school enrollment, there is a learning crisis across the continent. Certainly there are pockets of excellence but on average, the need for better quality education is great and should be a major focus of all our work. In Kenya, Uwezo reports that two-thirds of grade two students are not able to read a simple paragraph consisting of three or four very short sentences. RTI reports that in Uganda, 45 percent of grade three students in English medium schools could not recognize a single letter and in Mali 23 percent of grade six students learning in French could not recognize a single letter. Imagine spending six years in school without learning how to read. In many places, schools are tragically failing our children. All of you at USAID are on the forefront of this issue given your attention to improving the assessment of early reading skills; this has been an important first step in shedding light on this crisis. 

For all of you working in Africa and struggling with this learning crisis, you are not alone. This is a truly global issue. For example, a recent report on Pakistan shows that 30 percent of the 15 to 16 year olds in school cannot read the text of a basic story nor do division. 

We need a paradigm shift in education – our sights should be on learning. Some talk about revising the MDGs to promote universal primary learning instead of completion. This focus on learning should not stop just at reading, which is an essential foundational skill, but must also include numeracy, critical thinking, and civic values. When your end goal shifts to learning, you begin to reorient your inputs to align with those things that improve it. From school feeding so children are able to concentrate at school to putting learning materials in children’s hands and providing pedagogical training for teachers, these inputs could range widely depending on the context. A focus on learning does not mean a neglect of the issues pertaining to access, indeed accessing education is a prerequisite for any student to improve learning outcomes.  But reorienting the ultimate objective could help transform how we approach education and how we measure educational success. 

I have a colleague at the Center for Universal Education, Jacques van der Gaag, that likens the shift from enrollment to learning to the paradigm shift that took place in the human development field twenty years ago. Prior to 1990, human development was largely measured by GDP per capita, which, as we all know, is a fraction of what really counts. Then when UNDP launched the first human development report, expanding metrics to include a range of things such as health, education, and security, overnight we had a much better picture of what we were really concerned with. It is time for this type of game change to take hold in the education sector.

Proactive and Creative Education to Confront New Challenges

Clearly, education plays a crucial role in Africa’s prosperity. But looking forward, over the next ten to twenty years, there are several other global issues that will impact both education and economic prosperity. Three of which – the youth bulge, conflict and violence, and climate change – are particularly acute in Africa and places where the education community can play a crucial role in addressing if we are sufficiently proactive and creative. 

The Youth Bulge

Demographically, the world is experiencing the largest youth cohort in history. There are 1.5 billion people in the world between the ages of 12 and 24 and the vast majority of them, 1.3 billion, live in low and middle-income countries. Africa is the world’s youngest continent with 43 percent of the population under the age of 14 and 65 percent under the age of 30. Because of declining fertility rates, the youth population will not expand indefinitely and will begin to decline in the coming years. 

There is much talk about this “youth bulge” and education clearly has an important role to play in ensuring Africa reaps the benefit of its youth’s energy, hard work, and talent. Post-primary education, so crucial for ensuring that this population is given the support it needs to constructively contribute to society, has generally been neglected. International development assistance for post-primary education is a fraction of what is provided to basic and tertiary education. In Africa, the sum total of all official development assistance is distributed with a little less than one third (27 percent) going to basic education, about one fifth (11 percent) going to secondary education and over one third (34 percent) going to tertiary education. The remaining two-fifths go to a range of activities such as research, management, and training. 

We must all do better to find and increase our focus on relevant, flexible and gender-sensitive post-primary education investments. Many of you are working hard to do this and your efforts should be applauded and amply supported. This is especially important when considering the life-trajectory of girls and young women, as we heard earlier from Angelique Kidjo. We know that in Africa, it is the transition from upper primary on to various forms of post-primary education where many girls are lost. Investing in flexible approaches and creative strategies for girls and young women to continue their education is essential not only for their own well-being but, as we have seen from research, for the well-being of their communities.

Conflict and Violence

Another issue which many of you are equally grappling with is conflict and violent extremism. The good news is that the number of state-based armed conflicts in Africa has decreased over the last decade from 16 in 1999 to 11 in 2008-2009. However, conflict and now increasingly violent extremism still affect far too many in Africa. The education sector itself is not immune to conflict. Not only are education systems disrupted during conflict but education often becomes one of the many battle grounds in which the conflict itself plays out. Inherently political, education policy can be used to promote particular ideologies and national visions. Education can be contested terrain in any country – certainly in my own country, the United States, where we have deep debates over education policy. However, in countries where conflict is brewing, in full flames, or subsiding, education can play a role in shaping the outcomes of conflict.

Research shows that expanding educational access in low-income countries greatly reduces a country’s conflict risk. This analysis, which is based on robust econometric data, shows that over and above the conflict risk associated with poverty, education has a significant role to play. Indeed, education, especially male secondary enrollment, is one of the very few factors that are significantly associated with conflict risk. Other factors include things such as the presence of oil, large populations, and a legacy of conflict. Unlike some of the other important factors, education is particularly amenable to policy intervention. Policy makers can pursue strategies to expand access to quality education in the hopes of reducing conflict risk much more easily than they can rid the country of oil or change its history.

Conflict-sensitive approaches to education are essential to ensure education helps mitigate conflict rather than inflaming it through. This has many practical implications for how programs are designed and implemented. For example, in new post-conflict contexts, it may not be wise, as is often done, to focus on primary education before rolling out secondary education options. Aim to sequence interventions in a way that simultaneously addresses both levels in tandem may be a better strategy. The United States, and USAID especially, has a real comparative advantage in addressing issues of education in conflict. I know many of you have been actively involved in these issues and your efforts should be commended and supported.

Climate Change

The third issue, climate change, is perhaps the largest global issue facing us all. Globally, the number of severe weather hazards and disasters is up from 200 per year to 400 per year; this number is expected to increase by 320 percent over the next 20 years. Africa is expected to experience her fair share of the impacts of climate change, especially in relation to concerns of water. Flooding, droughts, and rising sea levels are all patterns that will affect African communities. Many are also talking about climate change as one of the new drivers of forced migration and conflict. It is essential for everyone to embrace climate change adaptation immediately. Our environment is changing and the patters of human life must change with it. Development and climate change adaptation must go hand and hand from now on. 

Education has an important role to play in helping build resilient communities. The core sets of processes needed to move forward climate change adaptation strategies are at the heart of education. Individuals and communities need new knowledge, they need new skills, and they also need to change their attitudes and behaviors to ensure their lifestyles and livelihoods are climate-friendly. Educators have long traditions of educating for social change and can bring this expertise on knowledge, skills, attitude, and behavior change to bear on this problem. Indeed, some preliminary research suggests that educating girls and women is one of the best ways of ensuring communities are less vulnerable to climate change and better able to adapt. This is however one area where much more research is needed. We need better data and better ideas on how the power of education can be harnessed to address this global problem. It most certainly will be something the education community will have to squarely face in the future and the more prepared we are, the better able we will be in helping find collective solutions.  

Engaging Others: Education’s Role in Africa’s Potential

In conclusion, it is a very exciting time to be working in education in Africa. All of you have a crucial role to play in Africa’s future economic prosperity. You also will play an important part in finding positive ways for Africa to cope with its large youth population, the conflict and violent extremism that grips so many of its countries, and the changes in its climate. Certainly there many other important shared problems, such as health, to which you are also playing a crucial role. 

I personally am very committed to supporting education because it is a right and because I believe in the inherent benefit of the process of being educated, regardless of any benefits to external problems. However, I am not sure other non-educators share this commitment. So I would encourage all of you – both during the rest of your conference and when you return home – to actively reach out, even more than you already are, to other non-education actors. Engage ministers of finance and their staff, military personnel, and environmental experts, for example, in a discussion about the role of education in solving some of the major problems Africa faces as well as building her full potential. In your next conferences and meetings, why not invite USAID colleagues for other departments and bureaus, and find ways to reach outside of our community?

The face of development is changing and the face of aid is changing, too. It is more about equal partnerships and collective solutions; new ideas are needed to solve the world’s problems. You are all important change agents in this effort. I have great admiration and respect for the work you do. Thank you for your time but especially thank you for your valuable contribution to making this world a better place.