Sixty-one years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed that, “Everyone has the right to education.” However, that ambition has yet to be realized. Of the 72 million children currently out of primary school, nearly half of them live in sub-Saharan Africa and 11 million live in a single country: Nigeria. In a historic ruling earlier this month, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice ruled that all Nigerians are entitled to education as a basic right.
In Nigeria, the federal government argued that education was not a legal entitlement. But in a decision that could have implications across Africa, the court found Nigeria in breach of Article 17 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which states that, “every individual shall have the right to education.” The African Charter has been ratified by 53 countries, nearly every nation on the continent. In reaction to the court’s ruling, counsel for the plaintiff Summar declared that, “this is the first time an international court has recognized citizens’ legal right to education and it sends a clear message to ECOWAS member-states including Nigeria, and indeed all African governments, that the denial of this human right to millions of African citizens will not be tolerated.” Although the ruling directly applies to Nigeria, it could be the precursor to cases in other West African nations that are part of ECOWAS.
The right to education is already enshrined in the national laws and constitutions of many countries around the world. Just this year, India passed a “Right to Education Act” establishing a state obligation to provide eight years of education. In South Africa and Brazil, courts have held that constitutional provisions on the right to education require access to education for migrant children and the provision of transportation for children who could not otherwise attend school. In the United States, a right to education is part of many state constitutions and has been the basis for expanding funding for education in underserved areas.
Hopefully, this recent decision in Nigeria will prove to be an important catalyst for expanded investment in education in that country. Despite having one of the largest economies in Africa, public expenditures on education have been declining in Nigeria over the last 40 years down to five percent of the total federal budget in 2005. This investment by Nigeria falls far short of the international benchmark that countries spend 20 percent of their total government expenditure on education. However, many other sub-Saharan African countries are not as well placed to realize the right to education.
Even in many African countries that do spend more than 20 percent of their national budgets on education, there are frequently insufficient resources to achieve universal education. For example, Burkina Faso, which spent nearly one quarter of its budget on education, still confronts one of the biggest out of school populations in Africa because of its extremely low gross domestic product. In recent years, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania have made important progress toward achieving universal primary education because of the combination of expanded domestic and increased donor financing.
If the right to education is to be realized in the rest of Africa, it will require leading international donors, such as the United States, to join with governments in Africa to substantially expand their investments in education. With the world facing a deadline next year for getting every child in school in time to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary completion by 2015, there is no time to waste.