Improving Africa’s Educational Infrastructure
It has been nearly three years since the COVID-19 pandemic became a global threat, prompting governments around the world to close schools, but the full extent of the pandemic’s impact on children is still being revealed. The potential repercussions on Africa’s future could be enormous if immediate action is not taken.
More than half of children aged 10 in low and middle-income countries could not read and understand a simple written story even before the spread of COVID-19 (see Figure 18). That number is now at a terrifying 70% thanks to the pandemic. 1
Negative effects on health, safety, and psychological and social development were especially severe for the most at-risk children and young people.
There has been an increase in child labour and pregnancies at a young age, and 10 million more girls are at risk of being married off at a young age because of disruptions in their education. 2 Around the world, more than 370 million kids didn’t get their daily dose of nutrition because their schools were closed. 3 Half of all children in some countries have been subjected to physical violence during school closures, and 75% of children in those countries have gone hungry as a result of the pandemic’s impact on the economy.
The pandemic not only demonstrated the precarious state of education systems worldwide, but also their centrality to our hopes for a prosperous and equitable future. After all, Africa’s youth are the continent’s best chance at a brighter, greener, and more equitable future.
This is why, as we begin to recover from the pandemic’s effects, we must act swiftly to transform Africa’s educational systems and thereby revolutionise the continent’s educational future.
The first step in this process is making education a top priority in national and pan-African strategies for repair and revival. Every child, regardless of their gender, socioeconomic status, location, or ability to learn, should have access to 12 years of quality education from their government. Investing in at least a year of preschool for all children and staffing classrooms with enough teachers who are themselves well-trained are both crucial to achieving this goal. The safety of every student at our institution and in our surrounding communities depends on our renewed commitment to ending all forms of violence. And we need a society-wide strategy to address the underlying causes of gender inequality, such as the pressure on boys to leave school for the workforce and on girls to leave school for marriage.
Many African leaders’ commitments to take action to realise these priorities at the U.N. Transforming Education Summit in September 2022 gave me cause for optimism.
Second, governments responsible for education and their allies must determine which reforms should be prioritised in order to bring about widespread change, one that benefits every classroom, educator, and student, beginning with the most disadvantaged. More than 40 African countries are being helped by the organisation I lead, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), to do just that. We are helping these nations by removing the political, technical, and financial barriers that prevent children from learning and keep the most marginalised from attending school altogether. Insufficient domestic financing, caused by high debt costs, means that countries are not spending enough on education, or are not spending in an efficient and equitable manner. This is why GPE is committed to increasing and improving domestic financing as the primary and long-term source of educational funding.
Third, we must increase funding to transform education systems, with the most vulnerable children as the focus. To improve children’s health, safety, and well-being; and to equip them with the skills they need to thrive in 21st century economies, it is important to invest in their education. This can stimulate and work alongside other social investments, such as health, nutrition, and psychosocial services.
Funds that should be rushing back to repair COVID’s damage to education systems, risk being redirected to other competing priorities, as food and energy prices stoke inflation worldwide.
This can’t be allowed to take place. The Heads of State Declaration on Education Finance is a strong statement of intent to allocate at least 20 percent of national spending on education, and I applaud the 20 GPE partner countries, 16 of which are in Africa, that have already signed on to it. My sincere prayer is that many more people will follow their example and work to improve the lives of children in Africa.
Governments around the world are looking for ways to increase their fiscal flexibility and fund education investments without increasing their borrowing costs in the face of rising debt and global inflation. GPE is exploring ways to work with partner countries by advocating for new agreements that re-direct debt payments to education budgets, or by advocating for donors and creditors who will cover debt costs in exchange for results or additional spending on education (these can work alongside a swap where payments are diverted to education from a cancelled debt service; or a buydown where an entity which is not the creditor, nor the debtor, pays some of the debt costs in return for increased education spending). International donors’ creative investments can supplement national budgets to further national initiatives. For twenty years, GPE has used this strategy to build broad coalitions in the development community and the private sector to support reforms that originate in each country.
In the end, it’s up to us to capitalise on everything we’ve discovered, created, and put money into over the past three years. Teachers, parents, community leaders, and education officials all did what they could to get lessons to kids despite the pandemic, and some came up with creative new approaches. We at GPE are pleased to have helped fund this kind of work in forty different African nations.
Some students in Zambia had access to daily lessons on solar-powered radios distributed to those without electricity, while in Eswatini, Rwanda, and Somalia, students could tune into television and radio stations for the same purpose. To ensure that children in Zimbabwe and Sudan have access to UNICEF’s Learning Passport, a digital platform that allows them to access high-quality educational resources both online and offline, GPE has funded its rapid expansion.
Some disabled children in Gambia were also given regular phone checks, and specialised printed materials were created for distant learning in Burundi. Teachers and support staff in Malawi have been receiving specialised training in preparation for the upcoming school year, during which time revised curricula will be implemented alongside new, more sanitary buildings.
These instances demonstrate the ingenuity and perseverance of the African people in times of difficulty. The Africa we envision is in danger unless our educational systems are overhauled radically. Commemorating 10 years since the adoption of Agenda 2063, let us commit to transforming education for a transformed future this year by putting children and young people at the centre of our strategies for inclusive and sustainable growth.
The very concept of schooling is in grave danger all over Africa, and we must face that fact. Putting children’s education as a top priority is a duty of all governments, and they can and should do so.