The case for educational justice in post-COVID Africa

If generations of African youth are to prosper post-pandemic, a fundamental and vital shift in educational context and content is needed.

Image credit Olympia de Maismont for the European Union, 2021 via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

As is still common in the “Global South,” Affo, 29, was born in a polygamous family comprising more than two dozen children. Yet, he is the second child to have obtained a high school degree and the only one to have gone to university: A rare “progressive” family and a great “achievement” by community standards. Affo was brought up in a place where educational opportunities are nearly non-existent. His native village is more than 15 km from the closest town with a high school. Growing up, Affo had no bicycle, much less a motorbike to commute the distance. When he was lucky, a rare commodity in such a place, he would get a lift along the way.

Added to that challenge was the fact that, for the seven years of his high schooling, he had to judiciously combine studies with various part-time jobs to make ends meet, not just to pay tuition fees, but also to cover daily expenses. Thus, he faced seemingly insurmountable disadvantages at achieving a basic education. But Affo’s is not an isolated story. Rather, it’s the specter that has been haunting Benin and the wider African continent.

This is an uneven battle, one that is set to ultimately make him fail. Failure here means giving up on your education, just like so many before you. If we’re serious about intergenerational fairness, we need to urgently address education challenges facing millions of Affo across Africa. Only then might we be able to rewrite a generational contract that is fair to everyone everywhere.

The challenges with education in Africa

In the African context, the cliché that education is the path to prosperity and growth remains critical because that path is yet to be properly charted. A widening “educational inequality” is a major global problem, but its effects are particularly dire in Africa given the significantly low level of literacy in the region and the failure of education systems to adapt to the constantly evolving dynamics of learning. While the global literacy rate stands at 90%, the average in Africa is around 70%. However, this continental average does not provide us with an accurate understanding of the lived realities, as Affo’s struggles attest. Literacy rates vary widely by country; for instance, it stands at a sorry 19% in Niger and 38% in Benin. Guinea is said to have a literacy rate of 30%, 32% for South Sudan, 33% for Mali, 37% for Central African Republic, 38% for Somalia. Thus, at a time when the world is pushing to reach the “last mile” of literacy, an overwhelming majority in these countries can neither read nor write.

There is also the lack of commitment and prioritization with regard to education. Many African countries have pledged to commit to UNESCO’s benchmark of allocating 15-20% of the annual budget to the education sector. Yet, as the figure below—which presents the latest data on public spending on education per GDP for 28 selected African countries—shows, most have consistently failed to turn that pledge into a tangible reality. With these devastatingly wrong calls on education, the channels of cross-generational transfer of capital—symbolic or material—are fatally broken at best and, at worst, non-existent. As the region also registers the worst education spending efficiency, the social ladder is a portrait of utter anguish for the likes of Affo, with only public authorities and sound policymaking to lean on to make it to the other side of the socioeconomic divide.

Source: UNESCO (2018)

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these dynamics by disrupting students’ education and learning. Worldwide, an estimated 1.6 billion students have been impacted by the pandemic, with more than 24 million children potentially never returning to school as a result. The disruption is even more pronounced in Africa, due to the inability to shift to remote learning in many places, especially for children from poor and rural communities. This means that many students received no education at all after schools closed across the continent in March 2020. Also significantly exacerbating pre-existing educational inequalities in the region is that students who were already most at risk of being excluded have borne the bulk of the tragedies magnified by the pandemic. Yet, we know that inequality is a deadly issue.

In some more specific contexts, insecurity coupled with health risks led to the closure of more than 1,640 schools in Mali, affecting more than 2.9 million children in the country. Following what is the world’s longest COVID-19 school shutdown, which affected 10.4 million students, about 30 percent of students in Uganda are expected to not return to school due to teen pregnancy, early marriage and child labor. Similarly, when schools reopened in Kenya in January 2021, one-third of adolescent girls and a quarter of adolescent boys between the ages of 15 and 19 didn’t return. Amid the chaos of the pandemic and the even more daunting aftermath, the World Bank warned that the COVID crisis threatens to drive unprecedented numbers of children into learning poverty. It then goes without saying that such educational challenges and inequities could further widen the already enormous gap between the rich and the poor for generations to come.

Implications and global consequences

Equitable quality education is a fundamental building block for gaining the needed skills and knowledge to meaningfully participate in society. Yet, this is fundamentally lacking in much of Africa. Though the continent receives immeasurably less international attention, it is beyond doubt that the future of the world hinges on Africa’s ability to productively harness the energies of its booming population, which will only be possible through inclusive quality education and learning. Africa is where unprecedented demographic shifts are taking place. The continent’s population will rise to 2.5 billion by 2050, more than China and India combined. Indeed, Africa’s population could well increase to a staggering 4 billion people by 2100, according to the UN. One of six people on Earth today live in Africa, and the proportion could become one of four by 2050 and more than one of three by 2100.

Furthermore, with over 60% of its population under the age of 25, Africa currently hosts the largest population of young people in the world, binding up the future of the global labor force to that of Africa. This makes education an even more pressing issue, if only because adequate investments in quality learning and training will shape the continent’s ability to transform its booming population for growth and prosperity. It will also affect nearly everything about people’s daily lives—from employment and geopolitics to migration and trade—far beyond Africa, and for generations. As Howard W. French rightly argues, the future of Africa is one of the most important questions facing humanity today.

Actions are needed, and I broadly sketch out how and what it will take for inclusive quality education to pave the way for a renewed and fairer intergenerational contract for Africa and the world.

A new education framework for Africa: The blueprint requires redesigning Africa’s education systems to fit the needs and skills of the 21st century. Most of the continent’s education systems are terribly ill-fit for purpose in the dynamic and constantly evolving job markets. Outdated curricula have left students without the practical and soft skills needed to succeed in today’s competitive world. (Not to mention the overcrowded classes, insufficient teaching materials, insufficient equipment, lack of laboratories and libraries—all of which lead to poorly educated and unemployable masses.)  So, Africa ought to provide kids with a dynamic and adaptive education framework that is both accessible and inclusive. Such a framework should be student-centered, as well as encourage and incentivize creativity and entrepreneurship. The blueprint requires not only inputs from the students in developing adaptive curricula, but also promotes the 4Cs—critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication. These are the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century.

Moreover, the new blueprint also calls for strengthened partnerships with various stakeholders, including (and especially) tech companies and other private sector actors. This would play an invaluable role in helping eradicate technological illiteracy and respond to new demands, as illustrated by the outbreak of the pandemic, which forced African countries to close schools with dire consequences. The two years of pandemic have provided us with a clear glimpse of what learning will look like in the coming years. Therefore, tech companies should play a more prominent role for the Fourth Industrial Revolution to provide a lifeline to Africa’s young, eager population.

One inevitable outcome of Africa’s population boom will be a pointed rise in human-mobility. Though discussions about African mobility often come with disdain and outright racism, it is clear that better education and learning outcomes on the continent—ranging from universal literacy and schooling for girls and boys to vocational training—could create the necessary conditions for people to stay put and participate in the transformation of the continent. Even those who decide to leave would have acquired the capacity to meaningfully contribute to the growth and prosperity of their new places. This is already happening in many regions: in the US, where African immigrants have a higher level of education than both the immigrant population as a whole and the US-born population.

Finally, the education framework will necessarily be inclusive of climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. Considering the fact that climate change could wipe out 15% of Africa’s GDP by 2030 and push an additional 100 million people into extreme poverty, these strategies are more than urgently needed. This means that Africa will bear some of the harshest impacts of the rising temperatures, although it contributes so little to global gas emissions and is the least financially capable of responding to the looming ecological catastrophes. This is probably the clearest illustration of environmental injustice that will haunt the continent for generations. An adaptive and dynamic education could help mitigate some of these looming crises.

Beyond the aid mindset: There is a robust literature on the undeniable pitfalls of foreign aid in Africa. But it is still worth warning African countries about relying on foreign handouts if they are to succeed in implementing the new framework needed to thrive in the tumultuous and ever-shifting post-COVID era. Just like it has done with other deficiencies, the pandemic has laid bare the many issues that result from over-reliance on foreign aid. For example, consider the multilateral Geneva-based initiative, COVAX, set up in 2020 to help supply COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries. Due to supply shortages that resulted from vaccine-grabbing and vaccine-nationalism, COVAX has failed to meet the set goal of supplying 2 billion doses and vaccinating 20 percent of the population in these countries by the close of 2021.

Furthermore, the continent receives about $60 billion in foreign aid per year, but that is significantly less than the estimated $89 billion it loses to illicit financial flows. One clear implication, but also a central challenge, is to cut off these illicit flows and channel them towards development projects, including the financing of the adaptive and dynamic education blueprint. Clearly, the continent possesses the necessary resources to finance its educational revamping without waiting for external handouts.

In addition to breaking free from the cycle of dependency, moving beyond the aid mindset would ensure that African countries are able to set and implement their own strategic priorities with regard to renewed education.

The new education blueprint in action?

As discussed above, inclusive quality education that meets the dynamic job markets is the way out of the conundrums facing Africa. Making it to the better side in the post-COVID era requires the continent to build a more secure and prosperous future for its youth. Though on a much smaller and localized scale, this is exactly what my colleagues and I strive to do at “Educ4All,” a grassroots initiative I founded in 2013. It promotes the crucial role education plays in emancipating and empowering marginalized communities. These communities take the driver’s seat because they know better the challenges facing them. Such initiatives are needed to promote inclusive intergenerational justice. This will allow Affo and millions of others to no longer have to commute 15km to enjoy their fundamental right to education and learning.

Pulling this off is surely a daunting task. But if William Jennings Bryan is right, then Africa’s destiny will not be a matter of chance but that of choice. Thus, Africa can no longer afford to wait for external Messiahs. Meaningful change cannot be handed out; it has to be achieved internally, and prioritizing effective and inclusive education is the right place to begin.

Further Reading