News / Africa

Experts Tackling Education in Africa

Pupils at the Toi Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya, sit in a classroom and study, September 6, 2011.
Pupils at the Toi Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya, sit in a classroom and study, September 6, 2011.

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Gabe Joselow
This is Part 1 of a 12-part series:  Education in Africa
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How do you fix education in Africa, where students have far fewer opportunities than their counterparts in other parts of the world? There are two schools of thought on the subject: do you invest bottom up? Or top down?

The statistics are hard to ignore.  Sub-Saharan Africa is the lowest-ranked region in the world on the United Nations' education development index.

The U.N. education agency (UNESCO) says a quarter of all children in sub-Saharan Africa do not go to school, and account for 43 percent of the world's out-of-school children.

Meantime, the African Union (AU) has said the continent will need to recruit more than 2 million new teachers by 2015, just three years from now.

While the U.N. and the AU agree on the scope of the education challenges facing the continent, they are from two separate schools of thought on how to remedy the situation.

UNESCO, for instance, develops individual programs catering to each country's needs based on the U.N.'s Education for All initiative (EFA).

"Every country or every region, we look at those and see what is important," said Joseph Massaquoi, director of UNESCO's East Africa office.  "For instance in Uganda they have decided that teacher training is what is important, in Sudan it is literacy that we are emphasizing, similarly we are doing the same for Rwanda.  So every country we pick an area that we strive to emphasize."

EFA lists six major goals, including improving child education, gender parity and literacy.

UNESCO says the initiative has made major strides, especially an effort to attain universal primary education, with countries like Ethiopia, Guinea and Burundi improving rapidly since 1999.

Education for All is also in-line with the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, which seek to eradicate poverty, stop HIV/AIDS and improve other aspects of life in developing countries.

But the head of the Education Division at the African Union Commission, Beatrice Njenga, says the U.N. initiatives are misdirected.

"EFA focuses on basic education and a few years later we have MDGs whose education goal is primary education, but they go on to list other goals to do with development, to do with child mortality, food security and all that," said Njenga.  "And you look at those goals and you think with primary education, with basic education shall we be able to meet these goals?  One reason we might not meet MDGs in terms of, for instance, child mortality is because we don't have human resources. Where do human resources come from?  Not basic education."

The African Union has established its own "Plan of Action," education goals to achieve by the year 2015.

Instead of focusing on a bottom-up approach that promotes basic education for all, the AU plan is geared more toward developing stronger African universities, that will produce graduates who are focused on solving African problems.

Njenga says here too, on the university level, Africa is lagging behind.

"Higher education, higher education," added Njenga.  "The world average for access to university is about 27 percent. The average for Africa for accessing a first degree is between two and seven percent.  We've been told we need to at least double it to 12 percent if we are just to get the human resources that we need."

The AU has established a Pan-African University which will have institutes in five separate regions focused on different disciplines.  Njenga says three of the schools, in Kenya, Cameroon and Nigeria, will be ready to accept students this year.  Another two are planned for Algeria and a country yet to be determined in southern Africa.

UNESCO's Massaquoi objects to the African Union characterization of the U.N. as being too focused on primary education.

"We cannot make progress with basic education unless we also strengthen higher education," added Massaquoi.  "Teachers come from higher education.  So when we talk about teacher training we are really talking about the higher education level.  So we are now doing that.  So whereas the emphasis would appear to be on basic education, all of the other inputs that we strengthen and bring about quality of education, closing the gender gap and so on are also addressed by other programs including higher education."

The challenges to providing education in Africa are vast, but Massaquoi says he is optimistic.

"We should not look at where we are and assess ourselves on that basis," noted Massaquoi.  "We should look at where we are coming from, we should also look at impediments we have overcome because some of these countries have had wars and conflicts where everything was either destroyed or stagnated for a while, so when we look at all of that together and we see some progress, we feel very optimistic that by 2015 we'll be able to obtain some of those goals if not all."

Both the AU and the U.N. are looking at 2015 as the benchmark year to reassess the effectiveness of their two programs.

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