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Last Updated: Feb 11, 2014 - 5:11:05 AM
Africa Must Invest in its Primary Education Sector

By: Abdirahman Takhal 

In this century, education will be the greatest tool for success much more than it has been in the last half of the twentieth century. This is particularly true in Africa, where most countries spend huge sum of their GDP (including the international aid) on military and defense build-ups. In a world that is increasingly becoming more interdependent and interconnected through commerce, political, and social issues, it is unwise to focus on the strength of military capability while downplaying the importance of education, which is the source of every prosperous society. Hence, it is high time for African leaders to invest in the future of their young and dynamic generation --if they are to do better than their parents by being more productive generation. Thus, serious steps to improve the primary education sector in Africa must be undertaken.

Over the last decade, education spending in Africa has increased 6% every year, according to a report released by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This increased funding, the report states, has been accompanied by some spectacular results. Such relatively good news highlights the correlation between positive results, which is measured with the quality of life, and the increased funding for education. Out of the 26 countries with comprehensive data, only one – the Central African Republic – reduced education spending since 2000. Overall, sub-Saharan Africa spends 5% of its gross domestic product on education, which is second only to North America and Europe at 5.3% but in one-third of the region's countries, half of all children still do not complete primary education, states Unesco.

More than half of Africa’s population is under the age of 30. This dynamic resource—the youth—gives Africa competitive advantage in the 21st century versus the developed world where their leaders are struggling to find a solution for —not lack of education—but lack of youth. For example, 20% of Japan, Italy, and Germany populations are 65 years and older. In sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, 47% of the overall population is under the age of 15. Furthermore, five to 14-year-olds is expected to grow by more than 34% over the next 20 years. This means the region will need to respond to the demands of 77 million new students. Therefore, if educated, Africa’s greatest resource in this century will be her youth. The only other alternative is a social turmoil as result of Africa’s high youth concentration that lack education, which means lower economic status that could in turn encourage regional instability.

In order to empower the youth, the primary education must be high in the educational priorities. According to Unesco, currently, most countries in sub-Saharan Africa spend at least 10 times more on a university student than on a primary school pupil. And on average, eight out of every $10 spent on university education in Africa is subsidized by country governments. These figures explain why a total of 32 million children remain out of school. One way to change this without jeopardizing the tertiary sector is to rearrange the priorities by making the primary education widely available for kids. By shifting more funding to lower level education, governments are making it cheaper; and therefore, more inviting for families of poor or near poor economic status to send their children, particularly girls, to school, as oppose to the students in the tertiary education who tend to come from wealthier backgrounds.

The method for increased funding for the primary education has been proven by Burundi as Unesco highlights; the recent experience of Burundi, which brought the number of out-of-school children down from 723,000 in 1999 to just 10,000 in 2009 was met with international praise and pledge for further assistance. Over the same period, Burundi increased its investment in education from 3.2% of GDP to 8.3%. But what made the real difference, says Unesco, was the decision to dedicate a much larger chunk of the budget to primary education, effectively moving public money away from secondary schools and universities. Therefore, given this proven success, no African country can justify for not educating their youth by focusing the primary education sector.

In the meantime, African governments, as part of the global economy, are wrestling with the recent economic crises while facing a looming population growth. As result, African leaders should take a concrete steps to stay ahead of this population growth by making strategic decisions on how to budget for education both in the short-term as well as the  long-term. One thing is certain, the economic downturn or stagnation in the more developed countries (MDCs) will likely continue at least in the first half of this decade. This means less international aide from these countries to the traditional recipients. Therefore, African leaders should plan ahead by wisely utilizing their resources to look beyond this decade. And the best way to do that is to allocate more funding for primary education. 

Finally, it is widely agreed on the brightness of Africa’s future given its rich natural resources as well as human resources. But unless the education trend, particularly the primary sector, is changed upwards, Africa can be its worst nightmare. No country or continent can sustain an explosive population growth with inadequate education system. Today’s leaders of Africa, if they choose, can be the founding fathers for new Africa—one that catches up the rest of the world in terms of education and productivity; one that invests its Infrastructure and a better healthcare system. Only then would Africa’s greatness be in full display. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which can use to change the world”, so Africa must change itself, and then it will be a lot easier to change the rest of the world.

Abdirahman Takhal 


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