A quick glance at the list of African countries with the lowest literacy rates on the recent UNESCO Global Adult and Youths Literacy factsheet and those at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index reveals an age-old truth that education is the engine of development, and where there is lack of education, development is stunted. The biggest factor responsible for African underdevelopment is its failure to make bold investments in education, and until we address the issue, Africa will remain poor.
According to the Global Campaign for Education (GCE), 67 million children of primary school age are currently out of school. Close to half of this number live in sub-Saharan Africa. The GCE predicts that at current pace, it is going to take Africa at least 75 years to achieve universal education at lower secondary level. However, Africa has failed to invest where it could yield the biggest and most sustainable rewards. Education has always been indispensable to nation-building everywhere, but African leaders have failed to learn from the evidence and experiences of history.
One would think the experiences of early African leaders, products of missionary schools, could have made them zealous advocates for education, but students actually became their greatest enemies as they sought to silence the youth from demanding their due in the newly independent nations. Iconic institutions like Fourah Bay College were left to deteriorate into carcasses of their once prestigious selves. When I visited Fourah Bay College in 2007, there was hardly any running water on campus and the toilets were full, but because students had nowhere else to go, they simply tightened their noses and did their business. I was a student at Skidmore College in upstate New York at the time, and even as a Sierra Leonean who is familiar with such drastic standards of living, I was shocked beyond words.
Students in Sierra Leone pay for everything from uniforms to grades. As poor as many of the students are, they go all out to find money to defray the formal and informal fees, but in return they get misery and indignity. Just a couple of months ago, students at Fourah Bay College could not take their exams because the university ran out of paper. During my visits to Sierra Leone as Executive Director of the Jeneba Project, an organization providing educational opportunities for children in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, I constantly wondered whether students graduating from those broken institutions would be motivated enough to put our national interest first.
Many African leaders complain of limited resources to educate their people, but if, as according to Dambisa Moyo, more than $1 trillion in development aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa over the past 50 years, then this money, coupled with the continent's own resources, leave no reason for Africa to remain one of the most illiterate continents. Some African leaders have recognized the importance of education in theory, but in practice, things remain the same, especially for African girls who are often denied education altogether.
Unless education takes a place second to none in all African countries, the continent will continue to lag behind in human development. All African countries must therefore provide free and compulsory education at least at the elementary and fundamental stages, as required by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As Nelson Mandela said, “this is an era of intense and vicious competition in which the richest rewards are reserved for those who have undergone the most thorough training and who have attained the highest academic qualifications in their respective fields.” Africa cannot afford to be left behind again.
Photo Credit: Joseph Kaifala