My husband, Nelson Mandela, once described education as “the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” He was right. But I wonder if Africa’s political leaders really understand the critical importance of education for the future of our countries – and for the hopes of our children.
As a region, we have much to celebrate. We are now in the world’s high-growth league. Measured by GDP, exports, and foreign investment flows, Africa has made extraordinary progress. While the global economy has foundered, Africa has emerged as a new growth pole. Visit almost any major city in the region and you will see the signs of rising prosperity.
Yet, there is another side to the balance sheet. Poverty is falling far too slowly. After a decade of high growth, almost half of Africa’s population still survives on less than $1.25 a day. Why the mismatch between growth and poverty reduction? Part of the answer to that question is to be found in inequality: countries across the region are better at generating wealth than sharing it. All too often, the poor have been left behind, including the smallholder farmers that form the social and economic backbone of our societies.
The recent Africa Progress Panel’s report, Jobs, Justice and Equity, has drawn attention to wider problems. When it comes to the vital signs of human development, rather than the growth of GDP, the record of the past decade looks less impressive. Child death rates are falling far too slowly. Maternal health indicators are shocking, pointing to the grave risks facing women across the region. Country-after-country faces an epidemic of youth unemployment. That epidemic threatens to convert the growth in Africa’s population of young people from an economic opportunity into a demographic time bomb.
Education has the capacity to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Go to any poor rural village or urban slum and you will find Africans who share that view. Desperately poor and vulnerable people across the region see education as a pathway out of poverty for their children – and they are right.
The facts speak for themselves. One additional year of schooling in a poor country can add 10 percent to a person’s income. Children of educated mothers are more likely to be vaccinated and less likely to die before the age of five. In fact, UNESCO’s Global Monitoring report estimates that universal secondary education for Africa’s women would save around 1.8 million child lives a year. We know also that educated women are better informed about HIV/AIDS and placed to make informed decisions about their reproductive health. In Ethiopia, women with no education have fertility rates three times higher than those with secondary education.
Economists like to debate precisely why education makes a difference. But the real reason is simple enough, and it can be summarized in one word – and that word is ‘empowerment’. It is through quality education that young people can gain the skills they need to secure decent jobs, and that smallholder farmers need to raise productivity and work their way out of poverty. And it is education that gives young girls and women the confidence they need to demand their entitlements.
All of which brings me back to Mr. Mandela and the power education has to change the world. Sometimes I worry that Africa’s political leaders and aid donors get so mesmerized by figures on economic growth and wealth that they lose sight of other indicators. How else do you explain why the most recent data on education have yet to register as a national emergency?
Here are the plain facts. Just over a decade ago, the world’s leaders promised that all children would have access to decent quality education by 2015. After some encouraging, even spectacular, early gains, progress has stalled. There are now around 30 million children out of school, with millions more dropping out before they finish primary school. And unless we act with a renewed sense of urgency these figures will look worse by 2015.
Read the rest of this article by Graça Machel at ThisisAfricaonline.com