Africa, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs


Mandisi Majavu

CAPE TOWN, Jun 15 2009 (IPS) - The World Economic Forum on Africa has just concluded in Cape Town. If government leaders and captains of industry called for an eight trillion dollar bailout for the continent’s beleaguered education system – like the one found for the world’s biggest bankers – it went unreported.

A stimulus package for Africa's schools is needed to improve the life prospects of children like these schoolgirls in Sierra Leone. Credit:  Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

A stimulus package for Africa's schools is needed to improve the life prospects of children like these schoolgirls in Sierra Leone. Credit: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

African activists and academics, who protested outside the WEF meeting are demanding exactly that kind of urgent support for education in Africa.

Salim Vally, senior researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Education Policy Unit, says the education and health systems are in dire need of a bailout from the continents’ governments.

"Bailing out private business is rewarding precisely those who are putting us in the present predicament. Early childhood development and good quality public education are essential for society to make any kind of development, and that is where any resources should be put," he says.

But in the midst of the global economic meltdown, Africa’s problem of literacy has fallen off the agenda, despite a recent Oxfam West Africa study showing that in West Africa alone 65 million people are illiterate.

While the continent’s leaders talk about strengthening sub-regional blocs in an attempt to boost internal trade, Oxfam researcher Caroline Pearce says with 40 million illiterate women in the Economic Community of West African States, poverty is becoming increasingly "feminised".

A lack of education limits African women's prospects for improving their quality of life. Low levels of education are linked to earlier marriage and childbirth as well as hindering access to economic resources. African women often are expected to work longer hours than men do, in low-wage jobs under poor conditions.

In ECOWAS, only the populations of Ghana, Nigeria and Cape Verde can claim to be at least two thirds literate. Of the 10 countries with the lowest recorded adult literacy rates in the world, seven are in West Africa.

Pearce says West African governments are unable to turn the situation around on their own, implying that a bailout of sorts is what is needed.

"It will be an expensive business to meet the cost of getting 14 million more children into school, provide effective literacy training for up to 65 million young people and adults, train another 750,000 teachers, provide books and materials and make up for the infrastructure deficit," she says.

In the short term, the Jubilee anti-debt repayment group says debt cancellation would go someway towards solving the problem.

Sarah Edwards of Jubilee says the poorest countries in the world pay the international financial institutions almost $100 million in debt repayments – every day.

"At least $400 billion should be cancelled for around 100 countries if they are to be able to pay essential services for their people without having to tax those below the poverty line," says Edwards.

Pearce clearly agrees – her research shows that ‘debt relief’ has lessened the drain on West African countries' revenues, which have used the extra money to finance education.

Back in Cape Town, outside the WEF meeting, the South African Communist Party (SACP) argues that the so-called ‘debt’ owed by Africa is immoral and ought to be scrapped completely.

The SACP, which became a ‘kingmaker’ in local politics after successfully lobbying for Jacob Zuma to be elected as South Africa’s new president, is seen as very influential in the country’s new administration.

SACP spokesman Malesela Maleka says many of the countries owed money by Africa "are former colonizers who abused and exploited Africa and never gave Africa a chance to economically develop".

He adds that most of the money Africa is now paying back was used to finance dictatorship and oppression.

For a decade now, activists protesting outside successive WEF meetings have called for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to stop attaching economic policy conditions to their loans: a call that is as relevant as ever.

Mali is still trying to recover from structural adjustments imposed by the IMF and the World Bank 20 years ago which led to a cut of 12 percent of the teacher workforce, says Pearce.

And African academics Adebayo Olukoshi and Paul Zeleza argue that the policies that international financial institutions impose on Africa have not only impacted negatively on primary education in Africa, but have devastated the continent’s universities.

Olukoshi and Zeleza make the point that the World Bank went as far as suggesting that Africa had no need for universities – this because the return on its investment into the institutions was too low, or "unjustifiable".

The WEF itself has adopted a business friendly response to these complaints, pumping $100 million into its own Global Education Initiative – a project where the world’s multinational information technology companies work with governments to get computers into schools, and to train teachers in "e-learning".

But Vally says "the fact is that many of the schools do not even have electricity to start with".

He says "a lot of computer technology is just a way to make money because in the years after the computers are installed, continuous supplies of software need to be bought and regular upgrades done. Very basic things like libraries and laboratories need to be looked at first."

Today's 18th commemoration of the International Day of the African Child is supposed to honour the struggle of all African children for a better education. But with the world’s eight most powerful countries now preoccupied with finding an escape from any economy-boosting ‘stimulus spending’ on education and health, the children of Africa may have to wait considerably longer for a genuine celebration of their international day.

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