As developed countries strive for post-crisis growth, Africa is on the verge of an economic leap forward. A $1,500bn economy, the continent is ready to leave the third world. Its resources, both natural and human, are untapped. Foreign investment is at last beginning to flow. Its leading nations are even competing to join the fast-developing “Bric” countries. But as will be clear at today’s millennium development goals summit in New York, while Africa is close to a breakthrough it has not happened yet.
Any African advance will depend on three crucial factors. First, a wider opening to trade, given that 80 per cent of current exports remains in oil and agriculture. Second, a new African common market is needed. Only regional integration can overcome the fact that only a 10th of Africa’s trade is within Africa itself. Finally, better infrastructure: African road capacity is half that of Latin America and less than a third of Asia’s.
That said, Africa’s future also depends on a fourth factor: developing the skills the world needs. There are now up to 1m foreign workers in Africa, as some investors bring with them whole armies of workers to staff plants, build roads and work farms. Without moreinvestment in education Africa will struggle to move up the economic value chain and runs the risk that any new investment will lead to inequitable growth.
Worse, today some countries, driven by a short-sighted orthodoxy, are considering serious reductions to their education budgets – a reflection of a broader choice being faced by all countries dealing with the fallout from the financial crisis. But governments, especially in the developing world, must think strategically about which investments will help them to grow out of the crisis. Education budgets should be near the top of this list, or a year or two of national budget cuts coupled with cutbacks in developed countries’ aid budgets, could undo a decade of progress.
Such cuts are especially unwelcome at a time when an extra 40m children are in school worldwide, and when a new push to speed up enrolment could put us in touching distance of getting all the world’s children into school for the first time in history. But evidence in a new report by the Global Campaign for Education suggests that progress is already slowing. If that continues, by 2015 numbers out of school will go up rather than down.
I have taken a new role with the Global Campaign for Education because I am angrier than ever about the injustice and waste in denying education. As well as boosting jobs and gross domestic product, the evidence is clear that education combats malnutrition, maternal and infant mortality and HIV/AIDS. This month Unesco estimated that if every child could read, 171m children could be lifted out of poverty. Put simply, going to school is the best anti-poverty, anti-famine, anti-disease and anti-unemployment programme.
Yet given the background of education budget cuts throughout Africa, what can be done to realise this vision? First, developed countries must pick up some of the slack. This means not just honouring existing aid commitments but a new drive to allocate at least 15 per cent of these aid budgets to basic education. In particular, Africa must recruit 1.2m new teachers – something that will be impossible without support for national training colleges.
Second, developing countries must make changes too – and commit to spend at least 15 per cent of their national budget on basic education. Third, we need to finance anew the Fast Track Initiative, a programme set up in 2002 by the World Bank that could one day become the educational equivalent of Médecins sans Frontières: providing schools and teachers in the most conflict-ridden, broken states. While the FTI has not yet lived up to its potential, recent reforms can give it a chance to do just that.
Finally, there is hope in innovation. Building on the rapid expansion of mobile phones, and using the pioneering work of Tim Berners-Lee and others, increasing access to educational material online can open Africa up to a new world of learning. With these steps we can not only address the fading momentum of the last decade but lead the most sustained assault on ignorance in human history – and help to create a new generation of African Lionesses that can more than match this generation’s Asian Tigers.
The writer is former UK Prime Minister and convener of the high-level panel for the Global Campaign for Education
– September 2010