Critically, many have also failed to develop and invest in their education system. The region underperforms significantly in the Education sub-index, even when its wealth is taken into account. For the children in Serenje, their personal flourishing is on hold. So too is Zambia’s prosperity.
Rising prosperity across Africa has not lifted educational outcomes
In the outskirts of Serenje, a typical middle-of-nowhere place in Zambia, there is no war, nor has there been any devastating natural or health catastrophe in recent memory. It is the kind of little village that could as easily be in rich Botswana as in poor Burundi. Some 20 children are waiting for school to start – literally: they are waiting for the rainy season to end so that the bricks can dry in the sun before being hardened in kilns and used to build the school. The gift of a classroom is still over a year away.
When considering why Sub-Saharan Africa has not translated a decade of growth into greater prosperity, the immediate answer is always economic or institutional. Indeed, resource dependency has limited the impact of economic growth, and prosperity is likely to be further constrained as structurally lower commodity prices affect growth. Our 2016 Africa Prosperity Report, published earlier this year, pointed to good governance and robust institutions in securing prosperity, but highlighted the many Sub-Saharan nations that have failed to develop the leadership and stability needed to become more prosperous.
Critically, many have also failed to develop and invest in their education system. The region underperforms significantly in the Education sub-index, even when its wealth is taken into account.
However, the children of Serenje are in many ways the lucky ones. For many Sub-Saharan children, there are not even plans for schools. Where schools do exist, many children cannot attend because they must work to support their families, or – if they are girls – because they are forced into marriages at a young age: according to data release by UNICEF in 2016, 12 percent of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa get married before the age of 15, and as many as 39 percent before the age of 18.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s poor performance in Education is constraining prosperity
Why has something so obvious as education been overlooked? One factor is booming commodities markets masking the need for investment in people as well as in infrastructure. Now that growth rates are falling, many African nations are discovering that they lack an education system developed enough to sustain the high growth rates of the commodities boom. Even the region’s more prosperous countries – South Africa, Rwanda, Ghana – are no exception. Since 2007, all three have performed well relative to their wealth in the areas of Governance and Personal Freedom. Yet, ominously, they have consistently underperformed in Education.
There are bright spots. In the past decade, several education indicators have improved: both primary completion rates and literacy rates have substantially increased, with Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa performing alongside OECD averages. But educational performance is as diverse as the region itself. Last year, only 38 percent of pupils completed primary school in Chad. In Niger, youth and adult literacy rates remain stuck at 26.6 and 15.7 percent, respectively.
Education is critical in igniting positive prosperity momentum
Improving education in Sub-Saharan Africa is a daunting challenge, but remains key in the path towards greater prosperity. Africa’s population is rocketing – 23 of the 30 countries with the highest population growth are in Sub-Saharan Africa – and with growth rates falling, high-quality education is needed to raise human capital and productivity. Skilled, literate workers will of course be more able to find better employment, and avoid insecurity and poverty.
Africa’s population is rocketing – 23 of the 30 countries with the highest population growth are in Sub-Saharan Africa – and with growth rates falling, high-quality education is needed to raise human capital and productivity.
Our 2016 Africa Prosperity Report pointed to a need for Sub-Saharan Africa to develop its manufacturing sector, rather than jumping from primary industry to services as is happening in countries like Nigeria, where services already account for over half the economy. This premature deindustrialisation limits the potential for long-term development by constraining the emergence of a middle class with rising incomes. It also means that human capital is not properly developed. The jump to services is a jump from low-skilled agricultural work to low-skilled jobs in the service industry. However, without an adequate education system, this jump is simply development along the path of least resistance. Manufacturing, and the growth it could deliver for Sub-Saharan Africa, require a level of human capital and skills that many countries have failed to develop.
Tackling educational outcomes is key if the continent is to progress up the prosperity ladder. But how can education systems be improved? The education sector often encapsulates broader problems in a country. Where schools do not exist or when children have to walk barefoot for miles to reach them, then we know that there is not just a lack of schools but also of transport infrastructure and wealth creation. When the majority of a country’s students come from relatively wealthy families, then again we know there is a problem with access to education for the country’s poorest. Solutions to these issues are not about education alone.
Education has the power to unlock one of the region’s most under-utilised resources: its people. As a Swahili proverb goes, “Wealth, if you use it, comes to an end; learning, if you use it, increases.”