The Future is Here

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Maryam Ann Yusuf's picture

With the deadline for the millennium development goals just round the corner, this short piece looks at Sub Saharan Africa’s (SSA) efforts in achieving universal primary enrollment (Millennium Development Goal No 2)

As the clock struck 12 midnight on December 31st 2013 in our respective time zones most of us celebrated in disbelief and longing as another year rolled by and a new one began. Even as we enter the last quarter of the year, just saying 2014 out loud seems surreal. After all, it is the same year that Michael J Fox travelled to in the 80’s movie thriller ‘Back to the Future’ and given what he saw, by now we should all be dressed in silver space suits, moving around in hover crafts and fighting aliens.

Despite any of the dispositions we might have about how quickly the years have come and gone, we have to make the most of the time we have to secure a better future for the coming generations. In the words of Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon ‘we must seize the moment’[1]. This is the same sentiment that inspired the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) 14 years ago at the turn of the century. 8 goals designed to bring the world into an era of equality and better access to basic everyday needs for the world’s population.

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has been the epicenter of the international development frenzy simply because it has been (on average) the most challenging region for establishing widespread growth for decades. Mostly due to a mixture of civil unrest, corruptions and resource mismanagement. This short piece will focus one SSA’s attempts to improve access to basic education through fulfilling the second MDG of universal primary school enrollment.

The importance of education

Primary School enrollment is seen as in indicator of access to basic education. I like to think of education as the fuel that sustains human capital. Education is a type of social investment that yields a return just like any other form of investment. Human capital is equally as important as any other form of capital and investment in it is needed for efficient mobilization of resources. This is why countries with underdeveloped human capital find it difficult to take better advantage of large capital inflows (particularly oil rich countries).

We all know and talk about the benefits that arise from an educated population. The works of pioneers in the field of human capital research like Jacob Miner and Shultz identify the positive correlation between income and average education and its importance for growth. Investment in education helps improve a country’s trade performance, market diversification and competitiveness across a range of sectors. Educated women also create positive externalities that lead to better family health (particularly nutrition and infant mortality).

The second MDG aims to achieve universal primary enrollment across the developing world and thereby encourage an increase in basic education attainment. Primary school enrollment figures in addition to global literacy rates of 15-24 year olds, are some of the UN’s key indicators in measuring progress. It is arguable that a proxy of primary school completion would be more indicative of how many children get a primary education than just aggregate literacy and enrolment figures. Nevertheless, global literacy rates of 15-24 year olds is up about 6 per cent and significant gains have been made across all developing regions in achieving the target, but SSA has made the least amount of progress and 800 million adults around the world are still illiterate.

Low income countries like Mozambique, Rwanda and Gambia have shown significant gains in net primary enrollment compared to the unimpressive progress in some middle income, oil rich countries like Nigeria. Proving, that large national income is not enough to sustain better access to education. This year’s Millennium Development Report stresses the need for more education targeted aid. But given all the aid that has poured in to Africa over the last 20 years, to little avail, more emphasis should be laid on ensuring government commitment to implementing coherent and practical education policies. The key to improving educational achievements lies in Institutional reforms and not resource expansion within existing failed systems[2].

The recent introduction of free compulsory education in Akwaibom State in south east Nigeria is an example of  a step in the right direction in terms of education policy and the appropriation of state revenue to support basic education. These sort of initiatives help eliminate some of the barriers that financial constraints pose for parents wishing to educate their children.


Implementing better education policies/reform is much easier said than done. The developing world has to deal with various financial, political and social challenges to establishing a well educated population. Children in conflict areas like Gaza and Sudan are more likely to remain out of school, just like many other children in living in the midst of unpredictable political and civil unrest. This disrupts school patterns and delays proper education attainment. Easing the effect such violent conflicts have on primary schooling does not happen overnight.

Healthcare is also at the top of the list of external factors that affect education initiatives. Data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that poor maternal health leaves about 1 million children each year motherless. These children are often left orphaned further reducing their chances of gaining access to basic education due to a lack of a family support system. Most of these maternal deaths could be prevented with simple proper antenatal care. However, limited access to trained midwives and basic medical supplies mean mothers die unnecessarily. Such poor healthcare infrastructure can only be improved through government funding or backing by the private sector. The lack of proper nutrition and access to clean drinking water are simple things that create barriers to improving access to education for many children in the developing world.


Given that MDG 2 is an absolute target of 100% enrolment there is the danger of classifying some of Africa’s large strides in proportionally improving enrolment as a failure, if full enrolment is not achieved by next year. It is important to note that those regions that started farthest from the target have a lot more to accomplish than others. Hence we should not forget to give credit where credit is due.

There have been many positive developments in achieving MDG2. The African Development Bank noted that most countries in Africa have achieved universal primary enrolment, which brings SSA close to fulfilling MDG2. But after monitoring the trends in post enrollment it was found that one in four pupils enrolled in a primary school will eventually drop out because of some of the factors mentioned above, but more importantly due to a lack of value for education and the constraints of poverty.

Unfortunately most students are still unable to read properly after 6 plus years of schooling. Thus school enrollment figures do not give a clear image of the state of basic education in the developing world. The quality of knowledge attained at school rather than just time spent in school is what will determine the effectiveness of Africa’s growing population. Focusing on quality education across SSA, bridging the gap in international standards and overcoming the hurdles on ground in delivering it will help define the post 2015 development agenda.



[1] Taken from the Secretary General’s address at the UN General Assembly, January 2014.

[2] Hanushek, Eric A. and Ludger Wößmann, (2007), The Role of Education Quality in Economic Growth, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 4122




Hanushek, Eric A. and Ludger Wößmann, (2007), The Role of Education Quality in Economic Growth, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 4122.


Ilhan Ozturk, (2002) The Role of Education in Economic Development, Journal of Rural Development and Administration, Volume XXXIII, No. 1, Winter 2001, pp. 39-47.


Schultz, T.W. (1961), Investment in human Capital, American Economic Review, 51(1).


Tilak, J.B., (1989), Education and its Relation to Economic Growth, Poverty, and Income Distribution: Past Evidence and Further Analysis, World Bank Working Papers 46.


William Easterly, (2009) How the Millennium Development Goals are Unfair to Africa, World Development Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 26–35.



United Nations, Millennium Development Goals Report (2013).


United Nations, Millennium Development Goals Report (2014).

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