Elitist talk-shop chatter misses the importance of education
A YOUNG Kenyan entrepreneur, asked at a conference what she would like for her country, replied that fewer potholes in Nairobi would be good. And a free and fair election next year.The woman was one of a handful of young and talented African entrepreneurs who were asked at a session at the recent World Economic Forum Africa summit to reveal their dreams and aspirations for Africa.
The answers were as varied as the respondents but they went directly to the well-known problems holding Africa back and they were delivered with an honesty that is often lacking in such discussions, where participants try not to offend the politicians, whose culpability is well known.
Although African leaders were few and far between at the session, leadership issues got a healthy hearing. One young participant said Africans need to reduce their dependence on government in order to get ahead in their lives. Another said moral integrity needs to be restored to leadership. She said there is a sense of “brokenness” about the leadership in Africa that needs to be fixed. Other suggestions included giving more African entrepreneurs greater access to finance, more broadband for cheaper internet, empowering Africans by giving them property rights, tackling the political and economic bottlenecks to electrification and regional integration, and improving flight connections between countries.
A young woman from Tunisia, who was quick to assert that North Africans were Africans as well, complained about the time and degree of difficulty in getting from Tunis to any part of Africa. She asked the obvious question: when African leaders speak so much about African unity, why do they maintain visa restrictions on each other’s citizens?
A common thread in the discussion was the need to change Africa’s image of Africa in the global community; to move from the myths and negative perceptions about the continent and promote it as a place where innovation and entrepreneurship are blossoming. This, some said, includes providing more African content on the internet and even in story books, where African tales are sorely absent. It also means highlighting wildlife a little less and human achievement a little more.
It was clear from the discussion that these young Africans had given a lot of thought to the state of the continent and had intelligent views on how to improve their world. What was interesting, though, was that none of them mentioned education, given how crucial it is to development.
It was very heartening and easy to forget when listening to them that they are part of an educated elite in Africa and not representative of the millions of Africans who have little or no access to a decent education or opportunity.
The figures often trotted out about spending on African education focus on quantity, not quality. The number of classrooms does not improve the quality of what is being taught in them and decades of donor intervention have not made any significant inroads into the problem.
The figures vary but, on average, only about 50% of children of primary school age actually go to school and, of those, less than half go on to secondary school. The tertiary education figures are abysmal and technical training is a luxury. A large proportion of the well-educated Africans have had access to schooling abroad.
Many governments now offer free primary education, and although this has increased enrolment figures, the numbers drop off in fee-paying secondary school. Some schools are starting to introduce life skills into classrooms but this is not widespread and most people leave the education system half literate and unskilled.
African politicians talk a lot about improving education. Many claim success but the figures tell a different story. Some have questioned whether the political will to develop education will be further dampened by the well-known fact that it was the educated youth who led the uprisings in North Africa.
Without building a platform of decent mass education, Africa’s economic performance will continue to lag other regions and discussions about the problems of Africa and solutions to them on public platforms will amount to little more than elitist chatter.