The “Kenyatta Declaration” endorsed by 11 African Presidents during last month’s Global Education Summit made far-reaching promises on financing education against which they agreed to be held accountable.
Co-hosted by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and UK Premier Boris Johnson in London, the Summit was convened to address how national governments and the international development community can marshal resources to address a learning crisis that is threatening the future of millions of children in the developing world.
In attendance were 18 heads of state from Africa, Asia and Latin America, signifying a strong show of leadership and solidarity from governments, businesses, private foundations and development banks to commit funding and support to children’s education in the world’s lowest-income countries.
One key promise acknowledges that Africa’s ultimate barrier to education is no schooling at all. Hundreds of millions of children across Africa still lack opportunities to access inclusive and quality education. And it is mostly the poor, vulnerable and marginalized children who bear the brunt of this learning crisis, putting at risk the future of upcoming generations. The disruptive impacts of the Covid pandemic have also exacerbated the problem and highlighted stark inequalities in accessing education.
To address this learning crisis, some 24 African governments committed to invest in ensuring that no child is left behind in accessing quality. This promise is especially a big win for initiatives to educate the girl child, disabled youngster or other historically excluded groups. Implementation of inclusive education strategies can also boost national economic growth and help to break the cycle of poverty.
A second promise builds on evidence showing that even where African countries have significantly increased access to education, being in school is not the same thing as learning. More children are going to school, but are not necessarily achieving the desired learning outcomes.
According to the World Bank, three out of four third grade students in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda do not understand this simple sentence: “The name of the dog is Puppy”. Even fewer children are able to read a short story by their tenth birthday.
What is expected out of schooling are students who are able to interpret information, form opinions, be creative, communicate well, collaborate, and be resilient. However, the reality is that millions of youth are entering young adulthood without even the basic numeracy and literacy skills needed to carry out a simple kiosk transaction or to read basic safety instructions or understand a public document.
The promise by African governments is to take greater responsibility to bring large numbers of children up to the lowest minimum proficiency, and to implement flexible strategies to address learning inequalities within countries.
The ‘Kenyatta Declaration’ also commits to sharpen focus on improving learning outcomes in education systems, and employing new techniques and methodologies that have been proven to yield better results for students. It further promises to strengthen the capacities of teachers and to leverage technology-supported learning to improve equity in access to education learning outcomes so as to even out the prevailing global digital imbalance.
African leaders recognize that millions of children and youth are not realizing their right to a full cycle of quality schooling as domestic budgets have not scaled to meet the need.
They accept that the complexity and costs of fixing the learning crisis at the national level is a core responsibility for governments, which can better leverage public resources as a sustainable source of financing for education. They promised both more financing and smart financing in education to harness the dividends of investing in the fast-growing youth population.
The African leaders promised to increase government expenditure on education towards a global benchmark of 20 percent of the national budgets over the next five years. Current allocations by most African countries average about 15 percent of national budgets.
Beyond increased budgetary allocations, the leaders also promised to ensure aim for equity and efficiency in how public funds are utilized so as to reach the most marginalized, and to ensure that every dollar spent goes as far as possible to improve learning.
One big reason the learning crisis persists is that many education systems across Africa have little information on who is learning and who is not. Lack of reliable data makes it difficult for governments to do anything about it. And with uncertainty about the kinds of skills the jobs of the future will require, schools and teachers must prepare students with more than basic reading and writing skills.
The leaders promised to provide more data and better evidence to inform decisions on how to improve education systems, and also to track and monitor equitable allocation and efficient use of public spending on education.
This call to action may seem a tall order for Africa, particularly now that the impact of the Covid pandemic is straining national economies and budgets, risking decades of education progress. However, time will tell how far African leaders will go towards translating these promises into real action. For now, these promises serve as useful indicators to hold African leaders to account for their contributions to ensuring inclusive and quality education for all children.
Toni Sittoni is a Nairobi-based journalist and writes globally on African Affairs as they relate to development.