The United Nations agency tasked with promoting universal education today warned that a lack of adequate funding is undermining efforts by African countries to have an estimated 32 million children who are currently out of school back into classrooms.
The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sounded the alarm as leaders from across Africa prepare to attend the World Cup education summit on Sunday, the day of the final football match, in Pretoria, South Africa.
The education summit, convened by South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, marks a culmination in efforts led by the 1Goal campaign and football’s world governing body, FIFA, to push Africa’s education crisis higher up on the global agenda. The crisis is holding back economic growth, poverty reduction and progress in areas such as public health, according to UNESCO.
“Education is Africa’s most powerful antidote to poverty,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. “Leaders must seize this occasion to put their full support behind providing Africa’s children with a quality education,” she said.
The summit in South Africa takes place against a backdrop of worrying trends in international aid for education.
According to an analysis of the latest Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) aid data by UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report, aid levels to basic education in sub-Saharan Africa have dropped from $1.72 billion in 2007 to $1.65 billion in 2008. Taking into account the increased enrolment in primary schools, aid per pupil has dropped by 7 per cent.
UNESCO warns that current aid levels are incompatible with a pledge made by donors a decade ago at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal.
The pledge included a commitment to ensure that no government committed to achieving education for all by 2015 would be allowed to fail for want of finance.
UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report puts the cost of delivering on the commitment at around $11 billion annually for low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, well above the $2 billion spent in 2008.
“Donors have to come up with new finance,” says the Global Monitoring Report’s Director, Kevin Watkins. “They need to act fast. We are now just one primary school generation away from a broken promise to Africa’s children,” he added.
Despite the size of the education funding deficit, many countries have achieved dramatic advances in education since 2000, according to UNESCO.
In Benin, Ethiopia and Tanzania, for example, there have been major increases in primary school enrolment and school construction. In the space of one primary school generation, Senegal has achieved an equal number of girls and boys in school.
While progress is mainly due to strong political commitment and prioritization of education in national budgets, aid has played an important role in supporting these success stories, enabling governments to cut school fees, build classrooms, and train teachers.
Despite the progress, sub-Saharan Africa faces some stark challenges. On current trends, there will still be 23 million children out of school by 2015. Just over one adult in three cannot read or write, and Africa has some of the world’s deepest inequalities based on factors such as gender, language and location.
“Governments across the region need to do more to tackle these disparities – but increased aid is also vital,” said Mr. Watkins. “The report estimates that the region also needs to recruit an additional 1.2 million teachers,” he added.
The education challenges facing sub-Saharan Africa are similar to those facing all poor countries around the world and increases in aid for basic education are urgently needed.
However, in 2008 global aid spending on basic education remained unchanged at $4.7 billion. Only $2 billion of this aid went to the poorest countries compared to the $16 billion in aid required annually for those countries to meet their basic education goals by 2015.
“The World Cup is an illustration of Africa’s energy, spirit and hope,” said Ms. Bokova. “Let us also ensure that it has a tangible, lasting legacy for its children,” she said.