Opinion – Published on allAfrica, by GRAÇA MACHEL, Sept. 17, 2012.
“Economists like to debate precisely why education makes a difference. But the real reason is simple enough, and it can be summarized in one word – and that word is ‘empowerment’.”
My husband, Nelson Mandela, once described education as “the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” He was right. But I wonder if Africa’s political leaders really understand the critical importance of education for the future of our countries – and for the hopes of our children.
As a region, we have much to celebrate. We are now in the world’s high-growth league. Measured by GDP, exports, and foreign investment flows, Africa has made extraordinary progress. While the global economy has foundered, Africa has emerged as a new growth pole. Visit almost any major city in the region and you will see the signs of rising prosperity.
Yet, there is another side to the balance sheet. Poverty is falling far too slowly. After a decade of high growth, almost half of Africa’s population still survives on less than $1.25 a day. Why the mismatch between growth and poverty reduction? Part of the answer to that question is to be found in inequality: countries across the region are better at generating wealth than sharing it. All too often, the poor have been left behind, including the smallholder farmers that form the social and economic backbone of our societies.
The recent Africa Progress Panel’s report, Jobs, Justice and Equity, has drawn attention to wider problems. When it comes to the vital signs of human development, rather than the growth of GDP, the record of the past decade looks less impressive. Child death rates are falling far too slowly. Maternal health indicators are shocking, pointing to the grave risks facing women across the region. Country-after-country faces an epidemic of youth unemployment. That epidemic threatens to convert the growth in Africa’s population of young people from an economic opportunity into a demographic time bomb.
Education has the capacity to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Go to any poor rural village or urban slum and you will find Africans who share that view. Desperately poor and vulnerable people across the region see education as a pathway out of poverty for their children – and they are right.
The facts speak for themselves. One additional year of schooling in a poor country can add 10 percent to a person’s income. Children of educated mothers are more likely to be vaccinated and less likely to die before the age of five. In fact, UNESCO’s Global Monitoring report estimates that universal secondary education for Africa’s women would save around 1.8 million child lives a year. We know also that educated women are better informed about HIV/AIDS and placed to make informed decisions about their reproductive health. In Ethiopia, women with no education have fertility rates three times higher than those with secondary education … //
… Last, but not least, we must address the education crisis in countries affected by, or recovering from, armed conflict. Why is so little aid provided for the conflict zones of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than 1 million children are out of school? What is preventing the international community getting behind a major plan for constructing an education system out of the ruins left by civil war in South Sudan – a country rooted to the bottom of the world education league? Where was the support for education when children uprooted by violence and hunger in Somalia arrived in refugee camps?
These are questions that the entire international community must address. I recognize, of course, that there are difficulties to be addressed in dealing with fragile states and countries affected by armed conflict. But those difficulties do not justify turning our backs on children who also have a right to education – and who desperately need our support.
If we want to see Africa continue to develop in a sustainable manner that benefits all its citizens, it is imperative that education be addressed across the continent both as a right and as a development priority.
(Graça Machel is a member of the Africa Progress Panel and former Minister of Education and Culture in Mozambique).