Two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the education crisis in western and central Africa. The pandemic hampered efforts to increase enrollment rates: indeed, at the height of the crisis, more than 101 million children could not go to school in the region and had little access to distance learning. As countries rebuild their economies, it is urgent to act now to secure the future of our children. We call for a general mobilization of our societies to invest in better education systems.
The leaders of the region recognize the utmost importance of educating our young girls and boys, and significant efforts have been made in this regard. Today, the average net primary school enrollment rate in the region is nearly 90%, a substantial increase from less than 50% in the 1990s. Likewise, secondary school enrollment has more than doubled in the last decade.
However, the population of western and central Africa is expected to double in the next 30 years, and significant challenges remain. More than 32 million children in the region are out of school. Furthermore, children who attend school do not always acquire the necessary knowledge or skills. Currently, 80% of children cannot read and understand a simple text by the age of 10, and options for formal skills acquisition are limited.
To reverse this trajectory, urgent action is needed to advance reforms in education and deliver better access to quality education for our children. This will require strong leadership, better implementation, and more investments in high-impact interventions, including a whole-of-society and government approach.
Strong leadership is critical to advancing reforms
We will not be able to deliver change without building and sustaining political momentum in the region. We are convinced that our call will echo the Nouakchott Declaration from the heads of state at the Sahel Education Summit in December 2021. The countries in the region must continue to increase their investments in education. However, governments alone cannot bridge the financing gap and meet the massive and growing needs.
Many projects already demonstrate the tremendous results that can be achieved when leadership and political will are accompanied by sufficient funding. The Free Senior High School Policy introduced by Ghana in 2017 is an example of ensuring access, equity, and quality in education.
Similarly, Sierra Leone’s Free Quality School Education Program launched in 2018 offers all children tuition-free admission to government-approved schools. Mali’s decennial education and vocational training program, PRODEC 2, which is a comprehensive national education program, takes a holistic approach to pursuing improvement in the school system, despite closures due to conflict and insecurity, among other issues.
In Nigeria’s Edo state, the government is implementing a comprehensive approach that leverages technology and scripted lessons to improve teaching and learning outcomes.
The region can learn from its own experiences
Time and again, the people of western and central Africa have proven their ability to learn from their experiences.
To deliver results at scale, we are committed to meeting ambitious targets and focusing on: helping 30 million children to read by 2030; ensuring that 12.5 million more adolescent girls are in school by 2030; training 3.7 million more young adults in foundational skills by 2025; and ensuring that 1 million more youth acquire digital skills by 2025, of whom 60% will be expected to obtain better jobs.
Many inspiring projects already strive to attain these targets. For instance, in Nigeria, the Better Education Service Delivery for All project is supporting the integration of school-age children who attend religious schools into public schools that teach the official curriculum. In Senegal, the Read@Home — Investing in Early Years for Human Development project is improving child nutrition and early stimulation, thus improving teaching and learning.
Further, across 12 countries in western and central Africa, the Africa Higher Education Centers of Excellence project is addressing the widespread skills shortages and mismatches by training post-graduate students. The projects also support the scaling of research capacity and regional collaboration in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, as well as the health and agriculture fields.
Better coordination and more inclusive decision-making
Although more investment is urgent, it cannot achieve the much-needed transformation without a coordinated approach at the national level, as well as the involvement of all concerned. In many of the region’s countries, more efforts are needed to rationalize the governance of education systems to achieve greater coherence, cooperation, and coordination.
Recognizing the diversity of our societies, languages, and educational practices, we must also ensure that our projects are developed in an inclusive manner. All stakeholders must be involved in an elevated dialogue so that we can have a common language and therefore coherence to define the goals we must achieve.
The vitality and innovative spirit of our young people are our best assets and hold great promise for our region. Only we will be able to harness the demographic dividend, but only if our youth are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to realize their full potential and ensure social justice and mobility for all. Our young people deserve better education. Their interests must come first. It is only then that the region can be robustly transformed.