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Will Africa Scale Up To 21st Century Needs?

Will Africa Scale Up To 21st Century Needs?
  • PublishedDecember 2, 2011

Education, as the key to development and prosperity, has provoked and dominated debate in post-independent Africa for more than 50 years now. Yet by and large, educational deprivation still consigns Africa to the bottom of world rankings. And with the world increasingly becoming knowledge and skills-driven, high-tech based and more competitive in the jobs marketplace, questions as to whether Africa will ever successfully cater for 21st-century educational needs, provoke serious debate and concern, writes our deputy editor Regina Jane Jere, who attended the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) held in the Qatari capital, Doha last month.

It’s becoming a popular mantra: “If you think education is costly, try ignorance.” And while former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a passionate call for a Global Fund for Education (just as there is one for health) at the WISE summit in early November, the sobering fact remains: Africa is paying heavily for the cost of a lack of adequate education. The jury could still be out, but the educational landscape in Africa, although some improvement can be noted, remains gloomy, by and large.

The WISE summit had no Africa-centred theme per se and there were dissatisfied voices from some delegates, who believe Africa was not adequately represented, particularly at the main speakers’ level. But the pragmatic consensus among those New African spoke to, was that education remains a fundamental building block for development in Africa and to achieve this, it must become widely available across the continent, no matter the cost. And yes, one question on most delegates’ minds was: Why has Africa remained at the bottom of the pile in terms of educational advancement, and can new innovations as championed by WISE, really lift the continent from its long-standing malaise in educational standards and systems?

The chairman of WISE himself, Sheikh Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani, who notes this paucity, told New African: “I think when we look at what is happening in the world today, and in particular in developing African countries, it is clear that the need for innovation in education has never been so urgent. Access to high quality education is the most pressing need as 32 million children remain out of school in Africa.”

This is a sad fact and a rather unpalatable statistic. But Africa can’t bury its head in the sand. The need for better educational standards and new innovative ways to improve the status quo is not only real but couldn’t be greater. According to Dr bin Ali Al-Thani, over the next 20 years, the population of sub-Saharan Africa’s 5 to 14-year-olds is expected to grow by more than 34%. This means the region will need to respond to the demands of 77 million new students! But in a continent where 50 years after independence, half of school-age girls, for example, do not receive formal education, the task ahead may seem insurmountable.

Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology (perhaps Africa’s highest-ranking representative at the summit) who was a panellist for the opening session of the three-day summit, whose theme was Changing Societies, Changing Education, admits that realising the Millennium Development Goal 2 (universal primary education for children everywhere, boys and girls alike, by 2015) may not come to fruition by the envisaged date.

“The Millennium Development Goals were very ambitious… Certainly not all countries in the world are going to reach it [MDG2]”, she said, adding, “but [MDGs] have assisted in focusing governments on what needs to be done.”

What’s to be done is exactly what WISE seeks to promote and Africa needs to reassess. The main message at the highly interactive summit was clear: the future of education lies in finding and promoting new innovative ways and projects that not only cushion, but enhance existing traditional ways of teaching. Identifying such, six projects were this year awarded the 2011 WISE Awards for their innovative approaches and positive impact upon societies and education, within the theme of Transforming Education: Investment, Innovation and Inclusion. (See box on page 37.)

“Innovation is crucial for continuing to improve both access to and quality of education. The WISE Awards aim to showcase inspiring projects and give them the exposure they deserve. The 2011 WISE Awards Winners have often had to overcome preconceived ideas and find creative solutions to break down barriers to innovation in education. They have already been rewarded by the positive results of their projects. I would like to congratulate them all for their perseverance and worthy achievements. They are genuine role models for the entire WISE community,” said Sheikh Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani.

However, as good as this sounds, the idea of new innovations in education is not as straightforward and easy to implement across the board. High-ranking experts on education such as Mrs Pandor (who is also a former Minister of Education in South Africa) believe innovation in education needs to come with parity. “Innovation is [also] about ensuring that excluded groups enjoy equal access to education opportunities and there is a need to ensure that the most marginalised, poor rural families are receiving adequate access to education,” she says, emphasising the importance of promoting innovation, and teaching students to respond and adapt to a constantly changing world.

Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Chairperson of the Qatar Foundation and the brains behind WISE, put further emphasis on the issue, saying traditional channels in education need to be supplemented by more innovative means that further enhance awareness of the value of education, particularly among young people.

“There is a big percentage of youth who should be targeted and be given a quality education, so they can get involved in the labour market of the future,” she said.

At a high-level panel discussion on Innovative Mechanisms and Partnerships for International Development and Co-operation (which focussed on innovative financing to help meet MDG2 targets), Sheikha Moza, who is also a special envoy on education, for the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), made a passionate call to action, for ways that can enhance the realisation of MDG2. “We will try as much as we can to invest as much as we can to help WISE focus on MDG2,” she said, but emphasised:

“Funding [however] is a macro problem. We need to tackle it in a more comprehensive way and see MDG2 as a business case with a funding focus. There have to be targets that have measurable outcomes to serve key performance indicators. I think the business sector is most affected by the outcome of education so we need to rethink, because business is the main end-user…We need to revisit our goals and methods have to be more creative and more innovative.

“Education should be dynamic and always flexible and adaptable,” she stressed.

Alluding to the youth-led “Arab Spring” revolution in the Middle East and North Africa, Sheikha Moza intoned that new leaders and new governments were ready to adapt to new ways in education:

“[These] were led not just by educated people but highly educated people who know what good quality education can bring. We cannot afford to go back to the traditional ways. We have to make sure that what we are applying in terms of ideas are meeting the requirements of the young people.”

One such young mind was Kenya’s Abbas Mahmoud, who works for Wikipedia-Kenya and was among 30 young learners from around the world who were specifically selected to participate at the summit, to bring in the youth’s perception on global education.

“I am glad that WISE chose to bring us here to participate so that policy makers can hear what exactly our needs are. I believe that we students are very important stakeholders in education now and in the future,” he told New African. “In terms of educational needs in Africa, there is a danger in generalising the problems that we face. In Kenya, we the youth have what we term global-localisation, that is, looking at a particular situation with a global perspective, but localising it to suit your particular needs.”

But the issue of funding and state budgetary allocations for education was another question that begged for answers. Straightforward points, such as, where did delegates stand on how to bridge the needs gap between building classrooms in developing countries, and funding software research and development in places where infrastructure is adequate, were raised. One delegate who spoke passionately on the issue of funding, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, was Irina Bokova, Director General, Unesco.

Pointing out that 12 million girls don’t enrol in school in Africa, she said: “If planning for a year, plant a tree. For a decade, plant trees. For a lifetime, educate people”, and “Think long term; the cost of insufficient funding for education today will be paid tomorrow.”

The WISE Awards 2011 rewarded six innovative projects which met the selection criteria by convincing the jury that their educational activities had delivered on a number of levels. These included: Educational Transformation (the overall extent to which the project’s educational activity has transformed an aspect of education that has also had societal impact); Sustainable Investment (the extent to which the educational activity is funded in a sustainable way and achieves value for money to ensure its continuing viability); Innovation (the extent to which the educational activity is innovative in design and/or practice, thereby transforming traditional means of educational delivery); Inclusion and Diversity (the extent to which the activity includes a diversity of beneficiaries and has enhanced equality of access to education); Quality of Learning (the extent to which the transformation has generated evidence that it has improved the quality of learning); and Scalability.

As the six projects were awarded at the 2011 summit, 18 best practices from previous WISE awardees (2009 and 2010), were celebrated and highlighted in Innovation in Education: Lessons from Pioneers around the World, the first table-top international reference guide to best practices in the field of education, which was also launched at a special ceremony at the summit. The book was written by Charles Leadbeater, who is also author of Learning from Extremes.

The highlight of the summit was perhaps the announcement of the winner of the inaugural WISE Prize for Education – the first such accolade in the field of education. The $500,000 and gold medal was handed over by the Amir of Qatar His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani himself, to 75-year-old Bangladesh-born Fazle Hasan Abed. The prize recognizes an individual or team for an outstanding contribution to education.

Sir Fazle is the founder of BRAC, an organisation he founded in his home country in 1972, and now considered the world’s largest NGO. BRAC has today expanded to many parts of the world including five countries in Africa: Uganda, Tanzania, Liberia, Sierra Leone and South Sudan.

Education is a major part of BRAC’s pioneering work, as it currently operates the largest private, secular education system in the world and is highly-regarded for its non-formal primary education programmes, which are widely promoted by UNICEF and others as a high-impact, low-cost model for teaching children who have never enrolled, or have dropped out of primary school. To date, nearly 5 million children, mostly girls, have graduated from BRAC schools in the countries in which the organisation operates.

On receipt of the prize, so far dubbed the Nobel for Education by enthusiasts, Sir Fazle said: “The education of today must prepare the citizens of tomorrow to thrive in this collaborative world. For those of us in the developing world, as we work towards universal access and maintenance of quality, it will be important to keep this future in mind so this does not become yet another type of exclusion for our children. This means investing now in the right tools and technologies so that we can expose our children to the best educational opportunities.”

What is Africa’s rallying cry in the area of education? According to WISE, innovate!

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New African

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