The opportunity gap
Let’s start with education. It is fruitless to emphasise the importance of human capital for growth and development because there is really no debate here.
It is worth bringing up some examples like Cape Verde, Mauritius and Japan, who realised that with no natural resources, they had no option but to invest in their people. Having the best and the brightest remains their story of development.
Africa needs to focus on a qualitative improvement in education and not just a quantitative one. We need to produce a critical mass of the best and brightest, with relevant skills suited to needs of the economy and be able to retain them on the continent.
The transformative nature of education is also evident at the micro-level. There are several anecdotal examples and empirical research findings (including by Day & Newberger, 2002), which confirm a direct relationship between household income levels and the level of education. Indeed, a person’s opportunity for advancement increases by several folds through formal or vocational schooling. The education gap is an opportunity gap.
Here is the problem with education: households will simply not invest in education if they are struggling to feed themselves. In that context, education is not perceived by the poor as essential. Understandably, investments in education come with high opportunity costs if children are needed to contribute to income-generating activities rather than going to school.
Also, the gains of education are not always guaranteed or immediate (e.g. high earnings and absorption in a skilled labour force) for various reasons. It is easy to see why governments often have to step in and ‘force’ education down the throats of citizens for example by legislating free and compulsory primary education.
Health is different. No matter how poor, health is hardly ever perceived by households as non-essential. It’s understood to be a matter of life or death and results can be instantaneous. In fact, the poor often spend a considerable amount on healthcare from their own resources.
It does not mean they should be exploited by not providing affordable services. We are making a point about the inelasticity of healthcare and the elasticity of education and what this means for a strategic use of public funds to achieve long term development goals.