Quality education is crucial for realising the SDGs

According to a report released by ONE this week, African countries are losing billions of dollars for not addressing the gender gap in education, writes Solomon Elusoji

In his seminal book on why some countries are poor and others rich, the Wealth and Poverty of Nations, renowned historian David Landes wrote that the economic implications of gender discrimination are too huge for nations who want to thrive. “To deny women is to deprive a country of labour and talent,” he said.

Landes argued that the best clue to a nation’s growth and development potential is the status and role of women. The more opportunities they get, the higher the chance for economic success. “To be sure, any society will have its achievers no matter what, if only because it has its own division of tasks and spoils,” Landes, who was a Professor of Economics and History before his death in 2013, said. “But it cannot compete with other societies that ask performance from the full pool of talent.”

On Wednesday, which was International Day of the Girl, ONE, an global campaigning and advocacy organisation of more than eight million people taking action to end extreme poverty and preventable diseases, particularly in Africa, launched a report titled: ‘The Toughest Places for a Girl to Get an Education’. Out of the 10 countries that topped the list, nine were from Africa, with Afghanistan completing the list.

“To improve girls’ education globally, we need to pay special attention to Africa,” the report said. “No African countries are among the best performing 25 per cent of all countries ranked, and only four African countries (seven per cent) are in the best-performing 50 per cent of ranked countries. Overall, African countries had a median score of 52, compared with the Americas at 79, Asia also at 79 and Europe at 87.”

The report highlights the paradox that has puzzled economic forecasters about 21st Century Africa. On one hand, with a growing young demography and the embrace of entrepreneurship, there is a rising optimism that the continent is about to rise from the backwater of economic history. But educational systems across Africa, especially as it relates to the girl-child, as highlighted by the ONE report, has no spine to support progress.

While most policymakers on the continent agree that educating girls is important, there is little on the continent that reflects such belief. In South Sudan, the country which tops ONE’s notorious index, 73 per cent of girls don’t go to primary school and its government spends just 2.6 per cent of its total budget on education. In Burkina Faso, just one per cent of girls complete secondary school. And, in Ethiopia, two in every five girls marry before their 18th birthday, and nearly one in five marries before they clock 15.

“We are having an education crisis on the African continent,” ONE’s Nigeria Country Director, Serah Makka, told THISDAY. “These numbers say that there is a state of emergency which, if we do not address, will kill all of us. My worry is that we have not found a way to get everybody’s attention to treat this as a dangerous epidemic that it is. This is why ONE has compiled this report, to throw more light on the problem’s severity.”

Nigeria, perhaps Africa’s most promising economic giant, is ranked 27th on the index, which collected and analysed data for 122 United Nations member countries. However, the country’s ‘kind’ ranking is masked by acute regional disparities. In the country’s North-east region, for example, “the violent extremist group Boko Haram (which translates as ‘western education is forbidden’) poses increased obstacles to girls completing their education. Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in Chibok in 2014. As of 2016, over 1,000 schools in the region had been damaged or destroyed and 1,500 schools had closed. This means that while Nigeria as a whole doesn’t make our list of toughest countries, at a regional level North-east Nigeria is a tougher place for a girl to get educated than other regions in the country. In Nigeria’s South-south geopolitical zone, five per cent of girls have never been to school, whereas this figure increases more than 10-fold (to 52 per cent) in the North-east,” the report said.

“The problem with Nigeria is that we have good policies but implementation is the problem,” Makka said. “You cannot leave over 50 per cent of girls in the North uneducated and think you are ready for the future. It does not make sense.”
One characteristic evident in every country in the index’s top 10 is conflict and poverty. But poor countries are not necessarily condemned to poor performance. Burundi has the world’s lowest national income per capital at $286 USD, but it outperforms 18 other wealthier countries. And, ironically, the benefits of educating the girl-child far outweigh the cost. “Our research shows a strong relationship between girls’ primary school completion rates and their literacy rates,” the ONE report said. “On a global level, addressing the gender gap in education could yield between $112 billion and $152 billion USD a year in developing countries.”

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the value of educating girls. When more girls are in school, a country’s adolescent fertility rates are likely to dip. This, of course, extends to the rise of more women who wait until adulthood to have children and are armed with much more sophisticated knowledge-tools to make better decisions for their health and future offspring.

However, ensuring all girls get the education they deserve will take a global effort – and will require increased financing and policy reforms, the ONE report said. The advocacy group is advocating for “Governments to work towards allocating 20 per cent of transparent national budgets to education. Only two of the 10 toughest countries for a girl to get an education meet this target proposed by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).”

Also, “donor governments should increase global education financing. This includes fully funding existing multilateral mechanisms such as the GPE and Education Cannot Wait, and establishing the proposed International Finance Facility for Education. GPE operates in all the 10 toughest countries and has a proven track record of success.”

Still national governments have a part to play as they are expected to “implement an education policy agenda that will break every barrier to girls’ education, invest in every teacher, monitor every outcome and connect every classroom.”
To create the index, ONE chose 11 factors that reflect girls’ access to and completion of school, the quality of education in a country, and the broader enabling environment.

The factors selected with available data are: rate of out-of-school girls of primary, lower secondary and upper secondary age; school completion rate for girls of primary, lower secondary and upper secondary age; mean years of schooling for women aged 25 and over; female literacy rate for population aged 15–24; percentage of primary school teachers trained; pupil– teacher ratio in primary schools; and spending on education as a percentage of total government expenditure.

Of 193 UN member states, ONE excluded countries that were missing four or more data points (out of 11) to allow for reliable comparison. This left them with a list of 122 countries. Data was primarily drawn from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics (UIS.Stat) database.