The World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa is taking place in Durban, South Africa this week under the theme ‘Achieving inclusive growth: responsive and responsible leadership’. The current prosperity enjoyed by pockets of people around the world – Africa included – has left too many people behind. As we seek to make our economies, and the wealth they generate, more inclusive, everyone must have opportunities to continue learning throughout their lives.
The GEM Report Prosperity publication, released at the global World Economic Forum last January, shows that the world, and particularly sub-Saharan Africa, is facing a massive mismatch between available skills and labour market needs leaving scores of people behind. A relevant, well-designed and good quality education system can reverse this.
Africa’s expanding youth population presents the continent with a tremendous opportunity for new growth and leadership. Responsive and responsible leaders are a-plenty among this generation, although they are in desperate need of a good quality education that confers flexible skills and competencies. Foundation skills – literacy and numeracy – are critical for higher order thinking, creativity, problem solving, and social and emotional skills. Without them, an education means very little.
Investing in higher education is particularly crucial for sustainable growth in sub-Saharan Africa: increasing tertiary attainment by one year on average would increase its long-term GDP level by 16%. Yet, despite this potential, in 2014, only 8% were enrolled in tertiary level institutions in the region, far below that of South and West Asia (23%), and the global average (34%).
Spreading advanced skills can also help reduce the region’s high unemployment rates, especially among young adults, and increase earnings, thereby reducing the high rates of working poverty in the region. For each additional year of schooling, earnings rise by 12% in sub-Saharan Africa. These rates of return are the highest for any region in the world, reflecting its scarcity among skilled workers.
To guarantee these high returns to education, education systems in Africa and the world over need to encourage critical thinking and new competences. Persistent low quality education breeds high unemployment rates. Schools and tertiary institutions need to find ways to teach subjects and instill skills, which will be in great demand in the labour market.
Through Agenda 2063 the African Union member states have committed to catalyze an education and skills revolution. Their aims are to actively promote technology, research and innovation to build knowledge, human capital, capabilities and skills to drive innovation. This vision is built around the need to support young people as the drivers of Africa’s renaissance. It presents a solid framework for a firm partnership between education and those fighting poverty. Evidence suggests it should reap strong results.
Particularly important is strengthening Africa’s skills base in the area of science and technology. Such a move is impossible without the involvement of education ministries. According to the World Economic Forum, the overall shortage of engineers in Africa is estimated at above 1 million and more efforts are required to reverse the widening gender digital divide.
African women are increasingly underrepresented in technology based industries and there are strong cultural stigmas against girls learning mathematics and science. As the Prosperity publication notes, stereotyped gender roles and expectations in school and at home partly explain educational and occupational segregation. Socialization processes – for example, poor career counselling, limited role models, negative familial attitudes, perceived inability in mathematics and fear of being in the minority — may influence girls’ willingness to choose specific programs and disciplines. Socialization challenges need to be addressed by all Ministries and across all sectors; if not discriminatory attitudes in classrooms and by teachers are to disappear.
It is time for us to reconceive what it means to prosper. Education exclusion in one generation begets more exclusion in the next. In fact the poorest children are four times more likely to be out of school, and five times more likely not to complete primary education. There should be no argument as to whether education should be seen as a top priority for propelling people out of poverty. The evidence is strong and persuasive. Let’s hope those attending the WEF 2017 make this connection and show the ‘responsive and responsible leadership’ they are so craving for the region.