Africa’s illiteracy timebomb

2012-09-17 00:00

HALF of primary school age children in sub-Saharan Africa will reach adolescence unable to read, write, or perform basic numeracy tasks. This is according to the new Africa Learning Barometer from the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Covering 28 sub-Saharan countries, this first region-wide survey of learning on the continent estimates that 61 million children of primary school age — one in every two — will reach their adolescent years unable to read, write, or perform basic numeracy tasks.

At the same time, the number of out of school children in Africa — which already accounts for more than half of the global total of 61 million — is set to increase by more than three million by 2020.

Justin W. van Fleet, Brookings Fellow at the Centre for Universal Education, said the data showed the urgent need for the international community to make education a top priority for the future of Africa’s growth, stability and prosperity. “Our projections show that 17 million children in Africa will never go to school and that one third of the 97 million children in Africa will go to school but not learn the basic skills they need to succeed in life.”

The barometer, which will be officially launched at Brookings today, is part of a wider collaboration with the Financial Times’s This Is Africa magazine. This Is Africa has produced a special report bringing together leading figures in business, policy and development to discuss the crisis.

The business community is also taking a keen interest in the findings. Chief executive of Pearson International John Fallon said: “Demographics apart, one of the most important factors driving economic growth is educational attainment. Yet the Africa Learning Barometer shows there is a crisis in learning which requires urgent action by the governments, NGOs and businesses who want to see a stable and growing Africa.

“Tackling Africa’s learning crisis could help to lift many millions out of poverty across the continent just as surely as in China, India and Brazil,” he said.

Van Fleet said the finding showed an unfortunate reversal in impressive enrolment gains on the back of the 2000 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) declaration. It comes at a critical time for the global education debate; with the international community beginning the process of defining a post-MDG development agenda.

Key figures who contributed to the report include: UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, who wrote the foreword of the report, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, Gordon Brown, special envoy for global education, Graca Machel, Africa Progress panel member, Rajiv Shah, administrator of USAid, Aliko Dangote, chairman and CEO, Dangote Group, John Fallon, CEO, Pearson International and Sara Ruto, manager, Uwezu East Africa. — WR.

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