Originally Published First Post Published on May 31, 2024

As Africa asserts its position in the international world order, it needs strong, determined efforts to make it a 21st-century global power

Celebrating Africa Day 2024: Why it matters

Every year on May 25, Africa Day is observed to celebrate the foundation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The day (formerly known as African Freedom Day and African Liberation Day) is the annual commemoration of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Established on May 25, 1963, OAU precedes today’s African Union (AU).

For almost two decades after the creation of the OAU, the focus of the organisation remained almost entirely on the decolonisation of the continent and the eradication of apartheid. Eventually, as the scope of OAU expanded, the former OAU was dissolved and transformed into today’s AU on July 9, 2002, in Durban, South Africa.

Each year, the AU adopts a theme to highlight a particular problem the continent faces and work together towards a solution. The theme for the year 2024 is “Education Fit for the 21st Century: Building resilient education systems for increased access to inclusive, lifelong, quality and relevant learning in Africa”. The education theme underscores the importance of education for the continent. Education is key to catalyse growth and socioeconomic transformation. The theme also aligns well with the aspirations of African Agenda 2063.

Celebrating African education

In the last 60 years, Africa has advanced significantly in education, with more kids now completing their schooling. The region’s primary school completion rate increased from 52 per cent to 69 per cent between 2000 and 2022. The percentage of students dropping out of high school also decreased, with 50 per cent of students finishing lower secondary education, up from 35 per cent and upper secondary education, which rose by 23 per cent.

The AU year must utilise its year of education to revitalise members’ commitment to sufficient domestic funding.

Meanwhile, the number of students enrolled in postsecondary education increased — from less than 800,000 in 1970 to more than 17 million. More girls than ever before are enrolled in school. Since the Global Education Summit in 2021, 21 African heads of state have signed the Declaration on Education Financing. This calls for significant financial commitments and investments from the African governments. The AU year must utilise its year of education to revitalise members’ commitment to sufficient domestic funding.

Despite these progresses, Africa continues to host the world’s most extensive number of school-age children who do not attend school, and approximately 98 million of them do not attend school at all. By the time these kids reach ten, over nine out of ten school-age children will be unable to read or comprehend a simple paragraph. The impact of the Covid pandemic was severe for Africa, where millions of children, adolescents, and young people had to miss school. With one in three girls being married before turning 18, this region is the only one in the world where gender parity in enrolment at any level of the educational system has not been attained, thus creating a severe disadvantage for girls.

African Solutions to African Problems

The primary source of financing education comes from the national budgets, although these frequently fall short of meeting basic needs, including teacher preparation, pay, supplies, and overhead. Budgets for education have decreased by an average of 14 per cent in nearly half of the low-income countries since 2020. In addition, debt service accounted for over 20 per cent of overall consumption during this period. Indeed, there was a massive budget cut for the education sector due to the pandemic. However, even before the pandemic, only 20 per cent of governments across the continent spent as per international standards.

With the world’s fastest-growing child population, the demand for education in Africa is set to rise. By 2060, more than 750 million children are anticipated to attain school age. The existing system is hardly adequate even for the present. Governments face severe financial strain, which affects the demand for early childhood development interventions, service delivery, and ongoing funding for universal access to high-quality education, particularly for girls. It would be challenging for African leaders to develop good education infrastructure for this large number of students.

Way Forward

This year, Africa Day comes against the backdrop of an unprecedented global challenge. The metastasising war in Ukraine has created food and energy insecurity in several African countries. The economic and geopolitical uncertainties resulted in a very high public debt across the continent and piled up pressure on the African economy. Slower economic growth, higher inflation, weaker currencies and increased international capital costs have all contributed to Africa’s already vulnerable debt situation. The impact of the war in Gaza is still under review. However, the negative impacts of the war will surely touch Africa.

Slower economic growth, higher inflation, weaker currencies and increased international capital costs have all contributed to Africa’s already vulnerable debt situation.

Nonetheless, the decision to adopt 2024 as Africa’s year of education is timely. The geopolitical uncertainties across the world have upended the global economy. It also placed millions of jobs at risk. And it threatens to roll back the social and economic progress that has been achieved across Africa.

Nonetheless, Africa continues to attract the interest of a new generation of global powers in addition to the US and the former European colonisers. African influence is now being seen on a worldwide scale. For one, the G20 has officially welcomed Africa to the grouping, underscoring the strategic importance of the continent. Last year, Russia hosted a summit for African leaders in St Petersburg. A month later, South Africa hosted the 15th BRICS summit, where Egypt and Ethiopia were invited to join the bloc as full members.

As Africa asserts its position in the international world order, Africa needs strong, determined efforts to make it a twenty-first-century global power. Only if this newly-found status is complemented with high-quality education that helps every girl and boy reach their full potential, African countries can rise along with the country’s youthful population. A great deal of rethinking and redesigning will be required to make the education system in Africa more innovative, inclusive, relevant, and sensitive to the needs and ambitions of African youth.

This commentary originally appeared in First Post.

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Samir Bhattacharya

Samir Bhattacharya

Samir Bhattacharya is an Associate Fellow at ORF where he works on geopolitics with particular reference to Africa in the changing global order. He has a ...

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