Monday, July 6, 2015

Africa’s Children, an untapped potential

Africa’s prosperity, and any claim to greatness is inextricably bound to its children. Despite significant progress over the past decade, the flourishing of the African child is still staggered by poverty, malnutrition, disease and premature death.

Africa’s most valuable yet untapped potential is its children. It is not the vast reserves of oil or gas or gold or diamonds that will curve Africa’s place in the league table of great nations. Neither is it the abundance of farmland nor the growing consumer classes nor the new kilometers of road or railway that will make the 21st century Africa’s moment. What is happening to Africa’s children today will shape the continent’s future for many decades to come.

Consider that 16 of the 20 countries UNESCO judged to be least likely to meet the Education for All (EFA) targets are in sub-Saharan Africa. According to UNESCO, no African country attained the most important goal of universal primary education, defined as all children completing primary education. It is estimated that 30 million African children of primary school age were out of school in 2012. Here in Kenya, it is estimated that 2 million primary-age children were out of school in 2014.

More than 40 percent of Africa’s children are stunted. This means that they suffer significant, and often irreversible cognitive impairment. Such children are highly likley to repeat grades and to drop out of school. The psycho-socil and economic effects of stunting and cognitive impairment endure into adulthood and can be transmitted from parents to children. Stunted children will earn less and will most likely not to live out their full potential and contribute less to their communities.

Education is no longer about the African child. Education is now about the reputation of the school and the school head teachers. From very early in their lives the African child is taught not to think but to learn by rote and commit meaningless facts to memory to excel in national standardized test scores. We have transformed our schools into grade factories. And guess what, this is not about to change.

More than anything else, children must learn how to learn, unlearn and re-learn. Our education is about the curriculum and content. It is not about the child. One of my professors told me many years ago that half of what he was teaching would be out of date before I graduated. The problem is that he did not know which half it was.
The over-crowded, natural resource-poor East Asian economies have succeeded so spectacularly well on the economic front. For example, Singapore’s GDP per capita soared from USD516 in 1965 to about USD 55,000 in 2013. In the same period Kenya’s GDP per capita has increased from USD 104 to USD 1,240. Singapore’s miracle is largely attributed, among other factors, to sustained levels of investment in human capital over many decades.

Investment in education, especially for children leads to the formation of human capital and is in my view the ultimate  engine of economic growth. Human capital drives to economic growth in two ways. First, the human capital enhances an individual’s capability, leading to an increase in productivity and to economic growth. Second, a well educated population will also contribute to strengthening democracy and protecting civil liberties.
Moreover, the benefits of education are not confined to service and manufactuing sectors. Significant benefits of education on agricultral productivity were observed in East Asia in the 1970s. The contribution of education to agricultural productivity was high in South Korea.  One year of additional education was estimated to increase productivity by 2 percent  Moreover, Education also influenced the selection of technologies in farming. Better-educated farmers chose superior technology compared to less-educated farmers. This is especially relevant to Africa considering that our continent has vast but untapped agricultural land.

The miracle of the Asian Tigers­ – Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan – is something Africa can and must learn from. In the long-term, enduring and equitable prosperity comes from investing in human capital. And we must start by ensuring that our children are well fed, clothed and educated.


The African Development Bank must invest in Africa’s most crucial bridge to the future, its children, more than fancy highways. The Lion economies of Africa will not roar until every African child has a fair chance in life, unshackeld by poverty, hunger and disease.

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