Interested in national development? Improve education

 He who opens a school door, closes a prison – Victor Hugo

The foundation of every state is the education of its youth. – Diogenes

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world – Nelson Mandela

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be – Thomas Jefferson

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance – Derek

Congratulations to those who worked diligently on the recently completed Sierra Leone constitutional review draft report. That document has now been accepted by the current government and is awaiting final voter approval. While it represented an important milestone in the nation’s continued pursuit of constitutional guarantees for its citizens, there are also other areas of national development which require similar robust attention. Foremost on that list is the improvement of the educational system - a persistent and chronic challenge in Sierra Leone. Although, education is a critical factor in the development of nations, the intention here is not to suggest that educational reforms alone will remedy the appalling state of conditions currently requiring solutions in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in the African continent. Rather, it is to highlight research which has linked the existence of major national problems due to the inadequacy of educational opportunities.

For starters, problems such as corruption, healthcare, gender inequality and youth unemployment are all connected to a common element – limited access to education and its effects on economic growth and development. Thus absent the implementation of effective educational programs, most development initiatives will continue to flounder. Simply put, education and literacy are key ingredients necessary for nation building. “Nothing can more effectively contribute to the cultivation and improvement of a country…the welfare and happiness of a people, than a proper education of youth,” so stated renowned American politician Benjamin Franklin. The improvement of education may also lead to the minimization of persistent societal problems of ethnic polarization, political rivalries, intolerance, and gender inequality. Education empowers citizens and provides a discernment that minimizes political exploitation and a formidable resistance to presidents who frequently use ethnic pluralities to stay in office perpetually. “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family,” noted former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. The youngest- ever Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai may have said it best when she admitted that while the world was inundated with many problems, there was only one solution and “it’s education.” Indeed, education is a reliable way to combat poverty and potentially end its generational transmission. Even more important, education is a crucial pipeline for the preparation of young people who will be at the forefront in solving acute social, economic and political problems currently facing the continent. Education minimizes social conflicts, broadens one’s horizon, and is essential for the prevention of ethnic conflicts and development of skills needed for the peaceful resolution of a wide range of problems. Unfortunately, because of limited investment in education, the African continent is beset with unnecessary waste of human capital needed for solving a multiplicity of problems facing its peoples. Many of its leaders fail to realize the truism in this frequently quoted statement - that the quality of output is determined by the quality of the input; often indelicately stated as “garbage in, garbage out,” or in the proverbial cliché, “you get what you pay for.” By continuously under funding education, African leaders risk ignoring a fundamental factor in the growth and development of nations.

For example, according to a 2003 World Bank’s assessment on development indicators, “countries and regions with the highest rates of out-of-school children are some of the poorest in the world.” This assessment has remained unchanged. Conversely, citizens of countries with high literacy rates such as Australia, USA, South Korea and Japan experience booming economies and continued prosperity. Many of the impoverished countries are currently located in Africa where education is negligible, thereby establishing a direct link between the improvement of education and the development of nations. In other words, accessibility to education is often a reliable indicator of how countries transition from poverty into prosperity. The more access to education, the richer are the citizens, the less access, the poorer. Indeed, education is a reliable key to success, and a powerful tool that can lead nations to immensely positive outcomes in economic growth and development. But there will be no access to good education without qualified teachers needed to increase the number of educated citizens who will provide home grown solutions to a plethora of indigenous problems, including those emanating from a technologically evolving international community.

Besides, for education to be even more beneficial to developing nations, it must be inclusive of both girls and boys. Current studies indicate that education for girls is woefully inadequate worldwide, notwithstanding repeated United Nations conferences on the topic. For example, “among children not attending school there are twice as many girls as boys, and among illiterate adults there are twice as many women as men.”

Additionally, according to an article published by a Washington-based international group entitled “Results: the power to end poverty,” it is estimated that “of the 75 million primary aged children not in school, 55 percent are girls, roughly three quarters live in sub-Sahara Africa and South and West Asia and some 40 million are in conflict affected countries or emerging states.” Furthermore, the same group asserted that “opening classroom doors to all children, especially girls, will help break the inter-generational chains of poverty because education is intrinsically linked to all development goals, such as supporting gender empowerment, improving child health and maternal health, reducing hunger, … spurring economic growth, and building peace.” Nations that continue to be “male dominated, male identified and male centered,” will find it increasingly difficult to compete in the twenty first century.

Furthermore, Ban Ki-moon, former United Nations Secretary General, “Countries with higher levels of gender equality have higher economic growth. Companies with more women on their boards have higher returns. Peace agreements that include women are more successful. Parliaments with more women take up a wider range of issues - including health, education, anti-discrimination, and child support.” Similarly, Lawrence Summers, former Chief economist of the World Bank and economic advisor in the Obama administration posited that “educating girls yields a higher rate of return than any other investment available in the developing world.”

Thus the education and empowerment of women are critical factors to achieving Africa’s development goals. Of course such Progress can only be attained if the continent abandons some regressive and archaic cultural practices such as female infanticide, child marriages, female circumcision, so-called honor killings and grooming girls primarily to become wives and mothers. Now is the time to welcome globalization and gender diversification in the workplace in consonant with basic human rights and 21st century needs and expectations.

By: Dr. Hassan B. Sisay (Emeritus Professor, California State University, Chico, USA)