Let me first take this opportunity on behalf of CAFOR and on my behalf to wish all our partners, collaborators and friends a happy and prosperous new year. I also wish you all a delightful and prosperous decade full of excellent results for the new generation of Africans.
As this new decade of the 2020s begins, education remains a significant challenge in Africa, with severe implications for our young people. While Africa’s growth has been strong, many challenges remain. The employment challenge is perhaps the greatest. Youth employment has become a subject of growing prominence on national and global development agendas in recent times, given its socio-economic cum political implications. Though the youth employment challenge has its dimensions, it scourges countries worldwide regardless of their stage of socio-economic development.
Of all the regions, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rates of education exclusion. Over one -fifth of children aged between 6 and 11 are not attending school. Besides, one-third of youth between the ages of about 12 and 14 are also out of school. According to data from the UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics, (UIS), 60% of youth between the ages of about 15 and 17 are also not currently in school. But again, the general picture for Education in Africa is one of ongoing progress and constant challenges. We see the conversation about Africa continually shifting from one about shortfalls to one about opportunities. Africa is a known leader in commodity-exporting, but the continent’s economic potential far exceeds that. Africa now leads the world in mobile adoption, which continues to offer the most significant cross-sectoral economic opportunities. Besides, Africa potentially has the clout to influence in the areas of technology, agriculture, and sustainability.
Much progress has been realized over the years to make the African continent the great place it is. Still, with the overall goal of making the region a competitive and productive player in the world economy and therefore in international relations, the continent needs to find a way to deliver effective, efficient and high-quality education systems. In this regard, we must say that our education systems in Africa need more of everything. We need to have more schools, as well as more trained teachers, and more investment. Greater participation by the private sector and the strengthening of public and private partnerships would assist governments and bolster public sector funds to finance the continent’s public education system.
Analysts have called for international support to be provided for Africa’s universities and other institutions of higher learning. Many see these institutions as disconnected from their societies and markets, with no investment in research that drives innovative solutions. For instance, an institution that specializes in technical and vocational training can exist for decades in a community without drinking water and will make no effort to find a solution. Many have called for the linking of universities to companies in global innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley concluding that this could help improve education and lead to new advancements in technology that would spur Africa’s economic growth.
As we begin the new decade, we must bear in mind that Africa has the potential to reap a demographic dividend over this decade and the decades that would follow, with the growth of its labour force to become the largest in the world by 2040, and with a declining dependency ratio. It is still more likely to have girls than boys to never attend school, despite the enormous progress made over the past 25 years. Across Africa, UNESCO projects that 9 million girls between the ages of about 6 and 11 will never attend school, compared to 6 million boys. The disadvantage of girls starts early, with 23% of girls out of primary school compared to 19% of boys at present. By the time they become adolescents, girls exclusion rate is 36% compared to 32% for boys, according to UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics.
Altogether, more than 1 out of 5 out-of-school children will never attend school. We need urgent action to avert a worse situation for girls as the continent faces a rising demand for education due to a continually growing school-age population. But to fully capture this potential, Africa must accelerate the production of wage-paying jobs. If we fail to do so, the continent will be dispatching millions of households to toil in subsistence activities raising the risk of political and social unrest with potential explosions that African countries can ill afford, and at this time when the African Union is talking about “silencing the guns” by this year 2020.
One paradox is that although Africa remains the world’s poorest continent, many governments have made remarkable progress in promoting development and improving people’s lives. For example, Africa’s spending on infrastructure has doubled to around $80 billion a year in the past decade, while multiple reforms have improved African countries’ ease-of-doing-business ratings. Partly because of these steps, Africa’s combined GDP has tripled since the turn of the century. Investments in health systems have delivered significant gains—including a 50% reduction in infant mortality rates since 1990. In the education sector, the average time African children spend in school has nearly doubled since 1990, contributing to raising the continent’s youth literacy rate to 70%.
One question we necessarily need to pose is to ask whether this progress will be sustained or stalled in this decade. The answer to this question will mostly boil down to finance. The continent faces a perfect storm of a slowdown in growth, depressed commodity prices, stagnant tax revenues, and rising public debt. African governments’ combined budget deficits exceeded $100 billion in 2018, equivalent to almost 5% of GDP, double the level in 2010. Without appropriate action, many governments will face mounting fiscal pressure and find their ability to invest severely constrained, and hence severely compromising investments in the social sectors, including in education, with severe consequences.
Yet, there is much scope for African governments to mobilize domestic resources for their development and improve efficiencies in public spending. We have now reached the stage for Africa to break up the dependency syndrome and begin to effectively mobilize domestic resources for growth if the continent should make any headway in meaningful development. Several pioneering governments have already achieved significant improvements in revenue collection through tax-system reforms. Others have delivered significant budgetary savings in areas such as public procurement and capital expenditure. Many analysts have pointed out that similar public-finance improvements if scaled up across the continent, could close the entire fiscal deficit within a few years.
Another major problem in Africa which many governments are currently addressing throughout the continent is the issue of fraud and corruption, which have remained a severe drain on Africa’s public finances. Governments need to take bolder steps, including through technology-enabled solutions, to tackle this problem. The African Union estimated that as much as $150 billion is lost to corruption every year across the continent. This loss comes in the form both of casualties from the public purse and bribes paid by individuals and businesses. Through some of the successful public-finance transformations in Africa, we now know that we can apply widely-known solutions in particular cases. However, implementation can be difficult. These implementation hurdles include vested interests, silos in organizations, a lack of focus, and gaps in capabilities.
In most cases, governments and institutions must insist on having the right leaders in place for the transformation and across relevant institutions. We must first have strong political will and discipline throughout the change, including active championing of the effort by political leaders, made visible across the government. There should be not only leaders with the right technical capabilities but also those who can inspire others and serve as role models for an entire organization. Critical stakeholders that include the private sector and development partners must be actively engaged. Governments should enforce a balanced focus on aggressive revenue growth and cost control, with a sustained requirement to maximize impact on both sides of the equation. Communication must be an essential component of this transformation with a compelling change story communicated throughout the public service to foster an understanding of the purpose of the conversion and conviction that the change is beneficial and meaningful. Last, but not least, technology must become a critical enabler of the transformation, as digitization allows governments to increase transparency radically, enabling better decision-making.
For public-finance transformations to be meaningful, we will typically require action by multiple departments, agencies, ministries, and other stakeholders. These entities need to accelerate their pace to move faster than they are accustomed to moving, collaborate in joint teams and initiatives, and experiment with bold new approaches. African governments face serious fiscal challenges, but they also have tremendous opportunities—realizable in the near term—to reform public finances. With sufficient commitment to transformation, governments can create new headroom to pursue spending priorities without threatening fiscal sustainability.
Given the significant funding needs to meet the continent’s development goals, the time to act is now. Finance ministers who take the lead can oversee a robust assessment of their countries’ opportunities to increase tax and customs revenue and improve the efficiency of public spending. And they can then design a capable delivery machine to translate this potential into tangible, sustainable gains.
CAFOR which is barely two years old now will comply strictly with the African Union’s principles and continue to monitor the economic landscape on the continent as it advocates for a change in mind-sets to empower our leaders to enable the financial independence of the continent during this decade. Economic and social development should be a primary issue here as the African Union moves to change mind-sets to enable Africa to begin to finance its programmes and activities on the continent, starting with the African Union itself.
Operationally, CAFOR effectively started on January 1, 2018, and has been involved in varying major world education for development events in Africa and abroad. These include high-level meetings in the African Union at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, and around the continent. CAFOR has also participated and contributed substantially in more than twenty policy dialogue forums in several countries in Europe and the United States where education and literacy, capacity building and youth employment in Africa, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Agenda 2063, the Science, Technology and Innovations Strategy for Africa (STISA 2024), the Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA 16-25), and the Continental Strategy for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) were the principal subjects of discussion.
Throughout 2019, with members of my staff, I met and discussed with more than 30 Ambassadors from around the world as well as other members of the international community and partners and representatives accredited to Ethiopia and the African Union. The topics of discussion focused on the African Union’s agendas cited above. I take this opportunity to thank all those Ambassadors and Heads of Agencies who responded so positively with varying pledges of support to CAFOR and the African Union’s agenda.
As we commemorate the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the African Union and CAFOR, we continue to confront the many challenges that we see globally at the continental level. We, therefore, still have a long way to go to realize our dreams of a better Africa for the future generation of Africans. When we signed this MOU, CAFOR and the African Union agreed to work together to enhance the integration of global and continental policy agendas at the national level. These include the SDGs, Agenda 2063, STISA 2024, CESA 16-25, and the TVET Continental Strategy. The challenge now remains on how both parties will enhance dialogue on policy issues as recommended by the African Union and promote a shared understanding of the problems in educational reforms for youth participation in their respective national labour force, and how we will support building commitment and ownership of the policy agendas at the country level.
With an expanding membership, CAFOR’s work at the country level will be enhanced considerably in 2020 and beyond. With over 50 established members from 30 countries and organizations in Africa, and more than 1,600 professionals in media, education and the world of economic and social development, CAFOR will continue to enhance partnerships with African based organizations, including several youth-led organizations for the implementation of the African Union and other international policies and strategies. CAFOR looks forward to the continued support of its partners and stakeholders as it continues to make a move to higher levels in its flight towards the “Africa We All Want”.
CAFOR is now working on establishing regional offices across the continent. The organization will soon open offices in East Africa (Nairobi), Southern Africa (Lilongwe), West Africa (Abuja), North Africa (Rabat) and Central Africa (Kinshasa). These offices will be responsible for all activities across the region. The regional offices will be professional entities which seek to address the challenges of youths in the areas of skills development and employment issues in African countries. They will provide high-level expertise in their sphere of operation in the form of cutting edge research and analytical work, technical assistance and training to member states of the African Union, Regional Economic Communities and the African Union Commission. They will carry out studies in emerging topics in anticipation of future challenges, coordinate strategic partnerships and mobilize resources for their work programmes. The overarching objective of all these interventions is to enhance the education policies and strategies as they affect young people in African countries. The regional offices will focus on solutions that connect directly to the needs of individual countries and the continent as a whole. These offices will draw lessons from the past, particularly traditions begun under colonial regimes and post-colonial governments. CAFOR will also emphasize the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) and will work to find solutions to Africa’s challenges over the next decade. CAFOR will advocate for education systems in Africa to be structured to respond to those shortcomings and refresh the talent Africa needs to address the challenges in multiple sectors, such as energy, water and infrastructure. At least 40% of CAFOR’s employees will be youths from 35 years and below, who will also receive mentoring from experienced personnel in the organization.
To conclude, let me announce the holding a Roundtable Conference that CAFOR will be holding soon. The objective of the proposed Roundtable is to contribute to the setting up of sustainable funding mechanisms that would accelerate CAFOR’s sustainable financing needs and increase CAFOR’s impact on the performance of the policy, and the legal framework for advancing education and development for young people in Africa. CAFOR will also subscribe to the design of a long-lasting financing management plan in collaboration with the African Union Commission, its organs and all partner agencies and member states by considering the results of its interventions at the country level. CAFOR will be presenting its five years Strategic Plan spanning from 2020 to 2024 at the Roundtable.
With the changing global circumstances and the need to be able to assess tangible and identifiable outcomes stemming from continental and global agendas, the Strategic Plan will guide CAFOR in further defining its vision on how to achieve the global and continental objectives and goals to which it is committed. It will develop mechanisms for obtaining maximal synergy effect with the strategic objectives of the African Union. The Plan will also enable CAFOR to clarify the direction that it will be taking in the context of the changing policy environment in the next five years, stemming from the fact that the SDGs have expanded the education agenda from focusing on basic education to integrating all the education levels.
In particular, the Plan will guide us to better articulate Africa’s education ambitions aligned to Africa’s Agenda 2063, our 50-year blueprint from the African Union for transforming Africa’s socio-economic development. At the country level, CAFOR should be able to work with country authorities to interpret and communicate the 12 strategic objectives of CESA 16-25 as this trades with a mission of “reorienting Africa’s education and training systems to meet the knowledge, competencies, skills, innovation, and creativity required to nurture African core values and promote sustainable development at the national, sub-regional and continental levels”. We will expect the global and continental policy agendas to be integrated into the country level developmental and sectoral strategies depending on the needs, priorities and context of each country.
Once again, I am wishing all a happy and prosperous new year, and a happy new decade!