WASHINGTON D.C. — The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recently stepped up its funding for education in Mali. Mali faces significant problems when it comes to education, and a coup d’état in the West African nation further complicated matters.
A few years ago, The Guardian reported on the state of education in Mali, examining the Sabalibougou school district in the Malian capital, Bamako. At School “F” in the district, only about 70 to 80 percent of students complete their primary education. Those that move on to secondary education are also highly likely to drop out, with only around 50 percent succeeding; for young women, the success rate is even lower.
“Unfortunately, many girls don’t succeed…” stated Adama Issa Diarra, director of School F. “We have two main issues. The first is that they get married early, or too early. The second one is unwanted pregnancies; when these occur, most of the girls have to stop school.”
The problems at School F aren’t unique; in fact, they highlight the problems with education in Mali as a whole. Despite education in Mali being compulsory and relatively cheap –– around $2.50 per year to study at the Sabalibougou school, for example –– the cost of school supplies and books are often a burden on the Malian family. Furthermore, the lack of schools in rural areas necessitates children travelling long distances, which can also be pricey.
Now, combine these factors with the fact that 80 percent of Malians work in agriculture, and children are often needed at home to help with the farm work. In Malian culture, young girls are often expected to help with household chores; thus, the negative effects of a highly agricultural economy on education in Mali weigh more heavily on girls than on boys.
To say that there is an attendance problem at Malian schools would be a severe understatement.
According to Our Africa, about a quarter of primary-school-aged Malian children are not enrolled in a school. The reasons for this are primarily those already mentioned: costs of supplies and travel, and a need for more hands at home doing agricultural work.
There are linguistic barriers to education in Mali too. Primary education in a child’s first language has been shown to be particularly effective, but in Mali many of the textbooks and learning resources are in French — not in any of the local African languages. The consequence of these barriers to education in Mali is a lack of literacy. In Mali, less than half of 15 to 24 year olds are literate, undermining their chances of receiving a good education.
The 2012 coup d’état in Mali was a setback to an already poor education system. Many schools closed due to political violence, and many are still closed because of a lack of safety or funding, or both. However, by September 2013 the conflict had –– at least in part –– resolved itself, and President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was democratically and peacefully elected.
This peace presented a new opportunity for Mali to receive foreign aid, and USAID promptly stepped in. Working with the government of Mali, USAID has provided some much-needed foreign aid to improve education in Mali. USAID has now begun addressing several of those problems with education in Mali that are mentioned above.
In Mali, USAID has facilitated several programs to improve youth literacy in the Segou, Koulikoro, Bamako and Sikasso regions. The Selected Integrated Reading Activity (SIRA) initiative has concentrated on improving reading skills for more than 295,000 students –– and even for 11,442 teachers in Mali.
One of the problems outlined by USAID was the quality of education in Mali — even students who do attend school in Mali may achieve little success and, because of poor teaching, may become discouraged and eventually drop out. So, the $51 million SIRA project not only teaches students directly, but also implements instructional reading and writing training for teachers, so as to hopefully permanently improve education in Mali. SIRA is now at work in 5,691 schools.
Another highlight of the USAID program is its attention to language. Through SIRA , USAID has focused on creating an educational curriculum taught in students’ first languages. USAID has also started providing materials written in the native languages of Mali for facilitation.
USAID gave desks, books and supplies to Malian schools, and also trained the school teachers. However, USAID’s support of education in Mali is boundless, and has even reached beyond the classroom: USAID supported 600 parent-teacher associations to encourage parental involvement in a child’s education, and gave 3,993 unemployed youth in Mali whom are not in school academic training.
Most importantly, perhaps, is that USAID’s efforts to improve education in Mali are working. Of those participating in USAID’s Youth Project –– part of the greater USAID initiative in Mal i–– the rate of illiteracy fell from 79 percent to 48 percent. The proportion of semi-literate Malian children rose in the same amount of time, from 21 percent to 52 percent.
USAID’s work in Mali is making some serious progress, but is far from over. The U.S. government agency pledged to help conflict-affected youth and to instill an equal approach to education for both boys and girls. By 2020, USAID will have given $95 million in funding to improve education in Mali.
– David Mclellan