WASHINGTON, D.C. – During her trip to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania, First Lady Michelle Obama repeatedly emphasized the importance of a good education. The First Lady spent several days visiting schools, vocational training centers, and clinics, speaking to the children and youth about the role education can play in transforming lives and the prosperity of the continent. Her message was clear and simple: an investment in education is the best thing one can do for their future, for their children’s future, and for their country’s future.
The First Lady spoke directly to children, but her message echoed through the international community. Although Africa has experienced steady progress over the last decade in getting more children into school, sub-Saharan Africa still has 50% of the world’s 57 million primary aged children who are not in school. Alarmingly, the number of children not in school in sub-Saharan Africa—over 30 million—has not budged in the last five years.
Improving access to education comes with an urgent need to improve the quality of education children receive. The Center for Universal Education’s Africa Learning Barometer found that, even after four years of school, over half of Africa’s primary school age children will fail to learn the most basic reading and math skills due to the poor quality of schooling.
However, the real learning deficit is in the injustice that persists between social class, gender, urban/rural divides, and minority ethnic groups. In South Africa, for example, the barometer estimates that an average of 35% of children are not acquiring basic competencies, however, this number can rise as high as 48% of children living in rural areas and 53% for children in the poorest quintile of the population.
In a blog post about her trip to Africa, the First Lady addressed barriers girls face by not only enrolling in school but also choosing to stay in school. In some areas, girls are expected to marry at a very young age, or they must get a job to support their families. The First Lady stressed that the investment in girls’ education is the best investment a government can make to promote economic growth and stability.
The First Lady was not alone in her commitment. She was joined by her husband President Obama who, while in Johannesburg, announced the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders program. The program will bring youth to the U.S. for training on cultivating economic growth in Africa.
Although numbers show that foreign aid to global education is declining, the U.S. government has an opportunity to lead by example and encourage other governments to recommit funding to basic education in Africa. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
– Scarlet Shelton