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Finance & Development
A quarterly magazine of the IMF
June 2005 , Volume 42, Number 2

Keeping the Promise
Birger Fredriksen

What is holding up achieving primary education for all African children?

Progress in literacy and learning has done more to advance human conditions than perhaps any other policy. That is why the international community since 1960 has set three successive target dates for achieving universal primary education (UPE), one of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for 2015. But disturbingly, recent data show that sub-Saharan Africa has an average primary school completion rate of just 59 percent, far from the required 100 percent. The World Bank—IMF Global Monitoring Report 2005 notes that, in fact, on current trends, the region will not achieve UPE until 2061.

Should that happen, the region´´s already weak human capital base would severely limit its growth prospects. Average adult educational attainment is about three years—only half of the historical minimum threshold for achieving sustained growth. Yet in today´s knowledge- and information technology-based economy, even longer attendance is needed. Moreover, basic education, especially for females, is a means for attaining other MDGs, especially those related to health. And literate citizens are the foundation for well-functioning democratic institutions, and for achieving social cohesion and peace, which, in turn, are preconditions for growth.

Can the region get on track to reach the 2015 target? For some 22 countries—those with a completion rate of under 60 percent—the goal is uncomfortably out of reach. But for many others (such as Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania), the goal can be met if recent progress is maintained. In fact, there are three factors that give cause for optimism for the entire region making big gains on the education front.

  • Since the mid-1990s, major gains have been made in tackling the key causes for the failure to meet past targets. These include better macroeconomic and education policies, improved governance, and less civil strife.

  • Recent data confirm a marked turnaround in primary education since the late 1990s. The region´s average gross enrollment ratio (GER)—the ratio of the number of children enrolled in primary education, regardless of age, to the population of the age group that corresponds to the nationally defined ages for primary schooling—increased from 78 percent in school year 1998 to 83 percent in 2000, and to 91 percent in 2002, reflecting a broad-based increase in access in nearly all countries at a level not seen since the 1970s. Partial data for more recent years and experience at the country level confirm that the upturn is real and continues.

  • External assistance for education is increasing.

Hence, development over the next decade may resemble more the enormous progress made in the early post-independence period than the stagnation of the 1980s and early 1990s, which color assessments based on data prior to 2000. Between 1960 and 1980, the GER rose from 45 to 80 percent, and enrollment increased by an impressive 260 percent. But because the school-age population grew five times faster than projected (93 percent), the GER did not reach the 1980 target of 100 percent. In the following years, the GER declined, reaching a low of 73 percent by 1992, before slowly regaining its 1980 level by 2000. The 70 percent enrollment increase between 1980 and 2000 was just enough to keep pace with population growth.

Africa now needs to further improve access: if the current level of grade repetition of 20 percent is maintained, the region needs a GER of at least 120 percent to enroll all children of primary school age. Africa also needs to sharply reduce high dropout rates. Whether or not the region can make this sort of progress will hinge on its success in overcoming an almost overwhelming number of shifting obstacles, such as tight budgets, weak capacity, and HIV/AIDS. And the international community will need to boost aid levels and improve the effectiveness of its assistance.

Shifting obstacles

Achieving UPE requires that all children enter primary school, complete the cycle, and acquire a set of basic skills. In 2001, about 93 percent of sub-Saharan African children entered school and two-thirds completed the cycle. Of these, only half mastered the expected basic skills. Thus, the main obstacles have shifted from increasing admission to reducing dropout rates and improving learning outcomes.

But although admission rates are high, access remains a problem, especially with respect to equity, because access differs markedly by family income, urban/rural location, and gender. An added challenge is that, largely driven by HIV/AIDS, one out of ten primary school-age children will be orphaned by 2010. Moreover, the school-age population is projected to rise by 23 percent between 2000 and 2015—in contrast to a rise of only 6 percent in South Asia, and decreases in Latin America (1 percent) and East Asia (14 percent).

Reaching those not in school will require action on the demand side to lower costs to poor families. For example, the removal of school fees in Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, and Uganda caused a major surge in admissions (see box). On the supply side, governments will need to increase the provision of schooling in underserved areas—a strategy that helped boost admission rates significantly in recent years in low-enrollment countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

What can be done to improve quality—epitomized by the region´s 20 percent grade repetition? While views differ on what constitutes ""good-quality education" and how quality impacts learning, three areas stand out:

Quality inputs. Priority should be given to training materials and in-service teacher training where shortages are severe and reduce teachers´ effectiveness. At 44:1, the region´s pupil/teacher ratio is on average three times that of developed countries—and one in four countries has ratios above 55:1. Nevertheless, reducing the ratio below 40:1 is unlikely to be cost-effective at present. While teacher salaries are low—and have dropped sharply in recent decades—compared with per capita income, they are on average somewhat higher than in other regions (Mingat, 2004). The drop in salaries has stemmed from declines in GDP per capita, along with lower teacher salaries as a multiple of GDP per capita—a problem particularly in Francophone countries, especially in the Sahel. In 1975, the average primary school teacher salary in the Sahelian countries was 17.6 times GDP per capita (using data denominated in local currency for teacher salaries and GDP per capita). By 2000, this figure had fallen to 6.4 percent, which was still above the African average of 4.4.

Management. Within most countries, there are marked differences among schools in resource allocation per pupil and, for the same resource endowment per pupil, in learning outcomes. More and better-quality inputs need to be coupled with more effective use, through improved management and accountability, at both system and school levels to promote greater equity in pupil/teacher ratios across schools, less teacher absenteeism, longer school years, and more parental involvement in school management.

Home factors. Even a well-endowed and -managed school cannot prevent dropout or ensure effective learning if the children are hungry, walk long distances, work long hours at home, or have illiterate parents. Cost-effective, poverty-focused interventions include improving nutrition through school-feeding and micronutrient programs; limiting walking distance by establishing smaller, multigrade schools; reducing the need for child labor, especially for girls, through labor-saving devices such as drilling wells; and by providing adult literacy courses.

Lifting user fees boosts admissions

One key obstacle to achieving UPE remains the high direct costs of education to parents, especially for the poorest households. User fees still exist in at least 35 sub-Saharan African countries, although almost half of them legally have free primary education.

To address this problem, many countries—including Malawi (1993), Uganda (1996), Lesotho (1999), and Kenya (2002)—have introduced free primary education policies over the past decade. In the year after user fees were stopped, enrollment rose dramatically—far exceeding government expectations. It increased by 68 percent in Malawi and Uganda, 22 percent in Kenya, and 11 percent in Lesotho (but 75 percent for grade one).

Should policymakers worry about the elimination of fees hurting education quality? If fees do finance quality inputs, they would need to be replaced. But they often "disappear" through various leakages and at best only partially finance quality inputs. Furthermore, while in most cases total income from fees constitutes a small part of total education resources, enrollment of children from poor households is very sensitive to even small fees. Therefore, from an equity point of view, the main quality impact of school fees is often highly regressive, since fees prevent access of poor children, thus limiting overcrowding and permitting more public resources available per student for those who can afford to attend school.

Challenges for governments

The ability of governments to maintain the recent positive trends in education is held back in particular by severe budgetary constraints, weak capacity, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Difficult political economy. The region´s slow-growing, rural-based economies do not generate the tax revenues necessary to both reach UPE and provide publicly financed secondary education, nor do they generate modern sector jobs for graduates. In fact, many countries are trapped in a vicious circle where a low skill base constrains economic growth, but where low growth, in turn, severely limits financial space to improve skill levels as well as "political space" to introduce needed education reforms. Moreover, teachers have strong unions, and the success of reforms depends on their support. This can be difficult to obtain in countries with a long-term decline in teacher salaries resulting from declines both in GDP per capita over the last 30 years and in salaries relative to GDP per capita.

Inadequate capacity. Implementation of policies and programs needed to reach UPE requires stronger technical and management capacity. Developing such capacity in sub-Saharan Africa has proven elusive. There is no panacea, but a successful strategy must focus more on creating working conditions that can better mobilize, utilize, and retain existing capacity rather than, as in the past, focusing largely on training and technical assistance to create new capacity.

HIV/AIDS. The pandemic will have an increasingly negative impact on education, as HIV-infected teachers become ill (increasing absenteeism and impairing their effectiveness) and die (reducing teacher supply), and through the rapid increase in orphans. Apart from the human suffering, this will substantially increase the costs associated with UPE. The problem is compounded by countries falling short in using education effectively for HIV/AIDS prevention.

Challenges for aid agencies

The attainment of UPE must be largely financed through domestic resources, but aid has an important supporting role—and may even become the dominant financing source over a transition period for some countries far away from UPE. Thus, it is vital to boost the volume of aid and improve its effectiveness.

On the volume front, there is some good news. In particular, the "Fast Track Initiative" launched in 2002 is becoming an important initiative for mobilizing more resources as well as for promoting more effective resource use through better programs and closer donor coordination. And there are indications that external financing is increasing. In addition, countries benefiting from debt relief under the enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative have committed to use an average of 40 percent of their debt payments savings on basic education. A recent review shows that countries are largely meeting this commitment.

More effective aid requires better donor coordination and enhanced aid predictability. In addition, priority should go to developing a specific strategy for slow-growing, low-income countries that need special sustained support to reach UPE by 2015. The strategy must deal with issues such as provision of more effective technical support for capacity building, support for nonperformers, and financially sustainable strategies for addressing the demand for secondary education resulting from UPE.

An ongoing, shared responsibility

The opportunity for sub-Saharan Africa to reach UPE by 2015 is greater now than at any time since the early 1980s. But turning this opportunity into reality will require major efforts—ones that will vary enormously by country. Even so, the following issues will frequently need to be addressed.

Capacity strengthening. Most education systems urgently need to strengthen their technical and management capacity, both through explicit investment and through learning by doing.

Domestic resource mobilization. Education expenditures already figure prominently in highly constrained public budgets, and most low-income countries have only modest scope for additional domestic resource mobilization or for reallocation within or across sectors. That said, additional domestic resources will be required if sharply increased aid dependency is to be avoided. To illustrate, a 2003 World Bank publication estimates that for low-income sub-Saharan countries to reach UPE by 2015, the share of external aid in education budgets would need to reach an average of 42 percent in 2015, up from about 30 percent in 2000 (Mingat, 2002). Other estimates of needed external aid are much higher.

Technical assistance. Recent increases in financial aid have not been matched by a commensurate increase in technical support. In fact, the trend toward providing education aid through budget support is leading many aid agencies to reduce their capacity to provide quality technical support. This trend is worrisome. Agencies need to revitalize their ability to offer strong technical staff who can provide high-quality advice and help diffuse good practices. In this connection, it is time to consider how UNESCO can be strengthened to provide such support.

* * * * *

While there are no easy paths to attaining UPE in Africa, the directions to take are reasonably clear and are followed by a number of countries. It is the task of national and international political leaders to put more countries on that path.


IMF and World Bank, 2005, Global Monitoring Report 2005 (Washington: IMF and World Bank).

Mingat, Alain, 2004, "La rémunération des enseignants de l´enseignement primaire dans les pays francophones d´Afrique sub-saharienne," Africa Region Human Development Department (Washington: World Bank).

Mingat, Alain, Jee-Peng Tan, and Ramahatra Rakotomalala, 2002, "Financing Education for All by 2015: Simulations for 33 African Countries," Africa Region Human Development Working Papers Series (Washington: World Bank).

Birger Fredriksen is the World Bank´s former Senior Education Advisor for sub-Saharan Africa.