Africa: Using Education to Develop a New Social Contract for Africa

Advocating for education as a key enabler and equalizer and the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world

The Fifth Session of the Committee on Social Policy, Poverty and Gender is will take place in Addis this month to discuss ways of creating opportunities for all on the road to development.

Organised by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), this year’s theme is “Building New Social Contracts in Africa: Choices to Fulfil Developmental Aspirations.”

The theme responds to UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ call for a new social contract that creates “equal opportunities for all” and recognizes “the rights and freedoms of all” in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In our new paper, we advocate for education as a key enabler and equalizer. In the words of Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.”

Regaining precious ground

A series of conflicts, climate disasters and debt distress has reversed the gains of recent decades in Africa. Millions more are now poor or migrant.

What’s more, years of inadequate and inefficient public spending on social programs have stalled progress on the people-related goals.

Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.” — Nelson Mandela”Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.— Nelson Mandela

On average, African countries spend 3-4 per cent and 5.49 per cent of gross domestic product on education and health respectively, well below UNESCO’s recommended 4-6 per cent and the World Health Organization’s global average of 7.11 per cent.

According to the International Monetary Fund, spending inefficiencies have cost Africa more than US$40 billion annually in education and infrastructure and US$28 billion in health between 2000 and 2017.

For greater stability, the UNECA seeks to rally government leaders and policymakers around innovative ways to strengthen their social policy agenda and improve their public spending.

The goal is to provide socio-economic mobility and protection to all.

The strategy is to forge new social contracts that ensure equal rights and opportunities for all.

Using education as a key enabler

How countries form their new social contracts will vary depending on individual country circumstances.

In our issues paper for discussion, we use education as an entry point to tackle many other Sustainable Development Goals.

The new social contract … must integrate employment, sustainable development and social protection.— António Guterres, Secretary-General, United Nations

According to the Report on the 2022 Transforming Education Summit Convened by the UN Secretary-General, people equipped with skills and knowledge can make more informed decisions, pursue healthier lives and respond to national and global development challenges.

We focus on the three ‘A’s — affordability, accessibility and applicability — that can influence people’s behaviour and help policymakers to address structural barriers posed by poverty and inequality.

  • Affordable education, especially for poor populations, can reduce inequality and poverty and promote employment and inclusive development. Interventions such as cash transfers, which Cameroon successfully adopted, have increased the likelihood of children’s enrolling in school by 30 per cent, when household income increases by 1 per cent.
  • Access to education to urban and rural populations can increase social mobility and, hence, more equitable growth. For example, research in Ghana, Mozambique and Nigeria has shown that children whose travel time to school is more than 30 minutes have poorer learning and writing outcomes. Infrastructural planning can mitigate such challenges to children’s learning abilities.
  • Applicability of education refers to tailoring education programmes so that they improve quality, strengthen institutional credibility, and match education to employable skills. Some African countries like Ethiopia have explored co-locating various educational institutions in industrial and technology parks to strengthen the skills and labour pipeline. Three A’s — affordability, accessibility and applicability — can help policymakers to addressstructural barriers.

Three A’s — affordability, accessibility and applicability — can help policymakers to addressstructural barriers.

Preparing young people for the future

To prepare the workforce for the jobs of the future, policymakers and educators can ask whether their current curricula are fit for purpose.