According to some estimates, by the end of the 21st century half of the world’s children will live in Africa (Bold et al., 2017, p. 197 citing You, Hug, & Anthony, 2014)). Currently, millions of children in low-income countries, including many in the African continent, complete their primary education lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills, a situation that UNESCO (UNESCO, 2013, p. 2) has referred to as The Global Learning Crisis. Despite, and perhaps partly as a result of, greatly increased enrollment in primary education in developing nations, the low-quality instruction, flat learning curves, poor outcomes, and regional discrepancies in education in low-income nations remain a challenge of global development (Arunatilake & Jayawardena, 2010, pp. 44–47; Chapman, Burton, & Werner, 2010, p. 77; Sandefur, 2012a; UWAZI, 2010, p. 3; Watkins, 2012a).
Global level actors like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank exert significant influence on decision-making and education policy development in developing nations, and governments feel pressure to enact suggested reforms that bring with them grants and funding (Kingdon et al., 2014, p. 2; Steiner-Khamsi, 2014, p. 156). However, there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of some of these reforms; the Education for All Fast Track Initiative may have actually disrupted national structures and weakened reform for quality education in some instances (Kingdon et al., 2014, p. 20). Strong and motivated central leadership is needed within developing nations to chart a course out of the global education crisis (Kingdon et al., 2014, p. 19).
Unfortunately, such leadership currently seems to be in short supply. State control of education in developing nations is generally weak and of low capacity, providing little support to districts and schools and resulting in lower student performance (Bold et al., 2017, p. 186; Kingdon et al., 2014, p. 4). The state governance that is present is often corrupt and steeped in clientelism and patronage, pushing states to expand access to, but not quality of education (Kingdon et al., 2014, p. 2). In Africa, leaders have done little meaningful work in in transforming education for the better, with policy-making too often shaped by commercial interests (Dlamini, 2008, p. 3). In 2006, Uganda adopted free Universal Secondary Education (USE) as a means of garnering political support with little attention to system capacity or involvement of school-level stakeholders (Chapman et al., 2010, p. 77). In Tanzania, state disbursements of capitation funds to schools are typically less than budgets suggest, deviate significantly from the mean at the district level, and often late, unpredictably timed, or parceled in amounts too small to be effectively utilized (UWAZI, 2010, pp. 7–9). Furthermore, weak central oversight to ensure proper resource use has resulted in the use of pirated resources of dubious quality, and books left unpurchased or unused in storage (UWAZI, 2010, pp. 7–9).
Clearly, stronger state governance and leadership in educational policy-making and oversight is needed, as weak local administration and the limited ability of local communities to voice their preferences limits the benefit of decentralization in developing countries compared to more developed nations with strong democracies, social infrastructure, and empowered citizenry (Arunatilake & Jayawardena, 2010, p. 46; Barrera-Osorio, Fasih, Patrinos, & Santibanez, 2009, p. 10). Developing nations have been shown to benefit from centralized control, and the scope of the issues faced in developing nations, from extreme malnutrition, child labor, and gender disparity require action and financing at the national level to address (Kingdon et al., 2014, p. 29; Watkins, 2012b).
According to Patrick Awuah, founder of Ashesi University College in Ghana, “Africa can only be transformed by enlightened leaders and . . . the manner in which we educate our leaders is fundamental to progress on this continent.” (Awuah, 2017, 0:30). Charting a course out of the global education crisis will require leaders in developing nations to support an increase in democratic processes, a reduction in corruption, and a shift from eurocentric and colonial policy and practice (Dlamini, 2008, p. 3; Kingdon et al., 2014, p. 3). Governments need to increase their capacity to support education at the district and school level, provide equitable public financing for early education, and ensure accountability from the ministry to the classroom level through inspections and development of social accountability infrastructure (Arunatilake & Jayawardena, 2010, pp. 46–52; Watkins, 2012a, 2012b). Where leadership failures are too expansive to quickly address, some nations may benefit from accessing balanced solutions from the private sector temporarily as a more timely way to address student learning needs in their individual context (Sandefur, 2012b; Watkins, 2012b).
The right to an education is universal and most governments have promised to protect this right of their citizens in their national constitutions (UNESCO, 2013, p. 1). It is the responsibility of governments in the developing world, with support from international aid providers as required, to provide the leadership needed to keep this promise and begin charting a course out of the global learning crisis.
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Sandefur, J. (2012b, August 9). Private schools or public? Justin Sandefur responds to Kevin Watkins (and this time you can vote). Retrieved June 3, 2018, from https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/private-schools-or-public-justin-sandefur-responds-to-kevin-watkins/
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Watkins, K. (2012a, July 26). Holding out for the super-voucher: Kevin Watkins responds to Justin Sandefur on private v public education. Retrieved June 3, 2018, from https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/holding-out-for-the-super-voucher-kevin-watkins-responds-to-justin-sandefur-on-private-v-public-education/
Watkins, K. (2012b, August 10). Education wonkwar: the final salvo. Kevin Watkins responds to Justin Sandefur on public v private (and the reader poll is still open). Retrieved June 3, 2018, from https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/education-wonkwar-the-final-salvo-kevin-watkins-responds-to-justin-sandefur-on-public-v-private-and-the-reader-poll-is-still-open/
Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 18 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.