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Post-2015 Consensus: Education Perspective, Orazem


52% of all primary-aged children who are not attending school are in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Moreover, 61% of the children expected to receive no primary schooling during their lifetimes reside in that region.  If we are to meet the Millennium Development Goal of Universal Primary Education for all, the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa represent the greatest challenge. It is inconceivable that UNESCO’s estimate of the need for an extra $26bn annually to achieve universal global primary education will be met via increased foreign aid. This allows international agencies to blame failures to achieve Universal Primary Education (UPE) on lack of funds, but we should note that the estimated funding gap has steadily increased while the number of children out of school as decreased. 

There are, in fact, other reasons for the failure. First, it is clear that not all governments are using their resources for the intended purpose; corrupt countries show poor returns to human capital. Some of the worst countries as measured by the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States index are in sub-Saharan Africa and it is unsurprising that their schooling record is also poor. Out-of-school children in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia or Zimbabwe are unlikely to attend school even if aid is increased.

A second major problem in the region is the large proportion of children who have lost one or both parents. Sub-Saharan Africa has 36% of the children worldwide who have lost at least one parent and 47% of those who have lost both. The effects of parental loss on schooling are insignificant in some countries where there are strong extended family linkages to provide support. However, in most countries the problem is getting worse rather than better, with concerns that extended families can no longer provide enough financial and emotional support.

There is widespread acceptance that policies aimed at enhancing human capital investments should focus on the very young, but it is less clear how best to target resources. Experiments such as the famous Perry preschool program for disadvantaged children showed higher cognitive scores on entering school for children who had followed a two-year pre-school program. Although these differences soon disappeared, these children were found to have advantages in later life, being more likely to finish high school, go to college, have steady employment and avoid criminal activity. 

The difficulty is that the Perry program included other interventions with the family in addition to pre-schooling, so the effect of pre-school alone is not easy to define. Similarly, in developing countries there are numerous pre-school programs which appear to have generated positive long-term results, but these might in part be due to the provision of nutritional supplements or health services. Devoting substantial resources to preschool programs without first deconstructing past successes into the value added from each subcomponent is premature.  And any effort to expand preschool must also establish why these programs have not been universally successful.

In conclusion, we must assess whether insufficient pre-school access is the root cause of failure to achieve UPE. It seems unlikely that a country will ever attain UPE without first addressing the problems of orphans and dysfunctional government institutions.