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Africa’s Finance Ministers Look at Education as Opportunity, Not as Expenditure
The education sector plans of 34 developing countries – 21 in sub-Saharan Africa -- have been endorsed by the initiative, also called FTI. So far, the African FTI countries have received $849 million in grants from the initiatives Catalytic Fund for 2003 – 2008.
Around 50 officials from sub-Saharan African ministries of finance and central banks, including several ministers of finance, gathered during the recent World Bank – International Monetary Fund Spring Meetings to discuss the program in Africa.
The large turnout reflected the importance of education as an essential tool in building human and economic capital for competitive economies, particularly in many low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where education constitutes the single largest expenditure within the national budget.
“Africa is at the heart of our work: almost two thirds of the countries that we support are in sub-Saharan Africa and five more African countries will join FTI this year,” said Desmond Bermingham, head of the EFA FTI Secretariat.
He pointed out that ministers of finance and macroeconomic policy makers are not the ‘usual crowd’ for a meeting on education goals. “However,” he said, “it is evident to us that without finance there is no education, but without education there is no finance.”
Bob Prouty, deputy-head of the FTI Secretariat, noted that sub-Saharan Africa has made historical progress in the education field.
It is remarkable that many of the countries furthest behind have shown the greatest gains. Guinea, for example, experienced a growth in gross enrollment rate from 36 percent in 1990 to 82 percent in 2006. Madagascar’s primary completion rate – the percentage of children completing primary school – increased from 36 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in 2005.
“Despite this progress there is also bad news,” Prouty said. “Around 33 million children in sub-Saharan Africa are not in school today. The quality of education is, generally–speaking, low. Repetition rates are still too high despite recent progress and many children do not finish primary school.”
In most FTI countries 70 to 80 percent of the education investment reforms are financed domestically; donors are committed to bridge the remaining financing gap bilaterally and through FTI’s Catalytic Fund. The link with macroeconomic policies is critical. Malawi Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe illustrated how a stagnant national budget made educational reforms, and more specifically free basic education, extremely difficult.
“Malawi made a courageous move in 1994 by making basic education freely accessible,” he said. “Thousands of children were enrolling into school but the necessary donor support was lacking for several years. We could not make the investments that were necessary.”
The World Bank helps African countries to make progress within the FTI context. It provides diagnostic reports and analytical tools to aid high quality national education plans that are put forward for FTI endorsement. Through IDA it is one of the major investors in education.
“We support countries in their capacity to develop sound education plans and to implement them,” said Yaw Ansu, director for Human Development in the Bank’s Africa Region. “We all want the same thing: to provide children a quality education and we are here to help.”
A remark from the audience during the discussion questioned whether there was a trade-off between enrolling millions of children into primary school and its effect on the quality of education.
“We will continue to focus on providing education to the millions of African children that are currently out of school,” Ansu said. “That is the first step. We will also focus on significantly improving the quality of education and enhancing learning outcomes. With its very young population Africa has to educate its children. They will be the labor force and human capital twenty years from now. They will build economies that can compete with the rest of the world.”
Contributed by Angela Bekkers, Education for All Fast Track Initiative Secretariat.