Deepening Democracy through Access to Information
Home / Opinion / Latest Opinions RSS ← Back

Email this article

separate emails by commas, maximum limit of 4 addresses

Sponsored by


Embed Video

Towards universal primary education: Africa’s progress in meeting the 2nd Millennium Development Goal

6th October 2010

By: In On Africa IOA


Font size: -+

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were formulated at the United Nations (UN) Leaders Summit in 2000.(2) The MDGs are eight internationally recognised targets that aim to reduce poverty, hunger, maternal and child deaths, disease, inadequate shelter, gender inequality and environmental degradation by 2015.(3) Since their inception, the MDGs have occupied the attention of numerous agencies like the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and many bilateral organisations, all of which support the notion of having standardised parameters of development, with the end goal of improving the quality of political, social and economic spheres across the globe. To this end, Africa has tailored many Governmental, regional and continental policies aimed at attaining the MDGs.



According to a report launched by the African Union Commission (AUC), the African Development Bank, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), entitled Assessing Progress in Africa Toward the Millennium Development Goals, Africa has made steady progress on the MDGs.(4) The report gives evidence of this, reporting that as of 2009, Rwanda was ranked first in the world, with over 50% women's representation in the national Parliament. In addition, Angola, Burundi, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda have more than a quarter women representatives in Parliament. Also, Mali, Senegal and Togo are on track on the HIV and AIDS target, while in 2008, Botswana, Comoros, Mauritius, Namibia and South Africa reached over 90% coverage for access to safe drinking water.(5) In the words of Helen Clark, the Administrator of UNDP, the evidence speaks for itself, "when the right policies are in place, scores can be lifted out of poverty rapidly, which means quite simply better lives for millions of Africans".(6)



Few global goals have been as consistently and deeply supported as the notion that every child in every country should have the chance to complete at least a primary education.(7) A completed primary education is a basic human right and is necessary for enjoying many other rights. It is transformative and empowering, and a means for accessing broad economic, social, political and cultural benefits.(8) As such, African Governments have been especially dedicated to meeting MDG number 2, whose target is to ensure that by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.(9) It is the aim of this paper to assess the progress that Africa has made at attaining this target. The paper will first outline the importance of this particular MDG, then give an overview of Africa's progress with regards to this goal and end by exploring the obstacles that would potentially impede Africa's chance of reaching this goal by 2015. It will become apparent that contrary to the rhetoric that ‘‘Africa. . .is the only continent not on track to meet any of the goals of the Millennium Declaration by 2015",(10) the continent has made significant strides in ensuring that all children will have access to primary education within the required timeframe.

The case for education


As the popular saying goes, ‘knowledge is power' and this is especially true in Africa. As a continent that is composed entirely of developing states, it is imperative that Africa makes a concerted effort at empowering its people. Education is one of the most significant avenues through which this aspiration can be realised. Studies have shown that more equitable distribution of education is correlated with lower poverty and inequality and faster economic growth. Education, and particularly primary education is a powerful driver of progress toward the other MDGs. Greater education for girls has strong positive impacts on the health of infants and children, immunisation rates, family nutrition, and the next generation's schooling attainment. New data from Africa shows that education for girls and boys may be the single most effective preventive weapon against HIV & AIDS. Primary education also contributes to better natural resource management, including conservation of the tropical rain forest.(11)


Investment in education has many long-term advantages. Combined with sound macroeconomic policies, education is fundamental for the construction of globally competitive economies and democratic societies. Education is key to creating, applying, and spreading new ideas and technologies that in turn are critical for sustained growth; where it augments cognitive and other skills, which in turn increases labour productivity. The expansion of educational opportunity is a "win-win" strategy that in most societies is far easier to implement than the redistribution of other assets such as land or capital.(12) Ultimately, education builds on what Amartya Sen calls "human capabilities" - the essential and individual power to reflect, make choices, seek a voice in society, and enjoy a better life.(13) In short, education is one of the most powerful instruments known for reducing poverty and inequality and for laying the basis for sustained economic growth, sound governance, and effective institutions.(14)


This is not to say that education is the ‘holy grail' of poverty alleviation and development. However, the outcomes of investing in education are multiple-fold. While giving food aid only alleviates hunger, investing in education has a ripple effect; influencing numerous spheres of development, and in effect furthering the progress in attaining all the MDG targets. To further support this claim, findings from the Education for All Global Monitoring Report show that:


• 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills - that is equivalent to a 12% drop in the number of people living on less than US$ 1.25 a day (MDG 1-Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger);

• In Kenya, if women farmers are given the same education opportunities as their male peers, their yields for maize, beans and cowpeas increase by up to 22% (MDG 3-Promote gender equality and empower women);

• A child born to a mother who can read is 50% more likely to survive past the age of 5, and in sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 1.8 million children's lives could have been saved in 2008 if their mothers had at least secondary education (MDG 4-Reduce child mortality);

• In Burkina Faso, mothers with secondary education are twice as likely to give birth more safely in health facilities as those with no education (MDG 5-Improve maternal health); and

• In Malawi, the share of women who know that HIV transmission risks can be reduced by taking drugs during pregnancy is only 27% for women without any education, but rises to 59% for women with secondary education (MDG 6-Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases).(15)

The case for education becomes clear. Furthermore, a UNICEF study has shown that the traditional thinking that focusing on the poorest and most disadvantaged children is not cost-effective, is untrue. In fact, targeting the poorest and most disadvantaged children could save more lives per US$ 1 million spent than the current path being pursued.(16) Therefore, the strategy of focusing on education is not just morally correct, it is also economically prudent.


Africa's progress


The progress Africa has made has been gradual, but significant nonetheless. The continent has made tremendous strides in achieving universal education with 76% net enrolment in primary education in 2008, up from 58% in 1999. There were close to 91 girls per 100 boys in schools in 2008, up from 85 in 1999, and this is a tremendous achievement in a continent whose societies are stratified along gender lines.


There are two main indicators used to measure progress in education, the first is net enrolment in primary education. African countries have continued to show overall progress in net enrolment in primary education. Of the 27 countries with data for 1991 and 2007, seven countries: Ethiopia, Guinea, Malawi, Mali, Madagascar, Mauritania, and Morocco, scored a significant improvement of 30 to 50 percentage points. Burkina Faso, Burundi, Djibouti, The Gambia, Ghana, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Swaziland, and Togo also succeeded in improving primary net enrolment by some 10 to 30 percentage points during this period. Increasing primary education expenditure is critical for raising the primary enrolment rate. It has been shown that countries that allocate at least 50% of their education budget to primary education have the fastest rate of progress in education.


The second marker is the primary completion rate. This is a measure of how many students remain in school till the end of their primary school career.(17) This measure is imperative, as it is a fuller indication of how many children have received primary education and are eligible to continue to secondary school. While MDG 2 is specific to primary education, its proposal does have long-term education goals that aim at increasing the number of students enrolled at secondary and tertiary institutions on the continent. Moreover, this marker is helpful when lobbying for the scaling-up of investments - both public and private. The allocation of more funds to education is more clearly justified when the children enrolled at school stay on to complete their studies.(18)


Africa's challenges


The first of Africa's challenges is with regards to retention. While it is vital to get children into school, to receive the full benefits of this education, children must remain in school. In half the countries in sub-Saharan Africa with data available, more than 30% of primary school students drop out before reaching the final grade.(19) Current statistics show that about 38 million children drop out of school each year in Africa alone.(20) The inability to provide universal primary education and to subsequently keep those students in school has had adverse effects on youth and adult literacy rates across the world. According to figures for 2000-2007, approximately 125 million youth and around 760 million adults are illiterate. One-third of youth illiterates and one-fifth of adult illiterates are in sub-Saharan Africa, with two-thirds of these being African women.(21)


The second challenge is that of the quality of education. According to the Deprivation and Marginalisation in Education (DME) data, while the vast majority of adults in rich countries will have accumulated 10 to 15 years of education, nearly one out of three in the 22 countries covered by the DME have fewer than four years of education. In eleven of these countries, the figure rises to 50%. In 26 countries, 20% or more of those aged 17 to 22 have fewer than two years of schooling. Marginalised individuals and groups do not just accumulate fewer years of education, but often receive a poor-quality education that results in low levels of learning achievement.(22)


This challenge is directly influenced by the third challenge - lack of financing and poverty. Given that nearly 1.4 billion people live on less than US$ 1.25 a day, household poverty is one of the strongest and most persistent factors contributing to educational marginalisation and, therefore, a formidable barrier to reach the MDG 2. Furthermore, group-based identities such as ethnicity, race, language and culture are also among the deepest fault lines in education, and are often reflected in human geography. People living in slums, remote rural areas or conflict-affected zones are typically among the poorest and most vulnerable in any society, and are underserved in education. The marginalisation of specific groups in educational systems is underpinned by the lack of finances. When the resources to provide primary education to the whole nation are limited, political and social prejudices skew the distribution of quality education. This is to the detriment of less privileged minorities, women and disabled individuals.




Indeed, Africa has made great strides in ensuring that MDG 2 is reached. Making sure that all children have access to primary education by 2015 has multiple advantages. Not only does it enrich the lives of the individuals concerned, it empowers people in the universal fight against poverty. While the progress to attaining the MDGs has been slow, evidence shows that Africa is gradually climbing the ladder of development. The Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, Abdoulie Janneh has commented that "There are strong indications that the MDGs are achievable, provided African countries and their development partners can redouble their efforts to achieve the goals."(23) This is further asserted by Donald Kaberuka, President of the African Development Bank Group, "given the encouraging achievements made, international support for the MDGs in Africa remains high but it must be scaled up if we are to achieve wide-ranging success."(24)


These calls for increased efforts must be taken up by African Governments. In order to combat the abovementioned challenges, Africa must implement more strategic policies at the national, regional and continental levels. The most important determinant in the acceleration of achieving universal primary education is political will. Governments must be mobilised to prioritise education above other political issues. Without Governmental support, effective policies will not be implemented. Good governance is also imperative, as greater accountability, participation and transparency can improve the efficiency with which available resources, financial and otherwise, are allocated and used. Such efforts, together with adequate aid, will accelerate Africa's quest in attaining the MDGs. While 2015 is not as far as was envisioned when the MDGs were proposed, hope cannot be lost now. Even if Africa does not meet 100% completion of all the MDGs, no sober mind would discount the development it has achieved in such a short amount of time.

Written by: Shingirai Maparura (1)


(1) Contact Shingirai Maparura through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit (
(2) United Nations website,
(3) Emmanuela Citterio, ‘Africa: Steady Progress on the MDGs', Afronline, 21 September 2010,
(4) ‘Assessing Progress in Africa Toward the Millennium Development Goals', African Union, 21 September 2010
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Bruns. B. Mingat. A & Rakotomalala. R. Achieving Universal Primary Education by 2015: A Chance for Every Child. World Bank Report, 2003.
(8) United Nations Development Group, Thematic Paper on MDG2: Achieve Universal Primary Education, 2010,
(9) Ibid.
(10) Easterly W, How the Millennium Development Goals are Unfair to Africa. World Development. 37(1). Pp. 26-35, 2009.
(11) World Bank website,
(12) Ibid.
(13) Alexander J, Republican Freedom and Amartya Sen's Theory of Capabilities. Human Development and Capability Association conference Ideas Changing History, 17 - 20 September 2007, New School, New York.
(14) Ibid.
(15) ‘World leaders and experts meet to raise the profile of education on the development agenda', UNICEF, 21 September 2010,
(16) ‘New UNICEF study shows MDGs for children can be reached faster with focus on most disadvantaged', UNICEF, 7 September 2010,
(17) Ibid.
(18) Ibid.
(19) Ibid.
(20) Ibid.
(21) Ibid.
(22) Ibid.
(23) Ibid.
(24) Ibid.




To subscribe email or click here
To advertise email or click here

Comment Guidelines

About is a product of Creamer Media.

Other Creamer Media Products include:
Engineering News
Mining Weekly
Research Channel Africa

Read more


We offer a variety of subscriptions to our Magazine, Website, PDF Reports and our photo library.

Subscriptions are available via the Creamer Media Store.

View store


Advertising on is an effective way to build and consolidate a company's profile among clients and prospective clients. Email

View options
Free daily email newsletter Register Now