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July 06, 2006—After decades of setbacks in education, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are sending more children to school and taking steps to improve education quality. But the region still needs help from wealthy nations to achieve universal education by 2015, says a global partnership of donors and developing countries.
“We have seen that progress is possible when political will and resources come together,” says Desmond Bermingham, the new head of the global compact on education, known as the Fast Track Initiative (FTI).
“Our challenge is to help poor countries sustain the increases while improving quality and ensuring that all children complete their schooling,” he adds.
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Enrollment rates in Sub-Saharan Africa increased from 83 percent in 2000 to 95 percent in 2002, sending an additional 17 million students to school, says FTI.
But only about 65 percent of primary school-aged children were enrolled in primary schools in 2004, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics.
And only 56 percent of children who go to primary school (grades one to five) complete it, says FTI.
Education Reform in Madagascar
The island African nation of Madagascar qualified for Education for All Fast Track Initiative financing in May 2005. But the country had already begun to revive an education system that declined during the 1980s and '90s.
Education reforms began in earnest in 2002 with the election of a new government “highly committed to primary education,” says Sajitha Bashir, Senior Education Economist in the World Bank's Africa region.
Primary school enrollment rates surged to 98 percent when school user fees were abolished at the end of 2002. Enrollment currently stands at 3.6 million; 89 percent of primary-aged children were enrolled in primary schools in 2004, according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics. The number of students completing primary school has climbed from 47 percent in 2004 to 60 percent in 2006.
With the help of funds from a seven-year World Bank project that ended in March 2005, the government provided grants to 90 percent of schools, distributed basic school kits to 3.4 million primary students in public and private schools, and teacher kits to over 47,000 teachers in 2003-04. The government has used funds from other Bank programs and from other donors to construct 1,200 new classrooms, provide grants for community teachers, and train nearly 50,000 teachers.
Despite these efforts, 272,000 primary age children still don't go to school, 136,000 of them girls. And only 31 out of every 100 students go on to secondary school.
In early 2005, the government began developing a long-term, comprehensive education strategy, with an eye on obtaining Fast Track Initiative (FTI) financing to accelerate progress.
In the past year, the Catalytic Fund of the Fast Track Initiative has disbursed US$6 million of the first year grant of $10 million to, among other things, support teacher salaries and local innovations for improving access to and quality of primary education.
Madagascar will receive another $50 million in the next two years from the FTI. The country is revising its education plan to introduce major reforms in primary education to expand access, reform the curriculum, introduce new materials and hire and train teachers. The revised plan will program the use of the additional funds from the FTI and other donors.
Bashir says Fast Track funding means Madagascar will get more financing as a grant much more quickly-over two years, versus seven under the World Bank project.
It also means donors will expect to see results more quickly, making the government more accountable, she points out.
The FTI Catalytic Fund pools donor funds that may have otherwise gone to small, separate projects and puts the money directly into the government's education sector plan, thereby avoiding a “fragmented approach” to education development that “debilitates the capacity-building of the Ministry,” Bashir says.
“Donors may provide technical support, but otherwise, the money is managed by the Ministry-and they learn from that experience,” she says.
An estimated 40 million children in Sub-Saharan Africa do not go to school at all.
Despite the fact that the international community sees education as essential to economic growth, poverty reduction, and fighting diseases such as AIDS, there is still much more to be done to accelerate progress in education, according to FTI.
“If we are to achieve the 2015 Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education, both donor and developing countries must dramatically step up their financial, political and technical assistance contributions,” Bermingham says.
Education in Africa and the world’s other developing regions is expected to be high on the Group of Eight Summit agenda in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 15-17.
G8 countries pledged at last year’s summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, to help Africa make faster progress toward good quality, free, and compulsory education, with the goal of promoting economic growth and breaking the cycle of poverty on the continent.
G8 support for universal education is “in principle very very strong,” with all G8 countries “fully committed” to the effort, says Bermingham, formerly of the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID).
“The challenge is now to turn pledges into action,” Bermingham says.
In early April, the UK announced it would give an extra US$15 billion in aid to education over the next decade.
The European Commission has pledged US$76 million to the Fast Track Initiative, launched in 2002 to coordinate education donations and technical support for poor countries that develop plans to strengthen their education systems.
Russia recently pledged US$7 million to FTI—the first ever Russian financial contribution to global education efforts—and is considering further financing, says Bermingham.
Other donors, such as The Netherlands and Norway, have made large contributions to the Initiative and/or to complementary programs.
But the Initiative needs as much as US$10 billion annually to meet the goal of getting 100 million children worldwide into school by 2015.
And, more immediately, it needs US$2.3 billion to help several countries that are almost ready to join the Initiative.
In addition, long term and predictable support from donors is needed for FTI to be a credible source of assistance and to expand to help more countries, says Bermingham. Without secure financing, politically risky reforms countries have put in place could be reversed, FTI warns.
“Predictable financing is a key priority,” Bermingham says. “It’s difficult to, say, recruit teachers if you don’t know from one year to the next exactly how much money you’re going to get.”
Credible Education Plans
To be endorsed by FTI and eligible for financing, poor countries must have a “credible” plan to send more children to school and to raise the quality of education. FTI endorsement encourages countries to take ownership of crafting national education plans, with budget accountability and a greater commitment of political and financial resources all with the aim of accelerating progress toward universal primary education.
The Fast Track partnership coordinates the efforts of donors and poor countries around the common goal of education and enables countries to make long term education plans. It also attempts to attract and mobilize the resources to pay for schools, roads, teachers, text books and other improvements.
FTI has directly provided US$90 million to endorsed countries trying to send more children to school.
Estimates indicate that there are 20 million more children in Sub-Saharan African schools now than in the 1980s. And an assessment of FTI-endorsed countries finds that some have doubled school enrollments since 2000.
“Kenya, for instance, increased enrollment by a million almost overnight after abolishing school fees in 2003,” says Bermingham.
Ghana primary school enrollments increased by 14 percent after user fees were abolished in 2005.
In Niger, hiring 2,500 teachers per year led to a 61 percent increase in primary school enrollments between 1998 and 2003.
The Initiative so far has endorsed the education plans of 20 countries including 12 African countries—Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritania, Mozambique, and Niger. Another seven African countries expect endorsement over the next six months.
If FTI receives enough pledges, it could help up to 60 countries develop comprehensive plans for universal education benefiting over 70 million children, FTI says.