Investing in Africa's Educators – Project Syndicate

JOHANNESBURG – Improving education is a slow, arduous, long-term undertaking everywhere, and nowhere more so than in Africa, where tight economic constraints often prevent sustained investment in human capital. Those who work in the education sector on the continent have to seek solutions that are faster, cheaper, and can be scaled up.

Too often, though, expedient approaches prove shortsighted, and fail to engage local leaders who hold the keys to economic and social progress. Too often, grassroots-level voices, reflecting firsthand experience addressing their communities’ problems, are ignored.

When global leaders gather in Hamburg this week for the G20 summit, the new G20-Africa Partnership will take center stage. But those committed to helping Africa should focus squarely on the nuts and bolts of aid and development – and that means investing in local leadership.

Sadly, the best-funded aid organizations in Africa are often run by Westerners, or by Africans who have extensive ties to the West. I recently spoke to several entrepreneurs who shared anecdotal evidence that organizations in Africa with a Western co-founder raise more than twice the funds of African-run organizations. This financial prejudice is visible elsewhere, too, and it is perpetuating the dearth of local talent.

The pro-Western bias should worry everyone working to build better communities for our children. When it comes to addressing social issues – whether it’s educational inequity, poverty, or discrimination – the most committed advocates are those who have first-hand knowledge of the problem they seek to solve. Personal experience is the best way to create agents for change, because it underpins people’s long-term, personal investment in dismantling systems that exacerbate inequity and injustice.

What would it look like if the leaders overhauling such systems were cultivated from the very communities that needed them most? Some organizations are answering that question already.

More than 12,000 people have applied to join Teach For Nigeria, a national organization that recruits, trains, and places young teachers in high-need schools. The program, designed as a fellowship, will choose fewer than 60 of Nigeria’s brightest university graduates and professionals, not only to develop excellent classroom teachers, but also to empower the next generation of social entrepreneurs committed to tackling inequity and deeply connected to local efforts already underway in communities across their country.

After their two-year teaching commitment, which begins in September, these up-and-coming leaders will join a worldwide movement of over 55,000 people who have completed the fellowship in over 40 countries, including the 30 fellows already hard at work next door at Teach for Ghana. We call this powerful grouping of change-agents “collective leadership,” and we believe it is the only way to ensure positive, lasting change.

Inadequate investment in locally led initiatives is one of the two ways in which we fail to ensure that those who are most affected by inequity have pathways to address it. The second is the failure to invest in children. In Uganda, 70% of children do not complete primary school. Basic education is the foundation for our lifelong ability to analyze information, present ideas and opinions, and challenge the world around us. And yet, in too many African communities, we are failing to invest in laying those foundations.

Across the continent, educational attainment is sharply stratified: while 82% of children from the wealthiest families complete primary school, only 28% of children from the poorest families do. If the future of the continent is to be shaped by, or with, those who have most acutely experienced its challenges, programs like Teach for Nigeria and Teach for Ghana are essential.

Imagine what could be accomplished if efforts to place local recruits in low-income schools were expanded. Imagine how many opportunities to address the challenges facing children and families could be created, potentially reaching hundreds of thousands of children who are also inspired and encouraged to think critically and resolve the problems affecting the world around them.

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Some argue that education is meaningless if graduates cannot find work; in fact, job creation in Africa will be a major topic of discussion at the G20 summit. But while investment in business development and job creation is crucial for economic vitality and growth, it won’t happen without an educated workforce. A robust job market presupposes a sufficient number of skilled workers to fill available jobs. But in Sub-Saharan Africa, only 58% of children complete primary school.

This is why, when G20 leaders discuss new economic development strategies for Africa, they should focus on investment in education. But, more important, they should seek to ensure that resources make it to those who rely on local leadership and innovation. Sustainable Development Goal 4 – to ensure equitable and inclusive education for all by 2030 – is attainable, but only if solutions come from the ground up, which means from the Africans most committed to them.