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Ethiopia and Liberia: diverse challenges of meeting education goals

By Benjamin Falanga
Posted on Tuesday, 9 July 2019 20:03

Children file into classrooms in Monrovia. REUTERS/James Giahyue

As the UN High-Level Political Forum on sustainable development kicks off in New York, The Africa Report compares Ethiopia and Liberia's trajectories in the quest for Goal 4: Education for All.

Education and sustainable development are inherently linked, which is why enabling inclusive and quality education for the world’s children is one of the international community’s main goals. But while a third of the way has been covered since the definition of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, UNESCO’s new projections prepared for this year’s UN High-Level Political Forum show that the world will not fulfil its commitments in the field of education without more action.

  • Whereas the goal is to ensure that all children should be in school by 2030, one in six children aged 6 to 17 will not be.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, 50% of young people will still not complete secondary education at the current rate of inclusion.

Investment in education varies dramatically from country to country depending on government priorities and levels of poverty, armed conflict and other emergencies. Sub-Saharan Africa recorded some of the best progress in primary school enrolment among developing regions, rising from 52% in 1990 to 78% in 2012. However, results vary from country to country.

  • Among the 64 million primary school-age children who are still out of school, more than half are in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Nigeria has the largest number of children in the world who are not being educated, with about 10.5 million children out of school.

However, access does not always mean quality of education or completion of primary education. While the average country sends every third citizen into higher education, in sub-Saharan Africa fewer than one in 10 make it to university.

Different trajectories

Governments have the primary responsibility to guarantee the right to quality education, but the trajectories taken by countries are diverse. According to the director of UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report, Manos Antoninis: “Countries have interpreted the meaning of the targets in the global education goal very differently. This seems correct, given that countries set off from such different starting points. But they must not deviate too much from the promises they made back in 2015. If countries match their plans with their commitments now, they can get back on track by 2030.”

Ethiopia and Liberia are two sub-Saharan African countries at opposite ends of the scale. Ethiopia is bucking the trends and devotes the third-largest percentage of its budget to education among all countries in the world. Liberia is faltering at the bottom, and, despite significant progress in the 2000s, the country allocates low budgetary expenditures to education.

Ethiopia: high spending, but mixed results

The Ethiopian government recognises the importance of education for national development. Its policy aims to enable Ethiopia to become a middle-income country by 2030 by making higher education its main tool for poverty reduction and economic development. Given that children and young people represent 48% of the population, Ethiopia expects to lift itself out of poverty by ensuring that children have access to quality education. Ethiopia has made striking progress in education, with primary school enrolment tripling between 2000 and 2016.

The country has one of the highest enrolment rates in Africa – astonishing in comparison to the early 1990s, when it had one of the lowest in the world. As the second-most advanced country in terms of overall progress in national education systems compared to the previous decade, according to the UN Education for All Development Index, Ethiopia increased youth literacy from 34% in 2000 to 52% in 2011. To obtain this, the government almost doubled the share of its budget allocated to education, from 15% to 27% between 2000 and 2013.

But although Ethiopia’s education system appears to be in good health, this masks a deep unease.

  • Only 25% of secondary school-age children are enrolled in secondary school.
  • 63% of first-cycle primary school students do not achieve the basic learning outcomes necessary for success in higher education.

One of the problems is drop-out rates for teachers posted to remote areas in the Ethiopian highlands. Their plight is illustrated by by the case of Thomas Yilma, who told Quartz Africa: “I felt like I was being abandoned in the middle of nowhere”. There is scant motivation and even less support for young teachers setting out to areas with poor electricity, phone or internet coverage.

Despite the fact that the education system is free and compulsory, only 60% of children are in school full time. Poor facilities and disadvantaged environments prevent many children from receiving the quality and full-time education targeted by the Sustainable Development Goals.

Liberia: rebuilding education after war and Ebola

Years ago, Liberia’s education system had a good reputation. Lincoln Ajoku, an education adviser at Concern, told the NGO: “My father told me that when he was growing up in Nigeria, if you wanted to study in West Africa, there was a good chance that you would go to Liberia because of the quality of the universities there.”

The effects of a 14-year civil war, aggravated by the 2014 Ebola epidemic, have dealt the Liberian school system a lasting blow, however.

  • The rate of out-of-school children is one of the highest in the world, with 15-20% of children aged 6 to 14 not in school.
  • In 2013, out of 25,000 secondary school students, none of them managed to achieve the minimum pass mark for admission to the University of Liberia.
  • A recent study found that among adult women who had finished primary school, only one in four could read a sentence.
  • The state of education in Liberia is further exacerbated by the lack of classrooms, schools and teachers.

The government of Liberia has recognised that the education situation in the country is a human rights imperative. Lacking the funds to solve the problem on its own, it launched Partnership Schools for Liberia, an initiative to improve primary education in Liberia by working with private national and international partners. Liberia is still in the process of rebuilding its education system, but without major changes the situation could remain precarious by 2030.

Heading for the summit

On 24 and 25 September 2019, heads of state and governments will meet at the UN headquarters in New York to monitor in detail the progress made in the implementation of Agenda 2030 for SDGs. This, the first UN summit on the SDGs since their adoption, should provide an opportunity for a broad debate on education-related issues.

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