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What Africa can learn from COVID-19 about investing in education


Dr. Charles Murigande is a former Rwandan minister of education and until his retirement in June 2020, he was the deputy vice-chancellor in charge of institutional development at the University of Rwanda.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided a lesson for Africa’s education sector: The continent must assume greater responsibility to address an unprecedented learning crisis. Africa must better address a crisis that threatens the vision of a knowledge-based society able to survive in a global and competitive environment. 

Exacerbating learning poverty 

Since the launch of the Millennium Development Goals (MGDs) in 2000 and the creation of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) in 2002 (initially known as Education for All-Fast Track Initiative (EFA-FTI), hundreds of millions of children in low-income countries have been enabled to access education. But at the onset of the COVID-19, pandemic, an estimated 260 million children were still out of school, and about 53% of those in school were not achieving the minimum learning outcomes, such as acquiring basic reading and numeracy skills. 

COVID-19 has exacerbated this learning poverty, especially in Africa. COVID-19 related school closures have forced 250 million children in sub-Saharan Africa out of school, according to a November 2020 UNICEF report. And millions of them may end up as permanent dropouts, adding to the 100 million children who were out of school before the pandemic. The pandemic has exacerbated this learning crisis, and shed light on already existing challenges to education that have not been adequately addressed for far too long. Key among these challenges is the ever-increasing annual financing gap for education — a gap that is placing the future of millions of learners at risk.

The pandemic has also highlighted alarming inequalities within and across countries, which must be tackled urgently to guarantee the fundamental right to quality education for all children, especially those who are vulnerable and marginalized, such as girls.   

Creating a post-COVID education agenda 

Importantly, COVID-19’s disruptions are a reminder that Africa’s vision for shared prosperity and inclusive growth is only possible if countries equip their citizens with 21st-century skills to thrive in an increasingly demanding and uncertain world. A key lesson is that Africa’s huge youthful population can be a demographic dividend only if it is provided with quality education and appropriate skills.

To achieve this vision, a post-COVID education agenda for Africa will require innovative, increased, and well-targeted financing and efficient implementation arrangements. There must also be a clear, renewed commitment by governments to provide adequate and equitable financing to educational priorities, with additional support from donors.

The recent Global Education Summit in July 2021 sought to raise at least US$5 billion from the international community to boost financing for education in the developing world over the next five years. Unfortunately, world leaders fell US$1 billion short of the target; but this much-needed development assistance is still crucial to support national education systems to recover from the pandemic’s long-term impacts.

Domestic spending, however, remains the most important source of financing for education in Africa. The bigger responsibility of closing the education financing gap, therefore, rests on the shoulders of African governments themselves; by increasing national budget allocations for education, ensuring that funds are utilized equitably and efficiently, and forging new and innovative partnerships.

African leaders must confront this challenge head-on, even as they contend with COVID-19’s economic strain on national economies and budgets, the competing needs of other development sectors, and limited external support.

To achieve the shared continental vision, African leaders should further commit to ensuring equity in access to quality education, including making sure available resources reach the most marginalized children, especially girls. Specific commitments should focus on improving girls’ education and increasing investments for the inclusion of children with disabilities or other historically excluded groups.

Greater emphasis should be placed on improving learning outcomes in education systems by employing new techniques and proven methodologies, and by leveraging technology to close the global digital divide.

Similarly, investments in education should strengthen the capacities and improve the well-being of our teachers, and recognize their instrumental role in determining learning outcomes.

African leaders must also ensure efficient use of available resources for education by improving accountability and transparency in the education sector, addressing systemic inefficiencies, including high repetition and drop-out rates, and eliminating gaps in the management and distribution of teachers.

The journey towards an integrated, prosperous, and peaceful Africa should start by recognizing that we know our challenges and we have the solution; all we need is the courage and commitment to administer it. According to the World Bank, “education is a powerful driver of development and one of the strongest instruments for reducing poverty and improving health, gender equality, peace, and stability.”  

Therefore, if African leaders and their development partners are serious about achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Africa, they must prioritize funding for education, since education is the greatest enabler for achieving most, if not all, the other SDGs.

What can be done?

Governments must fund education adequately from all sources and ensure that financing is spent effectively, targeting the most marginalized. There are several key opportunities to act on this in the next few months:

  • Call on governments to protect their education budgets and spend them effectively, targeting the most marginalized. 
  • Keep them accountable to their commitments and obligations by signing our petition

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