The Urgent Need for Adequate Investments in Literacy in Africa

Pupils in a classroom. (Pix Source: ActionAid)

By ‘Biodun Awosusi

United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated September 8th as International Literacy Day in 1946. Since then, the day is set aside to promote literacy and investment in education. Literacy, according to UNESCO, is “a human right, a tool of personal empowerment, and a means for social and human development.” It is about learning to read and write.
Value of Literacy
Literacy is a fundamental human right and the bedrock of life-long learning. While illiteracy perpetuates poverty and ill health, literacy engenders prosperity and good health. Literate parents are more likely to take good care of their children than illiterates. Children of literate mothers are more likely to survive beyond age of 5 than those of illiterate mothers.

“Phone calls are difficult for the illiterate because they cannot access their contacts either stored in the phone or in a contact directory; using ATM is difficult for the illiterate because they cannot follow instructions; etcetera”, says Kaine Agary, a Nigerian lawyer  and newspaper columnist.

When citizens are well-educated, they can access or create greater opportunities for advancement. They can create ingenious solutions to their problems. And they are likely to succeed in business ventures. Literacy therefore contributes immensely to social and economic development of a society. According to an education expert, Adewale Kupoluyi, “nation will continue to be pariah until education is made to take its pride of place in the scheme of things and so, no country can develop beyond the level of its education.”

Health education and promotion is easier to implement when people are literate. People can learn healthy lifestyle and seek medical care when ill. As a medical doctor, I have observed that literate people understand medical instructions better and are more likely to follow them. Same applies for legal education. Literate people can know, understand and fight for their rights when the need arises. Literacy is the foundation of higher education and lifelong learning.

Alarming Status of Literacy in Africa

According to UNESCO Director General, Irina Bokova, “Literacy is much more than an educational priority – it is the ultimate investment in the future and the first step towards all the new forms of literacy required in the 21st century. We wish to see a century where every child is able to read and to use this skill to gain autonomy.”

There are over 700 million illiterates in the world today. According to UNESCO, “38 % of African adults (about 153 million) are illiterate; two-thirds of these are women. Africa is the only continent where more than half of parents are not able to help their children with homework due to illiteracy.”

“Adult literacy rates are below 50% in Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and The Gambia. Unfortunately, only 1 % of national education budget of most African governments is earmarked to address the issue of literacy.”

This is disturbing especially when you consider the value of literacy, as an inevitable step to acquire useful life skills to survive and succeed in a dynamic world like ours.

Call for Investment in Education in Africa

It is a fundamental responsibility of government to invest adequately in education. This adequate investment is a cost-effective approach that will save lots of resources in various sectors of the economy in the future. It is an appropriate investment to secure the future of Africans through education.

The world has become more competitive than ever. The 21st century is characterized by revolution in information and communication technology. And Africa must not be left behind. One of the five transformative shifts proposed by the High Level Panel set up by the United Nations Secretary General for post-2015 development agenda is “Leave no one behind.” If African leaders and partners fail to invest in literacy, the region may be left behind! Is it not already behind?

African governments must therefore not just pay lip service to education. It is the future of the continent. They must devote adequate funds to the sector. UNESCO advocates 26% of national budget as minimal allocation to education but African governments do not spend enough on education.

Adewale Kupoluyi shows that “Nigeria spends less than nine per cent of its annual budget on education when smaller African nations like Botswana spend 19.0%; Swaziland, 24.6%; Lesotho, 17.0%; South Africa, 25.8%; Cote d’Ivoire, 30.0%; Burkina Faso, 16.8%; Ghana, 31%; Kenya, 23.0%; Uganda, 27.0%; Tunisia, 17.0%; and Morocco, 17.7%.” African governments must raise the bar to save the continent.

Adequate investments in education will facilitate creation of conducive learning environments for teachers and students. It enables selection and deployment of well-trained highly motivated and well-paid teachers.

There is a global consensus for overhaul of curriculum to emphasize life skills and not just subjects. As a member of the youth task force for The UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report, I realized the urgent need to include useful life skills in a new curriculum for schools in Africa. Subjects are just not enough to learn in school. We must learn skills that will enable us cope and succeed in an ever changing world.

It is important to resist the temptation of focusing solely on formal education. In Africa, this will not work because non-formal education provides culturally acceptable form of education for many disadvantaged people. They learn in their native languages and do so faster than in foreign languages. This sector should therefore be strengthened.

Despite efforts to promote gender equity in schools, many girls still drop out of school. Cultural practice that restricts women from receiving education and susceptibility to violence are key culprits of the high drop-out rates. This must be addressed through targeted enrolment of girls without leaving the boys at home.

In some countries, if not all, donors and the civil society should  continue to play key roles in increasing available resources for education and capacity building. It is the collective inputs of all stakeholders that can guarantee education for all in Africa.We must also hold leaders accountable always and ensure they use available resources efficiently.


Now is the time to invest in ensuring Africans learn to read and write!

Biodun Awosusi is the founding Editor of MDGs in Africa



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