Cabinet Secretary Eliud Owalo (left) shares a light moment with AERC Acting Executive Director Prof. Théophile Azomahou and Mr Dan Peters, Advisor, Global Policy and Advocacy Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, during the African Economic Research Consortium’s 25th Senior Policy Seminar in Nairobi.

Developing countries face a learning crisis


Economic policy analysts have cited an emerging learning crisis in developing countries, such as Kenya, as a critical impediment to sustainable growth.

The analysts said school and human capital development are essential to individuals’ livelihoods and country-wide economic growth and development.

The economic policy analysts, in their research presentations delivered at the recent two-day African Economic Research Consortium (AERC) 25th Senior Policy Seminar (SPS) noted that a crisis of learning quality had replaced the earlier enrolment crisis faced by developing countries.

The Economic Policy Researchers presented their findings following a collaborative research project on human capital and growth in Africa supported by AERC in conjunction with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).

In a paper titled “Education in Africa: Career Progressions, Gaps in Learning Outcomes, and Responding to the Learning Crisis”, University of Delaware Department of Economics Chair, Prof. Adrienne Lucas described the learning crisis and access to quality learning as acute.

In the mid-1990s, sub-Saharan Africa, he said, had a crisis of low enrolment rates, with only 54% of primary school-aged students in school in the lower- and middle-income countries of sub-Saharan Africa now replaced by a crisis of learning quality.

“As barriers to schooling have fallen, the primary school net enrolment rate is now over 80 per cent (UNESCO 2019). Yet, in many cases, schools are continuing to fail the children they are supposed to be serving by not imparting them with adequate knowledge to be successful,” Prof Lucas said.
He added, in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, about three-quarters of grade 3 students cannot read a simple sentence (World Bank 2018). This “learning crisis” of students being in school but not learning is acute. “The scale of this problem was recognized and codified in Goal number 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals focuses on “quality education” and not just the number of years of schooling,” Lucas said.

University of Nairobi Professor of Economics Germano Mwabu, in his paper; “Human Capital Accumulation in Africa: Drivers, Consequences, and Way Forward” noted that Foreign Direct investments (FDI) stimulate education achievement in a host country by enabling the youth to acquire on-the-job training. This is from options such as on-the-job training and the provision of tax revenues that the government can use to construct schools and fund scholarships and research.

“Multinational firms provide incentives for skill acquisition because workers know they must be highly skilled to work for foreign-owned enterprises, which pay higher wages than local firms,” Prof Mwabu said.
He, however, noted that the education stimulus from FDI depends on the host country’s capacity to absorb the investment. “Critical to the absorption is the previous skill accumulation in a host country, as well as local workers’ ability to adapt to production technologies of multinational firms,” he explained.
Kenya’s Ministry of Information, Communication and Digital Economy Cabinet Secretary Eliud Owalo, who was the chief guest at the SPS opening ceremony, called for strengthening capacity-building efforts at the human capital development level to facilitate economic and social growth.

Owalo challenged delegates, including high-ranking government officials, ministers, governors of central banks, permanent secretaries, ambassadors, a queen, and special advisers to Heads of State, to move out of their comfort zones by embracing emerging trends in the digital space to advance economic policy.
“This seminar must go down in history as a turning point for Africa’s economic development. It will not do so, I am afraid, if it remains in the traditional comfort zones,” he said. “My challenge to AERC is that you must now move out of your traditional comfort zone. It is a new world. Through research, AERC must contribute to leading Africa into the new order as an equal partner. If Africa missed out on the first three Industrial Revolutions, the time to make up and catch up is now.”

Referencing the need for regional cohesion for more efficient results, Mr. Dan Peters, advisor, global policy and advocacy at BMGF, encouraged Africa governments to work together as a vital component to accelerate Africa’s growth.

“Africa has enormous potential in this century due to its expansion. Countries need to invest wisely to produce better health, education and skills for human capital. We need to ensure that everyone lives a healthy and productive life. We have the fastest growing and youthful population in the world today but we have not planned our development to align to this. I am glad we are able to support AERC and its partners with projects such as this,” he said.

The conference featured local and international economic and public policymakers with eminent researchers presenting research papers on the subject of human capital development.

AERC senior policy seminars are forums designed specifically to bring together senior policymakers from sub-Saharan African countries to exchange experiences and deliberate on topical issues pertaining to the sustainable development of their economies. Participants in these seminars are drawn from the highest levels of government, including the presidency, ministers, governors of central banks, heads of civil services, permanent secretaries and heads of government agencies and parastatals. 

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