Education is a powerful tool to fight poverty, enable upward socioeconomic mobility, and empower people to live healthier lives. But while the global adult literacy rate continues to increase, from 81% in 2000 to 86% in 2018 (World Bank, 2019), the challenge of access to quality education remains particularly severe in Africa. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, globally one out of five children aged 6-17 years were not in school; more than half of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, many African pupils attend schools that are inadequately equipped, creating a difficult learning environment. For example, more than half of the schools in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to basic drinking water, handwashing facilities, the Internet, or computers (United Nations, 2019).
COVID-19 may exacerbate these challenges as pupils lose school time, unequal access to online learning heightens inequalities, and health care and social-safety costs and economic losses put pressure on limited resources.
Africans are aware of education challenges. Across 34 African countries surveyed by Afrobarometer between late 2016 and late 2018, one in five respondents (21%) cited education as one of the most important problems their governments should address, placing it among citizens’ top five priorities (Coulibaly, Silwé, & Logan, 2018). Not surprisingly, younger people placed substantially greater emphasis on education than their elders.
At a global level, the United Nations (UN) has highlighted the importance of quality education by including it in its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 4 calls for governments to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” To this end, the UN outlines specific targets to be achieved by 2030, including ensuring that “all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy.” An important step toward this goal is that by 2030, all girls and boys should be able to “complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education” (United Nations, 2019).
Many African governments have made important commitments to universal education. Of the 34 countries surveyed by Afrobarometer in 2016/2018, 33 have made school attendance compulsory (for periods ranging from five to 11 years), and 33 provide free primary education. (See Appendix Table A.2 for details.) Many governments also commit substantial portions of their yearly budgets to improving education. For example, in Côte d’Ivoire, eSwatini, Ghana, Malawi, Senegal, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe, more than 25% of total government expenditures go to education (World Bank, 2020).
Afrobarometer surveys point to slow but steady progress as fewer Africans go without formal education and more attend school beyond the primary grades. But in some countries, two-thirds of adults still have no formal schooling, and significant gender gaps continue to disadvantage girls and women.
Overall, just a slim majority of Africans think their government is doing a good job on meeting educational needs. Factors that contribute to these evaluations include whether citizens find it easy to obtain school services and whether they think schools are transparent about their budgets and responsive to reports of teacher misconduct.
More fundamentally, our analysis finds that more democratic countries are seen as better able to provide public education. Citizens are more likely to be satisfied with government performance on education if immediate avenues of transparency and accountability at the school level are embedded in a broader political system that encourages these qualities.