Funding Africa's Education Revolution

LONDON – In mid-July, former US President Barack Obama used a speech in South Africa to implore the world to invest more in the education of Africa’s youth. A month later, UK Prime Minister Theresa May made a similar plea, predicting that “Africa’s young people could enrich not only this continent but the world economy and society at large.”

Statements like these underscore something Africans have known for a long time: the continent’s future will be determined by the fate of its young people. The question now is whether these statements will help spur the educational revolution that Africa so desperately needs.

Simply put, if Africa’s children are educated, prepared for the modern workforce, and equipped with the skills to be successful entrepreneurs, they will flourish and Africa will prosper. But if our children fall any further behind their peers in developing countries, economic progress will be slowed, stunted, or even thrown into reverse. To ensure the former and prevent the latter, Africa must invest more in education.

To succeed in the twenty-first-century economy, young people will need to solve problems, think critically, and persevere in the face of challenge and failure. At the moment, however, very few African students are learning these skills. This urgent need inspired my wife and I to establish the Higherlife Foundation, which provides tuition and scholarships to some of Africa’s most vulnerable populations.

But philanthropy alone cannot solve Africa’s educational challenges. If current trends continue, Africa will be home to one billion young people by 2050, and as many as a third of them will never achieve basic competency in reading, writing, or math. Closing Africa’s education gap will take time. It will also take more money than donors can provide.

That is why one of the biggest obstacles to fixing education in developing countries is financing. Today, just 10% of official development assistance from OECD countries is allocated to education reform in the Global South. But even if the most optimistic funding targets were met, we would still not have enough capital to ensure that all children are in school and learning. To achieve this ambitious goal, we must completely rethink how to pay for education reforms.

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For the last several years, I have served as a commissioner with the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity (the Education Commission). This global group of leaders from government, business, academia, and civil society was brought together to brainstorm new funding mechanisms that could leverage existing commitments and motivate countries to increase their own spending on education. And now, after extensive research and analysis, we have arrived at a solution: the International Finance Facility for Education (IFFEd).

By 2020, the Facility will unlock some $10 billion in grants and loans to help countries strengthen their education systems. This will be accomplished by applying innovations in global finance to help multiply donor funding so that the money raised goes further, creates affordable terms for human capital finance, and incentivizes government participation. To that end, the IFFEd will favor countries that are committed to implementing reforms and monitoring results.

Moreover, by collaborating with countries that are increasing their own investments in education, the Facility will also contribute to meeting universal education targets. For example, the first round of IFFEd allocations will fund some 200 million new school places for children and young people; millions more could follow.

These are not impossible goals; the IFFEd is already endorsed by the World Bank, the G20, regional development banks (like the African Development Bank and the Asian Development Bank), and the United Nations. Last month, during the UN General Assembly in New York, leaders from Bangladesh, Canada, Côte d’Ivoire, Denmark, Malawi, the Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom strongly supported the creation of the Facility.

I agree with Obama that talent exists everywhere in the world. It’s time to give Africa’s young talent the opportunity to flourish.

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