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Africa eyes the economic advantages of SDGs but progresses slowly towards goals

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Picture: ANA File – Statistics currently reveal that half of the countries have no data on learning levels or the percentage of trained teachers in primary schools, while a third have no data on completion or out-of-school rates.

By Edwin Naidu

As the 2030 targets for Sustainable Development Goals near, the haves will likely continue to shine while the have-nots can only dream of success.

Statistics currently reveal that half of the countries have no data on learning levels or the percentage of trained teachers in primary schools, while a third have no data on completion or out-of-school rates.

According to the latest indicators, only three in four countries have submitted benchmarks, or national targets, to be achieved by 2030.

It does not fill one with the hope that the SDGs adopted by United Nations Member States in 2015 will make the world a better place as envisaged by those 178 nations who pledged to work towards the shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet.

Yet, Africa has pinned its hopes on the SDGs providing an economic fillip for the Continent. Achieving the SDGs could bring $12 trillion in market opportunities and 380 million jobs by 2030, according to the United Nations Economic Commission of Africa (ECA) in a report produced in collaboration with the African Union Commission (AUC), the African Development Bank (AfDB), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The commission argues that the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) provides a unique opportunity to implement the SDGs and Agenda 2063, ensuring an economic bonanza for the Continent.

While the average score across all African member States was slightly higher than the 2019 average, after four years of SDG implementation, the African continent was only halfway towards achieving the SDG goals and targets by 2030.

The report shows that African governments have made significant efforts to incorporate the SDGs and Agenda 2063 goals into national strategies and development plans, identified government units to coordinate their implementation, and prioritised specific targets and indicators.

Progress needs to be faster. Education is vital among the 17 SDGs, which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership, recognising that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

According to the goals, by 2030, all girls and boys should get a free, equitable, quality primary and secondary education, leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes. They should also have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education to prepare for primary education.

There would be equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university. The number of youth and adults with relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship would substantially increase.

Gender disparities in education would be eradicated. Everyone would enjoy equal access to education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations. All youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, would achieve literacy and numeracy.

It may sound good on paper and in the corridors of power where political speak is sometimes far removed from reality. Some countries’ benchmarks demonstrate very high ambition, committing to improving faster than the historical rate of the top 25 percent of countries. Ambitions are exceptionally high for improving learning outcomes at the primary level among poorer countries with low starting values, which may be because these countries lack data and are less familiar with its progress.

The work on benchmarks has shown an urgent need for more data on education targets.

The fourth goal of the SDG is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. But the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed back gains in this regard, with 147 million children missing more than half of in-person instruction at schools worldwide. Furthermore, due to the pandemic, 24 million learners from pre-primary to university level may never return to school. While education is regarded as a lifeline for children in crises, the road to learning for the have-nots is littered with obstacles.

In January, the UN published the SDG 4 Scorecard highlighting how countries progress towards their SDG 4 benchmarks. It notes that out of countries with benchmarks, most are going well on primary completion rates. But out-of-school rates regressed in 1 in 10 countries between 2015 and 2020. At least one in three countries regressed in learning proficiency and trained pre- and primary-level teachers.

This first-ever progress report looks in depth at two indicators – upper secondary completion and early childhood education participation – for both, barely one in three countries are well placed to achieve their national benchmark for 2025 with high probability; these were mostly richer countries. The haves are on track, while the have-nots continue to struggle.

Most countries have made slow rather than fast progress regarding the upper secondary completion rate. Rwanda is the only low-income country to have achieved rapid progress; most low-income countries either need more data or a national target. Most lower-middle-income countries manage only slow change, although seven countries stand out for their fast progress: Bangladesh, Bolivia, Egypt, El Salvador, Ghana, Kyrgyzstan and Nepal.

In the case of the pre-primary education participation rate, high-income countries are more likely to have achieved fast progress. By contrast, lower-middle-income countries have achieved slower progress and are less likely to achieve their national target by 2025. Nevertheless, 14 low- and lower-middle-income countries are on track to achieve their benchmarks: Burkina Faso; Burundi; Bhutan; Cambodia; Côte d’Ivoire; Ghana; Guinea; India; Kyrgyzstan; Republic of Moldova; Rwanda; Sierra Leone; Vanuatu; and Vietnam.

One in three countries – and two in three low-income countries – do not meet the minimum benchmarks on education finance. Among countries with data, 64 percent of low-income countries relative to 29 percent of middle- and high-income countries fell below both standards. Data availability is more important in poorer countries: 24 percent of low-income countries, 15 percent of middle-income and 6 percent of high-income countries report no data on public expenditure.

As the clock ticks, it is not a foregone conclusion that all signatories to the 2015 pledge to work towards a better world will deliver on their promises. One hopes that it will not be a return to the drawing board – and more talk shops.

Edwin Naidu heads up Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up involved in education in South Africa and the African Continent.