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United Nations education summit: Leaders need to talk less and do more

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Picture: © UNICEF

By Edwin Naidu

If people talked less and did more, the world would be better.

Furthermore, if they spoke to one another rather than across each other, sharing resources would surely enable better outputs for education and skills development around the planet.

Of course, this is a moot point raised as the United Nations today completes a three-day Transforming Education Summit at its headquarters in New York.

Against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, it is worth noting that the target by 2030 is ensuring that all girls and boys complete accessible, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes. The world is currently off target. This means that a discussion around transforming education is off the mark without addressing this reality.

African leaders were invited to be part of the UN deliberations, which kicked off on Friday with Mobilization Day, organised and led by youth, bringing together a range of stakeholders.

It took into account the recommendations of children on transforming education as well as those of decision and policymakers, informed by a Summit Youth Declaration.

The discussions aimed to mobilise the global public, youth, teachers, civil society and others to support the transformation of education worldwide.

But one senses that nothing much will come out of it because these sanitised talk shops are full of positivity, minus the reality that is transforming education throughout the world is far removed from a picture of success.

Some of the topics on the menu looked as dull as dishwater. They include meaningfully engaging youth in transforming education. Why inter-generational dialogues? Good practices in youth engagement. They are building a global movement for education transformation.

While not disputing the merits of youth to grapple with the key issues facing them, one would question the wisdom of assembling hundreds of delegates at colossal expense, increasing their carbon footprint to provide hot air.

Picture: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

If the United Nations were genuine about making a dent in transformation, it would have gathered experts already contributing to change in the field than the dreamy young ideologists who need a reality check.

The UN deliberations appear to be a watered-down discussion that pretends to grapple with the world’s issues.

Had the UN been in touch with developments on the continent, it would have found an authoritative preview of the challenges on the subject at a youth-led conference by a Ghana-based organisation earlier in the week which noted that transformation was at the centre of Africa’s development agenda. And they would have learnt unequivocally that countries on the African continent are sadly not transforming.

This emerged last Monday during the Inter-Generational Dialogue (IGD), bringing together generations of the youth, policymakers, and industry players to discuss skill acquisition and employment, and seek their viewpoints on optimising young people’s potential to capitalise on the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

Under the theme, “Skills and Education for the Future” the conversation focused on how future skills and education might provide productive employment for young Africans while also creating an enabling environment for young Africans to innovate by utilising digital technologies to generate jobs, enhance productivity, and alleviate poverty.

The conversation focused on recent research from the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), a pan-African economic policy institute supporting Africa’s long-term growth through transformation. Their 2021 African Transformation Report (2021) included a six-country study that looked at improving education and learning systems to deliver a 4IR-ready workforce. But data from the past two decades show the continent’s performance on growth with the measure of transformation progress being weak, with trends moving in the wrong direction. That’s because most African countries are working in isolation. Their ability to transform depends on integrated efforts to build synergies and allow economies to scale. So far, this has not happened.

Using the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) as a catalyst, countries have an opportunity to advance regional integration beyond trade to tackle shared challenges, harness regional opportunities, scale economies, and in turn, accelerate transformation.

The African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) is a pan-African economic policy institute supporting Africa’s long-term growth through transformation. They produce research, offer policy advice, and convene key stakeholders so that African countries are better positioned for intelligent, inclusive, and sustainable development. Based in Accra, Ghana, ACET has worked in nearly two dozen African countries since it was founded in 2008.

Their research would have given the delegates in New York much food for thought. As Africa looks to build forward better, the transformation agenda says ACET is crucial. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for African collaboration and continental integration—and 2021 at ACET was about integrating to transform.

This was the focus of the latest African Transformation Report, launched in July at ACET’s third African Transformation Forum. The analysis in the report urges all policymakers and stakeholders to look beyond trade and consider how African countries can work together to tackle issues that transcend borders, such as managing climate risks, ensuring productive employment, and supporting digital innovation.

Looking ahead, President and Founder of ACET, K.Y. Amoako, says ACET will continue to focus on building resilience so that African communities do not suffer as acutely from climate and economic shocks and to come together as one continent to advocate for a global level for an equal voice and equal access to the financial and physical resources necessary to move forward stronger.

The ACET Transformation Report, Integrating to Transform, explores ways African countries can get back on a path to sustainable growth and fast-track the COVID-19 recovery process through enhanced economic and policy integration. It calls for greater regional collaboration— primarily through the delivery of regional public goods like transport corridors, free movement of people, and digital connectivity—which will help remove barriers that have slowed progress in the past.

Reframing regional collaboration as a mechanism for addressing national problems is key to working across borders to tackle issues that pose significant long-term challenges jointly.

Integrating to Transform focuses on three: climate, jobs, and technology. The report shows that climate risks can be managed by implementing policies to promote climate-smart agriculture, sustain green and blue ecosystems, and scale up renewable energy. On jobs, Africa can reap the demographic dividend to spur growth by scaling up education and skills training, creating opportunities for productive employment, and accelerating the demographic transition.

The report concludes with caution: dedicated and committed leadership is required at all levels to achieve all these outcomes.

Such information would have enhanced the quality of discussion at the UN summit on education. But if they wanted to understand the challenges relating to transformation, ACET offered more than a cursory glimpse. On the other hand, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation education review, as part of its Goalkeepers initiative, reports that in countries where data has been collected, mathematics and reading proficiency for girls and boys in grades 2 and 3 fall short of the levels needed to meet the target for 2030. It is alarming that this only represents a minimum mastery of foundational skills.

Measures of learning proficiency remain scarce, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, and their reliability is often questionable.

Learning Poverty measures the proportion of children who cannot read and understand a simple text by the age of 10. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate of learning poverty was already 57% in low- and middle-income countries. According to the foundation, simulations from 2022 suggest that it is now 70% in low- and middle-income countries.

The Goalkeepers community is a global collective of collaborative and diverse change-makers. Members include emerging and well-known leaders who live all over the world and represent an eclectic range of cultures, professions, and interests. One would have thought that their input given that they are passionate about delivering on the 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development, would have given them a front seat at the table in New York.

As individuals, the goalkeepers are developing fresh ideas and doing innovative work to accelerate the progress across the goals in their region. But the UN indaba ending today suggests a sanitised talk shop is more preferable to engaging with the real challenges confronting education in Africa. It’s not only a waste of resources. But a waste of time!

If only people talked less and did more!

Naidu is a journalist and communications expert. He also heads up Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up committed to stimulating dialogue and raising awareness around education and the socio-economic, environmental and political factors it influences in South Africa and the African Continent.