What decides about Sahel-Africa's future

By Alisa Kaps, Alexandra Reinig, Ruth Müller and Reiner Klingholz


Africa has made considerable progress with respect to education since the turn of the millennium. This applies in particular to countries south of the Sahara, where the share of children without access to education has almost halved between 2000 and 2015. However, pressing issues remain: in 2015, there were still 32 million children not attending primary school. Put differently, the greater portion of children with no access to education worldwide live in Sub-Saharan Africa. A quarter of the 15 to 24 year-olds cannot read or write. Merely one third of the youngster population attends secondary school. And only one in ten make the leap to higher education.

So far no Sub-Saharan country has managed to provide basic education to all children and thereby missed the millennium development goals (MDGs) envisaged for 2015. Improvement is currently not in sight. Crucially, by 2030, the implementation of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) is due. The SDGs require, in addition to what the MDGs stated, the universal provision of secondary school education.

Extreme case Sahel

The situation in the francophone countries of the Sahel region – at the southern extension of the Sahara – is particularly dire. Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauretania, Niger, Senegal and Chad are not only among the poorest countries of the world; they also have the lowest levels of education. This applies to Nigeria, too, which forms part of the present analysis as well, regardless of it not being a francophone state.

In some Sahel countries only one third of the adult population is alphabetized. Even among the younger generation illiteracy can be as high as fifty per cent. Enrolment rates reside below 65 per cent in some places. Generally speaking, access to education varies markedly depending on place of residence, gender and family income.

Furthermore, school enrollment itself does not guarantee valuable education in the Sahel countries. Many pupils leave school prematurely or fail to graduate, let alone proceed to secondary school. The educational infrastructure is insufficient, learning environments rather inadequate. The lack of satisfactory school buildings and education material are one thing, qualified teachers another. This affects the learning success of children: in Chad, for instance, every eight out of ten teenager cannot sufficiently read and do math, compared to what would be expected at their age; in Niger, this applies to nine out of ten pupils.

Reasons for the educational misery vary: scarce financial means, the poor organization of the educational sector and the fact that some parents do not deem it necessary to send their children to public schools. Another issue is language barriers: by far not all children are proficient in the prevalent teaching languages French and Arabic. Even where the government invests in education it is tilting at windmills. The immense population growth in the region, which is the highest worldwide, led to an increase in the number of school-aged children between 6 and 17 years – an increase of about 55 per cent between 2000 and 2015. By 2030 the number of school-aged children is likely to rise by another 40 per cent. Thus, the demand for education is growing faster than what the educational infrastructure is capable of managing.

Setting the course

People from south of the Sahara, particularly those from the Sahel region, are seeking better living conditions. This makes it likely for them to consider moving to cities, other African countries or Europe. Decisions to migrate are usually driven by work, wealth and security concerns.

Without education, Sub-Saharan-Africa’s young population misses out on the opportunity to partake in developments of the 21st century. Under these conditions it is unlikely that per capita income will rise, competitive businesses thrive and employment increase  – which boils down to bleak future prospects for an ever-growing population. In the absence of education the fertility rate is likely to remain high, which will render the region’s manifold problems even more difficult to solve.

Education is key for initiating a socio-economic transformation to bring countries south of the Sahara on a positive development path. Higher levels of education contribute to economic performance, rising incomes and better health. Educated women bear less children, which strongly affects population dynamics and economic potentials. Through sinking fertility rates coupled with better education south-Saharan states can trigger a demographic dividend, which leads to a development boost – as experienced by the Asian tiger states in the past. Experience shows that these dynamics can lift pressure off the labor market, lead to an improvement in employment opportunities and reduce social tensions. In the long run education can therefore help alleviate the root causes of flight and migration.

What needs to be done?

The so-called refugee crisis has shifted the international focus on the development of the African continent. Partnership agreements and proclamations should pay particular attention to the issue of education. Swift action is required because educational measures need time to take effect. German foreign policy should increase its efforts in this area considering the following recommendations:

  • Education should be put on top of the agenda on all political levels. This applies to fora such as the G20, UN and EU as well as Germany’s bilateral cooperation with African states.
  • A key objective of new partnerships of the G20, EU and Germany with Sub-Saharan countries should be to improve the educational sector.
  • Educational budgets need to be increased. African countries should follow the UNESCO recommendations. These stipulate to increase public spending for education up to 15 to 20 per cent of the national budget or 4 to 6 per cent of the GDP.
  • Due to the limited opportunities and the rapidly growing needs of poor countries, international donors, engaging in development cooperation, ought to take action. Germany should lead by example and further increase its education spending in development cooperation. The education system of the respective partner countries in the Sahel region should be strengthened as a whole: at the level of primary schools so that all children have access to basic education; at the level of secondary schools as to bring education to a broad segment of society; in higher education, for example, to train qualified teaching staff; and in practical vocational training to strengthen entrepreneurship and create perspectives.
  • German and European policy makers should provide advice to African governments on educational reforms and highlight key areas of action in the education sector. These include general access for all children and adolescents to primary and secondary education, especially for girls who have previously been disadvantaged. In addition, priority should be given to the development of vocational training systems, the training of teaching staff and the use of modern teaching and learning materials.
  • Existing German foreign policy instruments should be used to further develop cooperation in the field of education as a complement to traditional development cooperation, such as the granting of scholarships and the strengthening of Africa as a university and science hub.
  • Germany should, where appropriate, provide educational support for the Sahel countries in close cooperation with France, which has well-developed links to the region owing to historical factors.