Image: Kwaku Griffin via Pexels.

Earlier this year, I attended a Comparative and International Education Society conference in a five-star hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. For me, this was a new cosmopolitan community. The CIES brings together academics and practitioners engaged in education for developing countries. The largest contingent was USAID staff. Among bilateral donors, the United States plays the prominent role in financing pilot projects and thereby “nudging” host countries to pursue sensible education goals, such as learning outcomes, that host governments are often reluctant to pursue. The U.K.’s smaller equivalent does the same.

Some of the attendees were education professors; some were education PhD students hoping to be hired by an NGO; some were representatives of private firms that manage donor-financed projects. The firms were either competing for new projects with “development partners” (i.e., countries with weak public education systems) or reporting on the projects they were implementing in faraway countries. The conference lasted ten days.

It was not all earnest discussion. Seasoned NGO managers came to Washington to catch up with one another’s activities. I attended as lead author of a book assessing primary education in South Asia.¹ Shahidul Islam, one of my co-authors, persuaded the society to host a launch for the book (Manzoor Ahmed, emeritus director of Bangladesh’s major education institute, is the third co-author). Shahidul, who spent two decades directing U.S. and U.K. education projects throughout South Asia, was comfortable in this community. He recruited Baela Raza, a senior Pakistani activist, to chair the launch. Baela is refreshingly blunt in discussing the state of education in her country. She emphasized Pakistan’s depressing “learning poverty” statistic – only 23 per cent of Pakistani children aged 10–14 are able to read at a Grade 2 level. (More on learning poverty below.)

Among the plenary conference presenters was Mme Sidibé Dedeou Ousmane, at the time Mali’s Education Minister. She enjoys an exceptional professional reputation for dedication to education. The chair of her session wanted the panel to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion. She was not much interested in such woke goals. In impeccable Parisian French, the minister discussed the problems she faced, the most traumatic being the effects of the loss to jihadis of the northern half of her country. Jihadis have shut down all schools in territory they control – for boys as well as girls. At present, there is no schooling for 600,000 school-age children in central and northern Mali. The contrast between Mme Ousmane’s school system and a five-star Washington hotel is stark.

Mali is one of six African countries that have experienced coups d’état since 2020 (Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Gabon and Guinea are the others). In some countries there have been more than one. In addition, there are simmering civil wars in Ethiopia, Angola, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Sudan and Mozambique. For reasons not discussed in the local media, Mme Ousmane subsequently lost her portfolio.

The World Bank divides developing countries into three groups based on per capita annual income: low (below $1,135), lower-middle ($1,136–$4,465), and upper-middle ($4,466–$13,645). There is a strong case that universal, reasonable-quality basic education, usually defined as primary plus some secondary schooling, is essential for low-income countries to escape “low” or “lower-middle” income status. Universal basic education is not sufficient for a country to prosper, but for many reasons it is a necessity.

There are exceptions. If governing elites capture sufficient resource rents and spend efficiently on basic services, countries with large petroleum and mineral resources can provide decent basic services to all citizens. Several African states (including Nigeria, Niger and the DRC) have large potential public resource revenues, but most don’t provide decent services. Most dissipate the potential through dismal national governance.

Dismal governance is at the heart of Africa’s “darkness” (apologies to Joseph Conrad). By almost any criterion, the quality of governance in high-income countries is better than in any African country. However, that is not a fair comparison. Britain became the world’s first industrial country more than 200 years ago because its governance, dismal by 21st-century high-income country expectations, was slightly more accommodating of industrial initiatives than that of other European countries. From David Hume and Adam Smith in the 18th to Charles Dickens and Karl Marx in the 19th century, numerous writers damned British governance with as much passion as some current African intellectuals acknowledge their domestic failures.²

Many, perhaps most, 21st-century African intellectuals are convinced that European colonialism is the major source of present “darkness.” However, debating the extent to which this is true gets us nowhere in addressing the question that Lenin made famous: “What is to be done?” To answer that question, we must first face the facts.

Africa is the continent with the lowest per capita incomes and the highest fertility rates. At present, its population is 1.4 billion and the average total fertility rate is 4.6. The World Bank estimates that 87 per cent of the next generation of teenagers is illiterate, and hence the majority will likely be doomed to informal low-wage employment, and early marriage for girls. The UN population projection is a doubling to 2.8 billion by 2050.³

Combined with probable further desertification in the Sahel, deforestation, higher temperatures and drought, a doubling of the continent’s population is a profoundly pessimistic prospect. The UN qualifies its projection: if African countries achieve better basic education, the continent’s “human capital” will rise, which will enable better-paying jobs in industrial and service sectors; more women will work; marriage will be delayed; the fertility rate will decline. Based on present trends, this optimistic scenario is doubtful. To realize it requires significantly better governance.

China offers one model. An authoritarian post-1950 government enabled China to impose a one-child policy for two generations. Whatever Mao’s sins, by the time Deng Xiaoping assumed power in late 1970s, Chinese public schools had created an adult industrial work force of both men and women able to read and do basic arithmetic. Other – less authoritarian – examples in the post–World War II era are Malaysia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. The probability of an equivalent development in Africa, hopefully in a more benign way than in China, is negligible.

The next section examines three basic socioeconomic measures: basic education, total fertility rate and poverty rate.

Education, fertility and poverty

The debate among economists is more or less over as to the importance of universal literacy and numeracy, the bottom rung of the “human capital” ladder. If quality primary education is limited to private schools for those able to pay, the bottom rung is effectively broken and the majority remain poor. In 2019, the World Bank introduced the concept of “learning poverty” (LP), a crude measure of basic reading ability comparable across all developing countries.⁴ The World Bank has published LP rates for regions and for 78 individual countries. The estimate for African children aged 10–14 able to read at Grade 2 level is 13 per cent.

As an example, consider Côte d’Ivoire. Over the decade prior to the COVID pandemic, the average rate of a cohort of children in Côte d’Ivoire surviving in school to the final primary grade (Grade 5) was 75 per cent; 25 per cent dropped out. The country’s LP rate is 83 per cent, consisting of the 25 per cent who are not in school plus, among the remaining 75 per cent who are in school, 77 per cent who cannot read Grade 2 stories.

Not surprisingly, median LP rates in Africa decline from 90 per cent among low-income countries to 71 per cent in the lower-middle income group and 46 per cent in the upper-middle group. There is ambiguity as to what is cause and what is effect. Is realization of decent basic education a major cause of higher future per capita income? Or does parental interest in decent education for their children arise only in countries that, for reasons other than education, have achieved higher per capita incomes?

In the long run, causation runs both ways. In one generation, the evidence for the first interpretation – that basic education comes first – is strong.⁵ Reliance on private schools enables some countries to achieve “lower-middle” income status without reasonable quality government schools. Such is the case in South Asia, where half the population is below the poverty threshold in table 1.

Another robust conclusion among developing countries is the positive impact of girls’ education, which increases family incomes and reduces the number of unwanted (at least by mothers) children. Campaigns for family planning have some impact; female literacy is a more powerful incentive to limit early marriage and reduce family size. The prospect of higher earnings than can be obtained in traditional activities is a powerful incentive to educate girls and postpone marriage. In general, educated girls exercise more authority in domestic family matters, which in turn reduces fertility rates. Median total fertility rates in Africa decline from 4.6 among the low-income to 3.9 among the lower-middle and 2.8 in the upper-middle group – which is nonetheless above the stable fertility rate of 2.1.

Unfortunately, sub-Saharan Africa has been unable to copy the post–World War II progress in southeast and east Asia. In some countries (such as Kenya), the key problem is tribal conflict. In countries with large Muslim populations, leaders of fundamentalist Islamic movements, many of which are brutally violent, argue that modernization is an insult to the Qur’an. Closing schools, in particular blocking education for girls, is a high priority, as can be seen in Mali’s loss of the northern half of the country. In western Africa, jihadi movements have conquered much of the northern rural regions of countries from Nigeria to Mauritania.

Governments can reduce poverty by direct cash transfers. Among the old without family support, cash transfers make sense. Also, governments can reduce poverty by subsidizing certain commodities, such as farm fertilizer or basic staples. However, provided governments have a long-term perspective, investment in quality basic education is the best means of reducing poverty.


Governance is an ambiguous concept. Francis Fukuyama has a (blessedly) short definition: “a government’s ability to make and enforce rules, and to deliver services, regardless of whether that government is democratic or not.”⁶ The only way to measure governance among countries is through public surveys. Probably the most sophisticated of the many such surveys is the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI).⁷ Annually, the WGI define national governance on six dimensions in about 200 countries. The scores among African countries in three of six dimensions are listed in table 2. Rankings are in the form of percentiles⁸:

  • Voice and Accountability: perceptions of the extent to which a country’s citizens are able to participate in selecting their government, as well as freedom of expression, freedom of association and a free media.
  • Political Stability and Absence of Violence/Terrorism: perceptions of the likelihood of political instability and/or politically motivated violence, including terrorism.
  • Government Effectiveness: perceptions of the quality of public services, the quality of the civil service and the degree of its independence from political pressures, the quality of policy formulation and implementation and the credibility of the government’s commitment to such policies.

The most salient dimensions of the WGI governance dimensions in terms of association with literacy (measured by learning poverty) are perceptions of political stability and government effectiveness. The role of democracy is much less prominent in responses.⁹

Occasionally, coups d’état in Africa have brought about effective governance. Two examples are the Tigray revolt in Ethiopia against the Marxist generals who ran the country before 1992, and Paul Kagame’s Tutsi-based victory in Rwanda over a Hutu-dominated government that in 1994 promoted genocide of the Tutsi.

Income inequality

Among OECD countries, high income inequality is often a background factor conducive to left- and right-wing populist demagogues upsetting the apple cart.10 The two most prominent in this century have been Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

A simple measure of national income inequality is the ratio of the share of income among the top 10 per cent of the population to that of the bottom 10 per cent. Among high-income OECD members, Scandinavian countries display the lowest ratio; Canada is roughly in the middle (with a ratio of 8.4); the U.S. and U.K. demonstrate high inequality. The ratio among low- and lower-middle-income African countries is about 12:1. The median ratio (27.7) among African upper-middle-income countries is three times that in Canada (see table 3).

If high income inequality in OECD countries is a factor contributing to the success of populist demagogues, presumably high income inequality is a relevant factor in explaining political instability in Africa. The “top 10 per cent” in African countries are typically urban and well educated. In francophone countries, the urban elites historically relied on the French army as guarantor. No longer. Several of these countries (including Mali) have turned to Russian mercenaries as guarantor of urban security.

Disillusionment and the desire to leave

Among many Africans there is profound disillusionment with the quality of governance in postcolonial nation-states. The illiterate, largely rural, majority are drawn to populist authoritarian ideologues – Salafist Muslims or tribal leaders. Among the minority with education and skills, a desire to emigrate, either legally with a visa or illegally via traffickers, is common. The desperation that leads many Africans to want to leave is captured in these excerpts from an article based on informal interviews by journalists in five countries. The article was published in the Guardian in October and was a copublication with the nonprofit platform ZAM, which works with a network of African journalists.11

Nigeria: ZAM reporter Theophilus Abbah stops and questions builders, plumbers and doctors in the capital, Abuja. Nine out of 10 say they want to “japa”, the Nigerian term for exiting the country at the “slightest opportunity”. They cite poor governance, the dismal state of health, education and other public services, a massive wealth gap, corruption and the oppression of media and civil society organisations.

Cameroon: A funeral is being held for Bryan Achou (name changed), whose body was pulled from the Mediterranean and returned to his family less than a year ago. Friends and relatives commiserate about his fate. “He’s a child from my neighbourhood. In less than two weeks, we lost two children: one was in the ocean between Turkey and Greece, the other was in Tunisia,” says one woman. “Really, before 2035, this country will have been emptied of its citizens,” another mourner says.

This is a reference to the government’s new development paper Cameroon vision 2035, an outline of plans by the president, the 90-year-old autocrat Paul Biya, to turn his ailing, conflict-ridden country around. Judging by the resignation in the reactions to the remark, no one here believes it will succeed. There have been so many plans since Biya came to power in 1982.

Uganda: At Entebbe airport in Kampala, a human rights worker waiting for a flight sees a line of veiled young women seated in the departure area. They look Ugandan. An immigration officer tells him the group is travelling to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to take up jobs as domestic workers. The activist is perturbed. Many reports say that this domestic worker route often ends up with young women trapped in modern slavery conditions, where they suffer long working hours, beatings, rape and even murder. How have these Ugandans missed the numerous radio and news reports?

Kenya: Patricia Wanja Kimani, who experienced months of abuse as a domestic worker in the Gulf, says: “It’s like telling a child not to put its hand in the fire; it will still put a hand in the fire.” Kimani has written a book about her experiences and now works for an NGO that aims to warn Kenyan women off leaving. Her colleague Faith Murunga, who works at an NGO with a similar mission, says that Kenya’s young people, 67% of whom are unemployed, have few alternatives. As in Uganda, a wealthy elite does little to tangibly improve the lot of the majority. “We try to engage with the government. We do what we can,” says Murunga.

Zimbabwe: 95% of teachers would emigrate given the opportunity, according to a 2022 survey. The reason, says Obert Masaraure, president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, which conducted the survey, is that teachers earn too little to take care of their families “even without food or school fees”. Speaking to ZAM reporter Brezh Malaba, Masaraure says he regards a colleague who made it to Saudi as “so lucky”. Zimbabwe boasts some of the world’s richest gold and diamond reserves, as well as lithium and other minerals. But the proceeds don’t reach state coffers; many reports have exposed how income is appropriated by individuals in the ruling Zanu-PF party.


1 John Richards, Manzoor Ahmed and Shahidul Islam, The Political Economy of Education in South Asia: Fighting Poverty, Inequality, and Exclusion (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2022).

2 See my review of Wole Soyinka’s latest novel in the Summer/Fall 2022 issue of Inroads.

3 Projections of World Population (October 21, 2023), Wikipedia.

4 The learning poverty statistic is an assessment of inability to read, at a basic Grade 2 level, among national cohorts aged 10–14. In this age cohort, students are expected to be in an upper-level primary grade. The LP rate is defined as the sum of children in the age cohort not in school, hence expected to be illiterate, and children in the age cohort and in school but unable to read short stories in the relevant language at Grade 2 level.

5 See Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, “The Role of Cognitive Skills in Economic Development,” Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 46, No. 3 (September 2008), pp. 607–68; John Richards, Schooling without Learning is a Terrible Waste of Precious Resources and of Human Potential’ – The South Asian Paradox, International Journal of Educational Development, Vol. 103, Article 102904 (November 2023).

6 Francis Fukuyama, What is governance?, Working paper 314 (Washington, D.C.: Center for Global Development, 2013).

7 Daniel Kaufmann and Aart Kraay, Worldwide Governance Indicators, 2023 Update (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2023).

8 A median is calculated by ranking, and designates the observation value such that half the observations are larger and half smaller. A percentile also entails ranked observations. A country’s score is such that it designates the percentage of countries with a score below that of the country in question. For example, among the world’s countries, Rwanda has a rank in terms of stability (47.6) well above the percentile among African countries (25.9). It has an exceptionally high rank in terms of government effectiveness (61.3) relative to the African median (21.7). However, Rwanda is an authoritarian state. It has a voice and accountability rank (22.7), below the African median (28.5).

9 The correlation between literacy and political stability is -0.60 (higher stability associated with lower learning poverty), and that between literacy and government effectiveness is -0.58 (higher effectiveness associated with lower learning poverty). The correlation between literacy and voice/accountability is -0.24 (higher voice/accountability associated with lower learning poverty). The correlation is negative as expected, but less important than the other two dimensions.

10 The standard measure of inequality is the Gini index, a complex statistic. Here, I rely on a simpler inequality measure: the ratio of national income accruing to the top 10 per cent of the country population relative to income accruing to the bottom 10 per cent.

11 Elizabeth BanyiTabi, Emmanuel Mutaizibwa, Ngina Kirori, Theophilus Abbah and Brezh Malaba, There is No Hope Here’: Young Africans Explain Why They Would Risk Death to Leave Home, Guardian, October 18, 2023.