Human Capital: Investing in Africa

Aiducation
By Roland Bensted and Lauren Meryl Williamson

Education and development go hand in hand. Educated individuals experience superior personal fulfilment and contribute positively to societal development. Education, as Dr. Florian Kapitza put it, is a crucial “building block”. For Sandy Balfour, it is “liberating”, both for individuals and societies. But the problem facing many African countries is that the resources to provide such education aren’t readily available – at least not locally. Furthermore, many highly qualified professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, and academics leave in their thousands every year to advance their careers in the West. This is where aid plays its part. 

The role of aid in education, and the resulting economic, social and political benefits from improved education, was the backdrop for a discussion co-organised by Jeremy Lefroy MP, Aiducation International and The All Party Parliamentary Group on Africa. The event also marked the launch of Aiducation International’s paper Investing in Human Capital: The Case for Secondary Education Development in Africa to UK policy makers.

“Government to government aid does not work. Development has got to be grassroots upwards”, argued Professor Benny Dembitzer. Lefroy, who chaired the discussion, was joined on the panel by Pauline Latham MP, Dembitzer, Balfour and Kapitza.

Sure, government has a time and place, but the panellists agreed that because governments are often open to  corruption  aid money should be going directly to the people to support NGO-based initiatives. This begged an obvious question that the panel did not appear to directly address. Namely, that if improved governance mechanisms and transparency meant that there were fewer opportunities for corruption, then surely there would be a greater role for government to government aid?  

Dr. Florian Kapitza lamented the “wasted potential” in Africa. Kapitza, who co-founded Aiducation International, explained the charity’s mission: to provide scholarships and encourage secondary education which, in Kenya, is incredibly expensive. This is in contrast to the fact that Kenya  now provides primary education to all children, in line with one of  the UN’s 2015 Millennium Development Goals.  Currently Aiducation International awards 150 scholarships per year on merit to high achieving children in Kenya who are identified as potential future leaders. It offers mentorship, networking and job placement opportunities to these young adults.

Pauline Latham said, “What struck me the most is how desperate these children are to learn. They see it as their way out of poverty”.

But Africa lacks infrastructure, schools, basic equipment and trained teachers. And in order to push for better secondary and tertiary education NGOs must also tackle the challenge of teaching English to African educators as well as their pupils. This is important because the English language dominates most tertiary schooling options.

The strong focus of some of the panel on private sector solutions was contentious. Indeed, Lefroy expressed apparent surprise that up to 60 per cent of young potential leaders on scholarship programmes in some African countries had a desire to enter public service. Clearly, entrepreneurship, job creation and private investment are all important. Yet, the role of building national infrastructure and providing public services like education, mass transit systems and health insurance has traditionally been the function of the state, at least in the West. Why should Africa be any different? Should it really be so surprising to the panel that many talented and ambitious young people wish to enter into local or national politics to serve their fellow citizens? Leadership is not always synonymous with being a business person.

Gender issues complicate the situation further. Latham highlighted how, given the inadequacy of many school facilities, girls who are menstruating often miss school.  Domestic obligations also reduce girls’ school attendance.

Author and panellist Sandy Balfour explained that there is an “absolutely relevant scarcity of skills” in Africa, detailing the impact of having underqualified personnel in some of South Africa’s top institutions.

The “brain drain” is very real – Balfour spoke about the hundreds of Ghanaian doctors and nurses that work for the NHS. The panellists concurred that the UK effectively receives a subsidy from the Ghanaian state because so many of these healthcare professionals receive much of their training in Ghana and then move their skills abroad.

Essentially, Aiducation International, like other education-based charities, seeks to alleviate the financial and societal constraints which prevent children from pursuing secondary education.

The Q&A session inspired some interesting debate. When asked about coordinating similar educational charities to have a stronger impact, panellists defended the competition between NGOs without fully explaining how they coordinate their initiatives effectively. The scale of Aiducation International’s current operations highlights the greater need for collaborative working among charities. Offering 150 scholarships in Kenya, a country of approximately 41 million people, may certainly be a worthwhile endeavour. Yet, it can only mitigate on a very small scale the broader structural challenges that exist. Without greater coordination and cooperation between the voluntary and other sectors, structural problems will not be adequately challenged, let alone overcome.

While Aiducation International creates a mentoring programme to pair students with doctors, teachers, nurses, lawyers and other professionals, there appeared a distinct lack of emphasis on the agricultural sector. This area is in aching need of expertise in Africa as it looks to feed an increasingly populated and impoverished continent. But agricultural jobs are not seen as lucrative – most Africans view crop cultivation as women’s work. While Latham noted that other charities are working to change this, and helping African families create their own subsistence gardens, Kapitza admitted this particular area needed more attention in future initiatives.

Jeremy Lefroy agreed that over the last 20 years aid entities have neglected the agricultural sectors of developing societies. However, Lefroy was adamant that this mentality is changing as more groups realise the necessity of developing the agricultural sector in order to benefit their country’s economy and society more widely. Still, getting children interested in an industry which currently is afforded minimal respect in many African societies but is perhaps key to achieving Africa’s development will remain a significant hurdle for Aiducation International and other similar organisations.

Consensus toward the end of the discussion was that there needs to be a transfer of expertise and aid channels, not government, are best suited to bring the right resources to the local level and cultivate development from the grassroots level first.

Dembitzer, echoing the words of Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder and director of Kids Company, succinctly stated the problem of there being too much “narcissistic philanthropy”.

 

24 September 2011

 

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