The realisation of an Africa fit for children must reflect the foundational push towards equity. A principle on which the Day of the African Child was premised through the 1976 Soweto Uprising. As it stands, the Continental Education Strategy for Africa is due to complete its adopted mandate to transform education and training systems in just four years. Can we truly reflect, or more importantly accept, that we put our best foot forward in setting the basis for an effective acceleration of Agenda 2040 in the next two decades? In particular, Aspiration 6 which advocates for every African child to benefit fully from quality education? This remains doubtful. If the targeted aspirations of Agenda 2040 are to be achieved, we need national leaders and policymakers to learn from the gaps in governance illuminated by the COVID-19 pandemic. We need an Africa that cares about its future as much as it cares about commemorating its past.
Where 105.4 million children at primary and secondary school age were already out of school in 2019, it is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated existing challenges. According to the 2021 Mo Ibrahim Foundation Forum Report, “sub-Saharan Africa is poised to potentially see the largest increase in both the learning deprivation gap and in learning deprivation” with remote learning reaching only about “50% of children in sub-Saharan Africa”. In 2019, Afrobarometer reported that 66% of Africans remain offline. Even for those who are online, only 4 in 10 African homes had access to reliable electricity. The deepening digital divide and effects of continued disinvestment in infrastructure was only worsened by school closures which exacerbated food insecurity where 65.4 million children in Africa were missing out on school meals during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a wake-up call on how to structure a continent fit for its children.
As the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child rightly note, there are persistent challenges in delivering on Agenda 2040. Hunger as it contributes to 45% of childhood mortality; low national allocations of GDP to education; and gendered impacts of girls’ rights to education; all plague the continent’s efforts at progress. Where they highlight that the “COVID-19 pandemic has affected the enjoyment of various rights like food, education, healthcare, water and sanitation”. There must however be no illusion of the universality of these freedoms pre-pandemic. Focusing on education, research highlights that “student’s minimum proficiency levels in sub-Saharan Africa were already the lowest globally with a learning deprivation gap of around 20%, double the global average rate.”
The need for the proactive building of resilient systems which prioritise access to education for all children through digital connectivity, food security, and infrastructure development has never been more urgent. Current efforts at building back better must therefore draw the attention of policymakers and national leaders to invest in Africa’s future in this way. The continent must take stock of its human capacity development implementation strategies if the African child is to be fit to contribute to the continent’s inherently human-led growth.
Gains made towards the children’s rights and welfare concerns of Agenda 2040 include the adoption of policies and initiatives to improve education, as well as its access for girls in Africa. They do not however account for the structural impediments to mainstreaming these improvements on policy into practice. Where Aspiration 5 of Agenda 2040 advocates for every child grows up well-nourished and with access to the basic necessities of life, there must be aggressive lobbies into ensuring universal food security by capacitating agri-preneurs and alleviating supply chain inadequacies that lead to shortages and food price hikes. Closing the digital divide and ensuring basic infrastructure development such as electricity, as well as mobile network lines which could bring at least 20 million young people closer to education through remote learning capacitation. As the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated, an Africa fit for children means an Africa capacitated to deliver quality education within a digital era. There must therefore be lobbies for investment in infrastructure that enables such access. Simply put, we urgently need to close the deprivation gap for the world’s youngest continent if we truly care for its inhabitant’s futures.