COP25: The entire world stands to gain if we get it right for children in Africa

As world leaders gather for the annual Conference of Parties in Madrid, we are reminded that we must reorient education to become a major player in the work and debates around climate action.

December 04, 2019 by James Kassaga Arinaitwe, Teach For Uganda, and Folawe Omikunle, Teach For Nigeria
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5 minutes read
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Credit: Teach For Nigeria
Teach For Uganda

Adesuwa Ochonma, a teacher in Nigeria, recently took her students on a class trip to a lagoon where she showed them huge islands of plastic trash built up in the water and explained its devastating effects.

Nearly 3,000 miles away in Uganda, children at St. Jude Muwangi Primary school, in an environmental club led by teachers Charles Obore and Carol Seera, learned about recycling, planting trees, and how to advocate to their parents and communities.

Education is crucial in the fight against climate change

As world leaders gather for this year’s annual Conference of Parties (COP25) taking place this week and next in Madrid, we know the headlines and how bleak things look for the future of our children and grandchildren. Recently, we learned that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases once again reached new highs. The time has never been so critical.

The inspiring young activist Greta Thunberg has sailed to Madrid across the Atlantic, having just encouraged millions of young people across the United States. She is brilliant and serves as a stark reminder of how rare young and local voices in this looming disaster are – the voices of those who are and will be most affected by climate change. We can’t put all our eggs in one basket called Greta. 

To get it right, we must reorient education to become a major player in the work and debates around climate action. Last month, Italy became the first country ever to make climate change study compulsory in schools. Others must follow suit.

We must teach children to understand the perils of climate change and the value of clean air, water and earth. Due to youth mobilization, New York City let 1.1 million children skip school on September 20th to attend the climate protest ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit. And that same week, a group of children filed a complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, protesting a lack of government action on climate change.

We must fast-track progress in education

But climate change is not the only one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that needs attention. Reaching the fast approaching 2030 targets will demand heroic efforts. Meeting our global aspirations, including reversing climate change, requires a revolution in education. Particularly in Africa.

Africa is home to the fastest-growing youth population in the world. By 2050 it will be home to one billion children. We must provide tools and opportunities to allow these children to fulfill their potential and shape our rapidly changing societies.

Marking the 30th anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, UNICEF released a report highlighting the slow pace of reducing the global out-of-school child population, especially in Africa. The pace of change is getting even slower: it’s estimated that 1.3 million additional teachers will be needed by 2030 just to maintain the current pupil-teacher ratios in Africa, which in many places are already at the breaking point.

In Nigeria alone, almost 40% of children are not in primary school — approximately 13.2 million kids — accounting for almost one in every five out-of-school children in the world. Of those who do graduate primary school, fewer than 25% can read a paragraph.

In a new report authored by the World Bank, another alarming figure is brought to light: nearly 87% of all children in sub-Saharan Africa are not able to read proficiently by age 10. They call this “Learning Poverty”. The effects of climate change are impacting Africans, but many can’t even read a “Do Not Litter” sign, let alone advocate for stronger climate policies.

Developing the African leaders of tomorrow

We need the next generation to commit to supporting education so that we can meet our aspirations. The good news is that young Africans want to do this. There are many examples of local leadership initiatives but they need far more support and attention.

The African Leadership Academy (ALA) equips promising adolescents from across the continent with entrepreneurial leadership skills, on top of core academic subjects. 1,180 ALA alumni are catalyzing transformative change, with 177 ventures started such as a South Sudan school that develops peace-building skills. Within the next 50 years, ALA aims to cultivate the leadership of 3 million individuals across the continent.

In sub-Saharan countries, CAMFED has helped over 3 million girls attend school and gain leadership abilities. Of its over 138,000 alumni, close to 20,000 have started their own businesses, and 61,000 are in leadership positions in their local communities, nationally and internationally.

The Teach For All network organizations in Ghana, Liberia, Morocco, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda are working to recruit promising future leaders who will expand educational opportunities for all children. Through our two-year teaching fellowship in under-resourced classrooms, we’re already seeing big results.

Young people in our countries are clamoring for a chance to shape their country's future: since 2017, Teach For Nigeria received 98,000 applications. We’re also seeing the results of recruiting and investing in leadership — our graduates have, among other things:

  • started a girl’s school
  • created tech tools
  • brought solar-powered lights to students
  • mobilized resources to buy school uniforms
  • and created an initiative to educate students on sexual health.

Africa needs a new generation of leaders. We need investment in the local capacity required to create a sustained pipeline of leaders working both inside and outside education. Of those 98,000 Nigerian applicants, only 261 were accepted. Why? Because there aren’t enough resources.

Education is the development goal that must gain more attention, especially if we are to solve climate change

Credit: Teach For Nigeria
Teach For Nigeria

The SDGs can’t be fully reached until education becomes a top priority. The two must go hand in hand.

We call on world leaders to step up their efforts this week regarding climate change, but also to acknowledge the necessity of investing far more in education and in support of local leadership in developing countries.

We must build a formidable network of determined leaders who understand the root causes of inequity and the many problems wrought by an under-educated citizenry. We choose to work in education because we must get this right in Africa: it is what will create a better world for our children — and for all of us.

This blog was adapted from a piece published in Medium

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Great post, we should work globally.

hey ,I agree that Education is the development goal that must gain more attention, especially if we are to solve climate change. Nice post.

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