Harnessing the demographic dividend through financing girls' education and gender-responsive planning in Africa

A call on African Leaders to invest more in education, particularly girls’ education

Haja Logan (Left), 12, and Mercy Yarqwe, 15, share a desk at Vincent Town Public School (ECD-grade 6), a school that receives a school grant from the GPE funding to Liberia. Vincent Town, Bomi County, Liberia

Haja Logan (Left), 12, and Mercy Yarqwe, 15, share a desk at Vincent Town Public School (ECD-grade 6), a school that receives a school grant from the GPE funding to Liberia. Vincent Town, Bomi County, Liberia

CREDIT: Credit: GPE/ Kelley Lynch

Africa’s current educational attainment is low and not up to the challenges the continent is facing. Millions of young Africans are out of school (Sub-Saharan Africa is home to over half of the world’s out-of-school population) while a majority of those in school are not even learning basic numeracy and literacy skills (GMR 2013/2014, PASEC 2014). To this one must add the growing education demand due to the demographic structure whereby the youth population in Africa is outgrowing by far the adult population.

Education in Africa must become a priority

To adequately address the issues of access, participation and completion throughout the education system, along with the quality of the education young people are receiving, requires high levels of investment into the education sector. There is a global consensus on the need for governments to allocate at least 20% of their public expenditure on education. And this needs to happen now.

Indeed harnessing its demographic dividend by ensuring that youth have the requisite cognitive skills is the path to promote the continent’s development. However, though raising public domestic efforts into the education budget to reach the minimum threshold the education is a necessary condition, it is far from being enough.

Even if African countries were to increase their level of education financing and donors were to meet their commitment to ensure that no country would be prevented from achieving Education for All due to lack of resources, for this to yield the expected benefits, attention must be given to efficient resource management and, as important, to equitable and inclusive financing for disadvantaged populations, one of the most critical being the girls.

This is why FAWE supports the Global Partnership for Education in their efforts to support African countries in increasing or maintaining education spending up to 20% or above of government expenditure, as well as the quality, efficiency and equity of education spending. Indeed GPE, with its strong focus on both girl’s education and education in fragile and conflict affected situations and humanitarian crises, including supporting countries in their efforts to give attention to the education of girls, refugees and IDPs, is complementary to FAWE areas of focus.

Investing in girls’ education is the best investment to harness the demographic dividend

Though gender disparity has been considerably reduced in Africa thanks to the Education for All (EFA) goal and the African Union (AU) Second Decade of Education for Africa Plan of Action (PoA), the challenges that lay ahead are still massive. This unfinished business resulted in a more ambitious agenda laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs 4 and 5), the Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA 16-25) and the Gender Equality Strategy for CESA, which is being finalized. Both agenda bring with them a paradigm shift from gender parity to equality in and through education.

The value of educating girls yields both private and collective returns for the girls and women and their community. Research has proved that education positively impacts their fulfillment, health, future employment prospects and earnings, voice and autonomy. Furthermore, it positively effects social transformations through promotion of progressive attitudes, fosters peace and stability as well as national development prospects.

But the most important effects of educating a girl reside in the inter-generational impact of such an investment, namely on their families’ health and well-being and their own children’s education.

When girls complete a quality education, it protects them from cultural harmful practices such as early marriage and female genital mutilation, increases their participation in public life, reduce poverty levels within any given community/region, promotes a peaceful and democratic political culture that fosters good governance, hence inducing a virtuous cycle between girls’ education and development.

Besides, there is a strong correlation between the level of girls’ education and the scope and depth of the potential expected benefits.

The cost of not acting or not addressing gender inequality translated into a foregone wealth creation of US$104.75 billion in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2014 or else a loss of 6 GDP points for the region, a figure that steadily rose from US$26.13 billion USD in 2000 (UNDP Africa report 2016). It’s an opportunity cost the continent cannot afford.

The quality of investment in girls’ education is fundamental

While looking into issues of financing education and girls’ education, it is also critical to recognize that the fiscal constraints and competing inter-sectoral demands on public resources are limiting countries capacity to indefinitely raise the level of funding of that sector. Thus, whatever the overall level of education financing, adequate investment is key to achieving quality inclusive education.

This is also valid for girls’ education. Indeed, gender barriers to education can be compounded by other factors such as poverty, disability and location (UNESCO DME, WISE), making them nearly insurmountable for young girls.

However, current allocation practices do not systematically factor in such consideration, resulting in public investment contributing to reinforcing gender, social, economic and territorial inequalities within the system because the money is not better targeted at the girls who really do need support.

It hence seems necessary to ensure clearer policies and better targeted allocations to support the most disadvantaged girls that can only be reached through public resources. This should be done both at input and process levels if equity is to be achieved. Again, this is why FAWE supports the complementary work of GPE, which supports education for the most disadvantaged, including girls, and works with government to ensure greater attention is paid to issues of equity, inclusion and gender disaggregated data.

This proactive policy planning to target the most vulnerable girls is dependent on the quality of the Educational Management Information Systems (EMIS), which often do not offer the kind of sophistication that would allow for the required planning capacity. Thus national ownership and funding of EMIS are critical.

The need for gender responsive education planning, budgeting and financing in Africa

It may be inferred from the above that financing is only efficient when accompanied with capacity to adequately plan, cost, budget and implement girls’ education in Africa.

Attention should be drawn to these critical functions, which will make sure the money spent in education and especially in girls’ education is an investment which yields maximum returns.

Investing in girls’ education is a strategic move all the more necessary for Africa, where inequalities, amongst which gender inequality, remain high.

The stakes are high and missing this opportunity could transform a potential asset into a ticking bomb, resulting in political instability and even civil war. Indeed, as much as 40% of people who join rebel movements are motivated by lack of economic opportunity (African Development Bank: Jobs for Youth in Africa - Strategy for Creating 25 Million Jobs and Equipping 50 Million Youth [2016-2025])

In order to harness Africa’s demographic dividend, investing in girls’ education will call for:

  • African governments to increase their efforts to comply with the norms and standards defined by the international community: respectively 15-20% of the national budget and / or 4-6% of the GDP allocated to education. In doing so, diversifying domestic sources of financing is key, as well as expanding the national fiscal base.
  • The donor community to step up and increase their commitment to education so that no country would be prevented from achieving Education for All due to lack of resources.
  • Consider determining an international minimum norm relative to the part of public education expenditure earmarked for girls’ education and ensure gender responsive budgeting.
  • Improved equitable allocation and efficient management of financial resources to ensure public money targets groups in need, for which resources are being prioritized, among them girls.
  • Ensuring the education sector is engendered at all levels (input – process – output) and in all sectors.
  • Ensuring supporting functions are in place to transform expenses into investment in girls’ education and being adequately resourced (HR, finance, technology, skills and competences).
Sub-Saharan Africa


Regional Coordinator, Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE)
As an Education economist, Houraye M. Anne has worked for the past 15 years on education financing with the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), host institution of the...

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