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06 Apr 2023
Birger Fredriksen

Promise Not Kept: Universal Primary Education for All Children in Sub-Saharan Africa

In this blogpost, Birger Fredriksen discusses a number of challenges that have constrained the implementation of universal primary education (UPE) in sub-Saharan Africa and proposes some priorities for a “policy reset”.

A timeline for achieving universal primary education (UPE) was established in the early 1960s at four UNESCO regional conferences. The target was 1970 for Latin America and 1980 for the Arab States, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). For more than 50 years I have been closely associated with work to achieve these goals, as well as their successors for 2015, the 1990 Education for All and 2000 Millennium Development Goals.

Based on a recent article, this blog discusses why reaching UPE has evolved from a shared developing country challenge in the last half of the 20th century to largely a SSA challenge today. Even before COVID-19 it was clear that, in the 2030s, most SSA children are likely to enter adulthood illiterate. This is a grave global development failure. Persistent low female literacy is particularly serious as it would reinforce the intergenerational vicious cycle of poverty, low health and education status, and slow demographic transition.

Why has UPE become largely a SSA challenge?

The answer is complex. SSA is a very diverse region, and some countries have done well. Still, many SSA children do not enter school, only two-thirds of those who enroll complete primary schooling, and fewer than half of these have acquired basic literacy and numeracy skills. This shows both the unexpected complexity of implementing UPE and the need for stronger commitment and more effective strategies. But it is also because factors outside the education system have hampered progress towards UPE more in SSA than in other regions. This blog highlights three interrelated factors. Their combined impact remains huge in most countries.

(i) Colonial legacy. In 1960, SSA had a larger education backlog than other regions. The gross enrollment ratio (GER) in primary education was 35% compared to 50% in North Africa, 63% in South Asia, 72% in Latin America and 77% in South East Asia (UNESCO, 1993). It was less than 10% in Burkina, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Somalia. The secondary GER was 3% compared to 10% to 15% in the other regions. Some countries did not even have any secondary school, and most did not provide any tertiary education. Nine in ten adults were illiterate. Importantly, beyond low enrollment, the colonial legacy continues to negatively impact fundamental aspects of learning such as content, language of instruction, pedagogy, and culture (ADEA, 2017).

(ii) Slow demographic transition. SSA’s high total fertility rate and its slow decline has made SSA’s demographic transition much slower than that of other developing regions (May and Guengant, 2020). This is a key reason why SSA did not reach the 1980 UPE target. The school-age population grew by 93% from 1960 to 1980, compared to 18% foreseen when the target was set in 1961 (Fredriksen, 1983). Though fertility rates are declining, SSA’s school-age population is projected to grow by 52% from 2020 to 2050, while Asia and Latin America will see a decline starting this decade. Thus, most SSA countries must continue to massively increase primary enrollment, while other regions can shift resources to expanding post-basic education and improving quality at all levels.

(iii) Slow economic transition and growth. This is a major factor in explaining SSA’s very severe constraints on education financing. While growth picked up in most countries in the early 1960s, it has been uneven over time and across countries. Some countries are poorer now than in 1960.  Strong growth in the 1960s was followed by a per capita GDP decline of 36% from 1970 to 1997 (SSA excluding South Africa), compared to a per capita GDP growth of 55% in Latin America, 88% in South Asia and 355% in East Asia (World Bank, 2000). Per capita growth picked up from 2000 to 2014, but has stagnated since then (ACET, 2021).

Public and household education financing mirror the slow and uneven GDP growth. Further, the dominance of the informal economy severely constrains tax revenues, which constitute only 18% of GDP in low-income countries (LICs) compared to 34% in high-income countries (HICs), (UNICEF, 2019). Thus, most SSA countries have been in a “low education financing trap” during the last two decades (Lewin, 2022). Despite spending a higher share of public budgets on education than other regions, the combination of slow economic growth and low level of taxation has severely constrained education financing. For example, about two-thirds of the strong growth in public education spending during the period 1999-2007 can be attributed to solid GDP growth.  And households account for 39% of total education spending in LICs compared to 16% HICs (Education Finance Watch, 2022).

The urgency of a policy reset. 

SSA governments must use their post-pandemic “build back better” efforts to develop education systems that better serve the large share of children and young workers who derive little benefit from public education spending. Two-thirds of SSA’s young and fast-growing work force has not completed primary education. The population aged 15-29 years is projected to grow by some 90% between 2020 and 2050 at which point it will account for 29% of the world’s population in this age-group, up from 17% in 2020. The extent to which this huge, young workforce provides a “demographic dividend” depends on whether its members have the basic skills as well as opportunities to become productively employed.


Space permits to emphasize only two top priorities of such a policy reset:

First, universalize 8-10 years of basic education. UPE remains an indispensable first step.  However, now lower secondary education must be included in the basic education cycle to equip youth with the skills required to learn and adjust in today’s rapidly changing job market (Fredriksen and Helgø Fossberg, 2014). Further, content must be adjusted in response to that most of those completing the cycle are likely to join the labor market, hopefully after some short-term skill training, rather than progressing directly to upper secondary education. And inequity by location, gender and, especially, wealth remains huge (UNICEF, 2019).

The development of a basic education cycle that responds better to labor market demands will require many changes. In particular, technical and vocational education and training (TVET), now often considered as a second-rate, “dead-end” option for children who cannot gain entry to upper secondary, must be accepted as a valuable alternative path to work and/or further education (Mastercard Foundation, 2020). SSA also lags in upper secondary and tertiary education. However, compared to the type of skills their economies can effectively employ, this lag is one of quality and labor market relevance rather than low enrollment.

Second, provide massive skills upgrading for workers in the informal economy. This is essential in order to accelerate the transformation from economies where 80-90% of workers are in low productivity activities, to economies where growth is driven by rising productivity in such activities, as well as growth in the manufacturing and modern service sectors. Though accounting for the large majority of workers, farm and farm-related businesses have typically not been considered in strategies targeting education, youth employment, and poverty reduction in SSA (FAO, 2018). The climate and food security crises have further increased the urgency of correcting decades of neglect of agriculture (ACET, 2017). Much can be learned from China where agriculture’s contribution to the impressive fall in poverty has been estimated at four times that of industry and services (Ravallion, 2009).

In most of SSA, the greatest impact of technology and the “4th Industrial Revolution” will be in the informal economy. This will require policies designed to strengthen the quality and relevance of programs provided by both the formal and informal training sectors, as well as cooperation to draw on the comparative advantage of each sector. Presently, formal TVET responds especially poorly to the special needs of informal sector workers, most of whom have not completed primary education and, in order to gain a living, need to combine training with work (Adams et al., 2013). The importance of informal training is illustrated by Ghana where 10 times as many students are involved in traditional apprenticeships than in formal TVET (Brown and Slater, 2018).

Concluding remarks.

The main responsibility for breaking SSA’s current basic human capital barrier on individual and national development lies with SSA governments. But this is a massive challenge that merits strong international support. The skills of SSA’s huge and growing young population will have major impacts beyond SSA on economic growth, migration, and security. Though aid is a small part of total education spending, its impact could be greatly increased if used catalytically to support innovative activities to build more effective and equitable education systems (Lewin, 2022). Further, as emphasized in the 2021 report from the International Commission on the Futures of Education, in today’s interdependent world education must be reinvented to help address common global challenges that no single nation can successfully address alone. The past is rich on ambitious national plans and excellent recommendations by global reports and conferences but, unfortunately, poor on implementation. Can we do better in the future?



About the Author

Birger Fredriksen has for more than 50 years been closely associated with work to promote Universal Primary Education (UPE) in developing countries. This includes 10 years in UNESCO (1971-81) and 20 in the World Bank (1984-2004), plus work as a consultant for aid agencies, philanthropies, and countries. He has also written on progress towards UPE, with an emphasis since the early 2000s on sub-Saharan Africa (see Fredriksen, 1978, 1981, 2005, 2020, 2022).




ACET (2017). Africa transformation report 2017: Agriculture powering Africa’s economic transformation. Accra: ACET.

ADEA (2017). Triennale general synthesis paper by Mamadou Ndoye, General Coordinator. Abidjan: Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA).

FAO (2018). Leveraging youth employment opportunities in agriculture in rural sectors in Africa. FAO regional conference for Africa, Khartoum, 19-23 February 2018.

Fredriksen, B. (1978). Universal primary education in developing countries: A statistical review. Prospects, 8, 363-374.

Fredriksen, B. (1981). Progress towards regional targets for universal primary education: A statistical review. International Journal of Educational Development, 1(1), 1-16.

Fredriksen, B. (1983). The arithmetic of achieving universal primary education. International Review of Education, 29, 141-153.

Fredriksen, B. (2005). Keeping the Promise: What is holding up achieving primary education for all African children? June 2005. Finance and Development, The IMF, Washington, DC, 42(2).

Fredriksen, B. (2020). Global monitoring of the seven SDG4 targets for Sub-Saharan Africa: The imperative of prioritizing universal basic education. Global Monitoring of National Educational Development: Coercive or Constructive? Geneva: NORRAG Special Issue No 3.

Fredriksen, B., & Helgø Fossberg, C. (2014). The case for investing in secondary education in Sub-Saharan Africa: Challenges and opportunities. The International Review of Education, 60, 235–259.

Lewin, K. M. (2022, September). Catalysing sustainable educational financing in low-income countries: Strategies for Sub-Saharan Africa. ODI London.

UNESCO (1993). Trends and Projections of Enrollment by Level of Education, by Age and by Sex, 1960-2025 (as assessed in 1993). Current Surveys and Research in Statistics. CSR-E-63. Paris: UNESCO.

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