Education: The missing piece in the sustainable development puzzle?

The former South African President, late Nelson Mandela once said “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. The concept that education enlightens people towards a brighter future is not a recent development; decades of studying the effects of education on the lives of the marginalized, particularly women and children, reveals it has positive effects socially, culturally, politically, and economically as the single most determining factor improving overall well-being and prosperity. A significant part of our lives is spent acquiring both formal and informal knowledge. Though education systems vary globally, the goal remains to produce competent, knowledgeable, and responsible citizens. The success of an education system could be judged by the caliber of the individuals it produces. Most studies have shown that countries that are suffering socially and economically are lacking educationally while countries with advanced education systems record economic development. Pillay et al. (2008) concluded, in a study evaluating the relationship between higher education and economic development in Finland, South Korea, and the State of North Carolina in the United States, that there exists a direct relationship between education and economic development as increasing investments in education fostered improved research and development and engendered industrialization.

A country is as rich as its drive for knowledge. A country with a skilled workforce can harness the skills available, both cognitive and practical, to enjoy a cycle of economic benefits that impact overall well-being and national prosperity. The need for knowledge-driven economies cannot be over-emphasized in a world that is changing faster than our ability to respond to these changes. Citizens must continuously improve themselves to become globally competitive as individuals. Education improves the quality of political, social, and economic questions asked as well as the solutions proffered to impact overall well-being and national prosperity. It also improves the quality of individual choices and boosts individual confidence in their ability to find their own path and make a life for themselves. A dynamic and diffused population can drive a dynamic and diffused economy, a condition that is necessary to sustain long-term economic growth. Therefore, there exists a direct link between the quality of education or knowledge and economic and social development.

By 2035, it is estimated that Africa will have a higher working population than either India or China, thus with the right skills, training, and job opportunities we can produce a sustainable consumer market. However, the absence of these three imperatives can result in a downward spiral of economic activities and hinder national prosperity by denying citizens the opportunities of getting decent work, escaping poverty, and supporting families as well as developing communities. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, “Universal Basic Skills: What countries stand to gain”, reveals that if every child is provided with the basic skills and education needed to compete in society it will boost Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by an average of 28 percent per annum in low-income countries and 16 percent per annum in high-income countries for the next 80 years. Unfortunately, the World Economic Forum reported that more than 250 million children globally are not learning the basic skills needed to compete in the labour market and a significant fraction of this number are in Third World countries spread mostly across Africa and Asia that are educationally deprived.

Singapore, for instance, is a country with minimal natural resources that has harnessed the quality of its human capital by heavily investing in technical education with a focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics over the years in order to remain competitive. Post-independence in 1965, she was plagued with a small domestic market, high levels of unemployment, inequality, and poverty with about 70 percent of her population living in extremely inauspicious conditions. Through investment in technical education with an adult literacy rate of 96.8 percent (Central Intelligence Agency’s World Facts), Singapore has grown to be the most open economy in the world (World Economic Forum’s Global Enabling Trade Report 2016), the most pro-business (World Bank’s Doing Business Report, 2016), the second most economically free country after Hong Kong (The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom 2016), the fourth most change-ready country (KPMG’s Change Readiness Index,2017) and the seventh least corrupt country in the world (Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, 2016).

In contrast to Singapore, Nigeria-though blessed with a good number of natural resources as well as a substantial population size- has an adult literacy rate of 59.6 percent (Central Intelligence Agency’s World Facts). This implies a 70 percent population illiteracy rate that translates to about 127 million people being deprived of twenty-first-century skills needed to engender individual confidence and subsequently, economic independence. If the current annual population growth rate of 2.5 percent is maintained the Nigerian population is projected to be not less than 400 million by 2050 and three-quarters of that population will be illiterates if nothing is done to address existing deficits in the education sector. This will leave Nigeria with approximately 300 million economically deprived and dependent citizens that will simultaneously reduce the country’s output and put pressure on her income by the year 2050. Also, Nigeria’s ranking on global indices is appalling as one of the least open economies in the world- as the 127th of 136 countries (World Economic Forum’s Global Enabling Trade Report 2016), one of the most anti-business- as the 169th of 189 countries (World Bank’s Doing Business Report, 2016), one of the most economically unfree- as the 115th of 180 countries (The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom 2016), one of the least change ready- as the 120th of 136 countries (KPMG’s Change Readiness Index,2017 and among the countries with a high incidence of corruption- at 115th of 180 countries (Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, 2016).

Though development is a multi-faceted process that involves cross-interaction between multiple components, the importance of quality education matching market-skills requirements cannot be disparaged. According to the former Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), Kofi Annan, “knowledge is power; information is liberating; education is the premise of progress in every society, in every family”. Education is vital in building a nation’s ability to combat poverty, disease, religious fanaticism, political chaos, ethnic bigotry, gender discrimination, economic depression, and so on. In order to avert a potential crisis situation and achieve national prosperity, it is therefore crucial for a country to maximize its human capital by putting in place an education system that equips its citizens with the right knowledge and skills needed at every point in time to sustain a country’s economic growth. Quality education should include “twenty-first-century” skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, and digital literacy and should be imparted by qualified, professionally trained, motivated, and well-supported teachers.