Journal Issue
Finance & Development, December 1974

Innovation in education in Western Africa: A number of original initiatives have been taken which have raised fundamental questions about the very nature of national educational objectives

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
December 1974
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Francis J. Lethem

When individuals have to face extreme difficulties, they often will find resources within themselves of which they were unaware and will show rare imagination and creativity. The same might be said for communities, people, or nations, as recent educational developments in Western Africa, which comprises some of the poorest countries in the world, demonstrate.

For example, how could a country with a gross national product (GNP) per capita of $100 or $150 (up to half of which may be nonmonetary) ever hope to provide a primary education for its school-age population? At a typical primary teacher cost of 10 to 15 times the same GNP per capita, such an objective would absorb an unbearable proportion of national resources: 10 to 15 per cent in the Sahelian countries, and 3 to 5 per cent in the richer coastal countries. When one considers that in most of these countries public revenues themselves amount to no more than about 15 per cent of gross domestic product, even under the most optimistic economic/financial projections, conventional education could not reach more than a minority in the coming decades.

What then has happened over the last decade in Western Africa?

Besides the linear expansion of the formal systems—which almost exclusively serve the needs of the modern sector of national economies—a number of original initiatives have been taken which have raised fundamental questions about the very nature of national educational objectives.

Upper Volta, which enrolls only about 10 per cent of its primary school-age children, has for more than 10 years operated a low-cost network of rural education center (CERs) to provide rural youths who have not had any primary education with a blend of practical training in agriculture, handicrafts, and elements of literacy and numeracy.

These centers each enroll 30-40 young people for about three years of work, study, and training. Ideally this period should have coincided with the transition between adolescence and adulthood, but pressure of enrollments resulted in a lowering of the admission age, which in turn changed the concept of rural education and has made it difficult for the countries to absorb their trainees. Until now, teachers had been recruited on a contractual basis, which kept costs low. The best results often have been obtained by teachers with a background in agriculture supplemented by pedagogy, and the results can be seen in the degree of initiative and entrepreneurial spirit shown by former trainees. In particular, a number of enterprising CER leavers are creating on their own initiative pre-cooperative groups which associate traditional human/economic relationships and elements of modernity learned at the centers. They might, for example, buy a pair of oxen to plow their own fields and rent them afterward to other peasants in the village. But, in accordance with tradition, they leave to the village elders the decisions about the use of the profits made by the cooperatives.

Villagers pleased

When queried, villagers are often pleased with this new type of education, which they view as a means of keeping young people in the village, instead of an encouragement toward migration to urban areas or abroad. Similarly, young people are being given by their community a chance to prove themselves, whereas the primary school dropout or the primary school leaver unable to find wage employment is considered a failure.

The experience with rural education in Upper Volta leads to the following fundamental generalizations:

  • age of admission (at least 15 for boys) is crucial, if rural education is not to be perceived as a poor substitute for the primary school;

  • programs must be taught in a language understood by the students (e.g., one of the four national languages in Upper Volta instead of French, the official language);

  • the programs must also be coordinated with the work of other rural development services (e.g., those under the Ministries of Agriculture, Health, etc.) and preferably be under a decentralized administrative authority;

  • once they leave the school environment, young people must find productive activities where their skills can be used.

It was only logical, therefore, that many of the same principles would apply when Senegal recently designed its own Village Education Centers, Enseignement moyen pratique (EMP), even though they were originally intended merely as a means to reintegrate primary school leavers (about 35 per cent of the age group) after the break created by the primary school. The EMP right—much more than the CER—is an education right for serving the community’s needs as perceived by its members, who will contribute to both capital and operating costs.

EMP scheme

The EMP scheme is already under way on an experimental basis under the leadership of an especially qualified, experienced, and imaginative national team. It will soon include about 30 rights, with each one reaching about 4,000 adults and young people (literate and illiterate) or 3-4 per cent of the corresponding school-age group. The scheme is benefiting from the decentralization of the country’s administration which is being taken in parallel. EMP is of special interest because it rediscovers several of Africa’s most important educational traditions:

  • Education is a community responsibility and teaches the child proper behavior toward both his elders and peers; and learning is an integral part of a child’s work experience with his father in farming and crafts, and his mother in domestic arts. EMP would draw on the skills of a community’s best farmers and craftsmen, and would supplement them with the knowledge of the various government extension services. Both the parents and their children would learn from the latter—even though at different times—thus avoiding the creation of a generation gap.

  • Cultural traditions and values are being lost as young people in a village—school as well as nonschool goers—now spend for their initiation only a few weeks (instead of a year or more) during the vacation period from work or from school. EMP, instead, incorporates among its staff the tutors (selibé) who are traditionally responsible for transmitting the community’s cultural values.

  • Finally, since to be successful this type of education has to be associated with a work environment, the rights are to be created first in areas or regions where developmental activities are occurring and employment (whether traditional or modern) is being generated. But one could also well conceive of training activities geared to facilitating migration toward jobs available within Senegal or even abroad.

As emphasized by Louise K. Houenas-sou in Dualisme de I’Education dans les Pays de la Côte du Bénin (Lomé, Togo: INRS, 1973), there may be other valuable traditions in the education of young people which many Western African countries need to rediscover:

  • 1) education used to be provided on an equal basis to all children of a community in the same age group;

  • 2) it emphasized principles of solidarity and mutual assistance;

  • 3) promotion to the next age group was compulsory and automatic;

  • 4) there were therefore no dropouts and, in contrast to the selective examinations of modern education systems, everyone succeeded through the initiation process (épreuves);

  • 5) teaching methods included the systematic use of games including riddles, legends, and acting—all related to the local culture and traditions;

  • 6) technical skills were learned on the job through the traditional apprenticeship system.

Reintroduction of some of these elements has occurred in several cases. Ghana and Nigeria, for example, use automatic promotion in their primary schools. The educational television programs in Niger make use of traditional African teaching methods (which are also modern in many respects and include active teaching techniques and teamwork) and reach all children of a given age in the villages where the few experimental schools are located. Unlike the following two cases, however, these programs are not part of a systematic educational reform plan.

The description of the two cases—Mauritania’s experiment with the Koranic schools and Mali’s functional literacy program—is derived from unpublished material by M. J. Wilson, a World Bank staff member.

What Mauritania is attempting to do is determine the extent to which its Koranic “schools” can be used to provide all its young people with the basic elements of reading, writing, and arithmetic (a similar experimentation occurred several years ago in northern Nigeria with the Islamiya schools). Among the key positive features are these: Arabic is Mauritania’s main language, the Koranic schools are staffed by volunteer teachers (marabouts), and these schools are supported by the parents, who often pay the teachers according to the results achieved. There are two other important elements: primary education and religious affairs are the responsibility of the same Ministry, and the experimentation has the support of the political authorities.

In a Koranic school teaching is a very simple activity that can take place in a tent or under a tree. The marabout writes the first character of the Arabic alphabet on the child’s wooden slate, teaching him the sounds of the letters and how to form them, together with a comprehensive system of inculcating moral and spiritual values and proper social behavior through individual instruction. By the time the child reaches Part 10 (out of 60), he probably has acquired the ability to read and understand new verses of the Koran.

While respecting the Koranic school’s religious and cultural content, the experiment in Mauritania will assist the marabouts (much of the quality of Koranic education depends on the natural abilities of the teacher) through the use of modest inputs in the form of instructional materials and broadcast information and lessons. The marabouts will also benefit from improved supervision by the primary school inspectorate. The importance of this experiment, if successful, lies in the possibility of its leading to the use of the improved Koranic school as an integral part of a national program that would spread literacy and numeracy to all children in the primary age group, instead of today’s mere 15 per cent, without undue increase in recurrent costs, After this, transfer to the advanced grades of primary school would be possible.

Does all this mean that adults who have not benefited from formal schooling or other nonformal alternatives will be condemned to remaining illiterate their entire working life? Although illiteracy does not equate with incompetence, in the modern world and even in the African countryside, it certainly makes learning slower, retention more difficult, and some forms of organization (cooperatives) impossible, and may prevent the individual from participating effectively in the activities of his community or even from managing his own affairs.

Functional literacy program

Mali’s successful functional literacy program is worth mentioning here, as we can observe its progress in the groundnut area. Its purpose is to provide the worker with the basic skills and knowledge required to improve his work habits and techniques. A first step is to give him the skills of reading, writing (in his own language), and counting to a level where he can use them in his daily work. In the case of farmers in the groundnut scheme, these uses involve calculating family taxes, recording purchases of production factors and sales of produce, estimating returns, etc. To maintain a high level of motivation throughout the program and ensure its economic efficiency, the content (what is read, examples of calculations, and so on) is directly related to the activities of production in terms of (a) its themes (the value of fungicides and when to use them, estimation of the quantity of fertilizer per hectare, etc.); and (b) insofar as possible, its timing: for example, the topic of land clearing to permit the use of animal-drawn implements is treated just before the farmer must perform this work. Thus, the objectives of the agricultural extension service are also those of the functional literacy program, whose content and sequence are jointly determined by the agricultural technicians and the Ministry of Education staff responsible for the pedagogical aspects of its operation. This collaboration extends to the operation of the functional literacy centers.

The conclusions of a recent opinion survey indicate that the majority of extension workers believe that the functional literacy program directly benefits their work. Beyond the immediate objective of improving the production and commercialization of groundnuts, the functional literacy program aims at the modernization of the villages. Being able to read and count opens up new possibilities for community development (the creation of cooperatives, for example), as well as for political participation. The presence of literate peasants in certain villages has, for example, led to the spontaneous creation of mutual self-help associations and to the latter’s assumption of the responsibility for the collection and commercialization of groundnuts—still a major task for the groundnut scheme organization, which charges the producer for its services at the point of sale. Thus, over the long term, changes in socioeconomic behavior are sought and the functional literacy program is likely to change as the initial objectives are achieved. Already some 20 rights have moved on to a program in French for adults, while in other villages where the adults have already been made literate, a basic education program for children and youths is being offered. Furthermore, once they have become literate in their own language the peasants tend to use it to write to administration officials, who used to work exclusively in French and now have no choice but to learn to read and write their own languages themselves, which is said to require only about one day.

Finally, the cost per literate, using the functional literacy technique, may be approximately $38, compared with at least $150 per pupil completing 4 grades of primary education. Although the content of primary education differs from that of a functional literacy program, this comparison is appropriate because both approaches meet roughly the same basic individual needs.

Could this experiment with functional literacy lead to a more general application? This is precisely what Mali is about to study as part of its plan to progressively provide a basic education for all its young people, only 20 per cent of whom are presently enrolled in primary schools.

Questioning the value systems

The experiments described above are only some of the most striking in Western Africa today. They all imply that small, often poor nations are raising fundamental questions about the value systems embodied in the types of formal education which are accepted almost worldwide. These questions relate to their content and relevance to local culture, tradition, and national identity; to the social attitudes they encourage and the opportunities for economic/social promotion which the nature of their internal selection processes creates; and to their financial costs to the nation, compared with their impact on the majority of the population.

For a long time the objective of providing everyone with at least a primary education was considered valid per se. Now other questions are being raised, particularly in those countries where new opportunities for wage employment in the economy’s modern sector—for which the primary school almost exclusively prepares—are becoming very scarce indeed. Should primary education be followed by some kind of training to reintegrate the child into his environment? Or should the nature of the primary school as presently conceived be thoroughly reexamined?

The latter seems to be the course taken by several Western African countries, which have felt the need to create a Ministry of Fundamental (or Basic) Education to deal with the problem. As can be surmised from the various cases described in this article, their task is likely to consist of finding the means to provide for everyone—although not necessarily starting before age 10-11—a basic education that could be defined as the educational minimum which would be needed by a responsible adult to operate in his country’s environment and which would be consistent with the country’s specific financial resources. This concept of basic education may lead to major changes in future educational development approaches because it will necessarily require a closer interrelationship between economic and educational development on a regional basis, as already illustrated by Mali’s experiment to include functional literacy as an integral component of any new development project.

Teaching all children

As André Magnen of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization concluded in “Economie et éducation en milieu rural” (André Cruiziat, Secrétariat d’Etat aux Affaires Etrangères, Direction de l’Aide au Développement, Paris, France, 1974), Western Africa is probably in the process of generating structures whereby all school-age children would be exposed to the same low-cost basic education, taught in the national languages, adapted to the local culture, and integrated with the local social and economic activities. After this basic education, some would study further to meet modern sector requirements and the others would complete their initiation (e.g., through youth clubs or precooperative groups) so as to be able to participate fully in agricultural activities or, through the traditional apprenticeship system, become artisans.

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