External Aid for African Education: Enhancing the impact of international assistance

Contributor Notes

How the donor community could help national efforts at educational development in Sub-Saharan Africa

This paper examines the policy implications of structural changes in financial markets. Domestic financial markets have become less segmented, and the major financial centers more integrated. At the same time, the structural changes in financial markets have improved efficiency by lowering intermediation costs, increasing the ability to hedge financial risks associated with currency, interest rate, and price volatility and opening up access to new sources of savings. The widespread application of computer and telecommunications technology to financial markets has permitted markets to process a significantly larger volume of transactions.


This paper examines the policy implications of structural changes in financial markets. Domestic financial markets have become less segmented, and the major financial centers more integrated. At the same time, the structural changes in financial markets have improved efficiency by lowering intermediation costs, increasing the ability to hedge financial risks associated with currency, interest rate, and price volatility and opening up access to new sources of savings. The widespread application of computer and telecommunications technology to financial markets has permitted markets to process a significantly larger volume of transactions.

Ralph W. Harbison and Aklilu Habte

African governments are facing not only very difficult overall economic conditions, but also the challenge of reversing recent declines in school enrollment rates and the quality of education (see preceding article by Moock and Jamison). The international donor community can play a critical role in this effort, but only if patterns of international aid to education change significantly.

This article analyzes the volume and distribution of recent official international assistance for African education and training, and offers suggestions for enhancing the impact of such assistance in the future.

This article is adapted from a section of the World Bank Policy Study Education Policies for Sub-Saharan Africa: Policies for Adjustment, Rehabilitation, and Expansion (1988).

Recent aid to education

External resources are critically important to African education. In the early 1980s, international aid to education and training in Africa averaged $1.3 billion annually—or about 15 percent of African domestic public expenditures on education. Almost 60 percent of this amount was direct aid channeled through education ministries and strictly for the education sector (see table). The rest was aid for project-related training and the cost of the overseas education of African students. This article is concerned only with direct aid.

Aid for the purchase of recurrent and capital items was equivalent to roughly 17 percent and 30 percent, respectively, of domestic education expenditures in the median African country. Both proportions decrease steadily as countries become more developed. However, neither the level of development nor the magnitude of educational need was a significant determinant of education aid per capita. Only the size of the country’s population appears to be a significant predictor of per capita assistance, with smaller countries receiving more.

Education aid to most countries has tended to focus on discrete investment projects, with little or no effective coordination among donors in support of a coherent national strategy for the sector. Moreover, compared with current African needs, a disproportionate share of aid goes to higher education in comparison with primary schools: only about 7 percent of all direct aid to African education is used to finance primary education, compared with 16 percent and 34 percent, respectively, to support general secondary and higher education. With the exception of Sweden, which has supported primary education generously in certain East African countries, the lack of balance is even more dramatic among the bilateral donors: less than 4 percent of bilateral direct aid goes for primary education, compared with 42 percent for higher education.

Although the absence of non-salary recurrent inputs to education has become the governing constraint limiting educational performance at all levels in Africa, only 11 percent of international education aid is currently allocated to such operating costs. By contrast, 44 percent of education aid supports technical assistance by foreign experts. This emphasis is even stronger among bilateral donors. Only 35 percent of multilateral aid is used to finance recurrent expenditures, compared with 92 percent of bilateral aid, and only about 7 percent of multilateral aid is used to pay for operating costs. (UNICEF, with its focus on non-salary recurrent expenditures, is a notable exception to this general practice.)

The apparent inconsistencies between Africa’s current needs and the recent distribution of education aid do not, by themselves, mean that past assistance has been either misdirected or unproductive. In an environment in which essentially all direct education aid to Africa was for discrete investment projects, the concentration of aid on small countries, on higher institutions, and on the provision of foreign experts and fellowships for study abroad was understandable and may even have been rational.

Public international aid to education and training in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1981–83

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Source: B. Millot, F. Orivel, and J. Rasera, 1987. “L’aide extérieure à l’éducation en Afrique sub-saharienne’ Discussion Paper Series No. EDT65. World Bank Education and Training Department, Washington. DC.

Disbursements to central ministries of education (direct aid).

In sectors other than education.

The neglect of primary education may be explained by the failure of the donor community—and sometimes of the recipient country as well—to recognize the singular importance of primary education in African development, and by differences between primary and higher level education in the ways resources are generated and utilized. School construction and teacher salaries typically account for more than 95 percent of expenditures in primary education. Since primary schools are highly dispersed, the cost of an individual school is minuscule from the perspective of an international donor, and no single school enjoys high visibility or identifiable impact. Moreover, the increasing reliance on the use of local materials and labor to build primary schools limits the potential contribution of donor agencies. The international donor community has been generally hesitant to finance local salaries.

There are relatively few higher and secondary technical institutions, on the other hand, and each is visible and has a discernible impact on the educational landscape. Donors can easily provide foreign exchange to cover the capital costs of construction and equipment for these institutions, and support staff development by financing graduate study abroad and supplying expatriate professors.

While the current distribution of direct education aid may be understandable, the nature of the challenges facing educational development in Africa suggests that both the form and the content of international aid should change. The new approach should conform to the need for African governments to design and implement education sector development programs that support policy reform according to each country’s needs. As the policy reform develops, the level of aid to education should increase in real terms.

Policy design and implementation

African governments will have to undertake two immediate tasks in their efforts to institute long-term improvements in their education systems: develop the policies and mechanisms for implementing national programs, and mobilize resources to pay for these programs. New forms of international support will be helpful in accomplishing both of these tasks.

Support for program development. The design of a sound program to support policy reform in a country is a difficult process. It entails the careful selection, phasing, and linking of specific policies from among the wide array of options for containing costs, diversifying sources of finance, and providing necessary services. (See accompanying article by Moock and Jamison.) In many countries, this task may require more experience and analytical talent, in more professional disciplines and applied much more intensively, than local resources alone can supply, at least in the short run.

In this regard, the international donor community should offer expeditiously three related kinds of support:

• Seed money to cover part of both local and foreign costs of policy-development and management-improvement activities, such as strengthening examination systems and building national capacity to conduct research on education. Sharing these costs with local authorities, perhaps on a matching basis, would provide an important incentive to African governments.

• Ready access to the current experience of other countries in the formulation and implementation of education policy by facilitating intensive intercountry collaboration.

• Establishment and financing of local and foreign sources of high-quality, specialized technical expertise to assist African governments formulate, monitor, and evaluate their education policies.

Support for program implementation. The implementation of sound education sector development programs will typically require more resources, over a longer period of time, than can be mobilized internally. Disbursements need to be tied to sequenced achievement of agreed policy objectives, which can be verified in periodic joint reviews of the program.

One promising approach would be to make greater use of current donor consortia for individual countries. Ghana’s ambitious education sector adjustment program, for example, was the subject of a donor group meeting in Vienna in 1986 as an outgrowth of the World Bank Consultative Group set up to consider Ghana’s overall adjustment program. The United Nations Development Program organized a Round Table on Education for Burundi, chaired by the Minister of Education. The opportunity for African countries to meet periodically with all prospective donors to review the policy framework and operational programs of their long-term educational development strategies, to monitor progress in implementation, and to agree collectively on resource requirements and sources of finance would greatly enhance the coordination of aid in support of recipient countries’ priority needs.

Future aid allocations

Adjustment policies that seek to diversify sources of finance and reduce unit costs, thereby economizing on public resources, usually do not depend for their implementation upon a fresh injection of financial resources. However, the international community has a vital role to play in enabling African governments to implement policies on the other two dimensions of change: revitalization and expansion of their educational systems.

Aid for revitalization. The revitalization of African educational systems depends first and foremost upon correcting the imbalance between salary and non-salary recurrent expenditures. Instructional materials—particularly textbooks and other written materials, consumable supplies for laboratory demonstrations, and libraries—are central to this effort. At all levels, but particularly for secondary and higher education, maintenance of the physical plant is another critical priority for non-salary recurrent finance.

Assuming that by 1988 there will be roughly 63 million African children in primary school, 16 million in secondary school, and 0.5 million in higher institutions, and also assuming that the cost per student of providing an initial stock of materials is, respectively, $9, $18, and $90, the start-up costs of providing the necessary instructional materials, incurred over a three-year period, would be approximately $900 million. Thereafter, roughly one third of that amount would be required to replace textbooks, ensure continued flows of consumables, and cope with expanding enrollments. A reasonable target, phased in over 10 years (1991-2000), would be to recover 60 percent of replacement costs of materials from primary students and their families, and 95 percent of these costs from secondary and higher level enrollees. By the beginning of the next century, the shortfall in instructional materials could be eliminated at a cost of about $3.3 billion, or roughly 33 percent of direct education aid under the pessimistic (and, indeed, unacceptable) assumption that there will be no increase in aid over the 13-year period 1988–2000 from the annual amounts disbursed over 1981–83.

As a result of the economic crisis and the resultant cuts in public education budgets, maintenance of capital assets—physical plant and major items of equipment—was deferred, often for so long that many countries now face an immense burden of costly repairs. The situation is particularly serious with respect to equipment for technical subjects in secondary and higher institutions.

Aid for selective expansion. International aid can support the renewed advance toward universal primary education in two important ways: getting the classrooms built and assuring that students who will fill them are intellectually and physically ready to learn. Although it is appropriate for local communities to assume greater responsibility for financing primary-school construction, African governments can, with the help of international aid, provide crucial support for this effort in the form of applied research on low-cost construction techniques and management systems, and even payment of the salaries of some workers.

In countries where the government is vigorously implementing a comprehensive package of policy reforms that includes expansion of primary education, disbursement of aid should be in some measure contingent upon successful performance in the program of building primary schools.

In addition to classrooms, teachers, and instructional materials, primary pupils must enjoy at least minimum standards of health and nutrition in order to learn. Organization and support for measures to achieve these standards deserve international financial assistance. External aid can also help in developing cost-effective systems of continuous in-service support and training of teachers and headmasters at the primary and secondary levels.

To help expand secondary and higher education, the international community can assist in the development of “distance education” in three important ways. First, aid can finance the capital costs and development of course materials and necessary examination systems. Second, donor agencies can provide the foreign exchange for individuals to enroll in extramural correspondence courses offered by other countries as a partial substitute for sending students abroad to study. Third, and most important, a number of donors could collaborate to help finance an African distance-teaching center to assist individual countries in establishing or improving their own distance-teaching capacity.

International aid for training currently takes two quite different forms: support for the training of those responsible for building, operating, or maintaining specific projects, and for construction of relatively expensive vocational secondary schools. Future international aid should go in three broad directions to strengthen training. First, such aid must also go to projects outside the education sector. Second, aid for job-specific training in secondary schools should concentrate on maximizing the use of existing schools and minimizing their unit costs. Third, and as a priority, international donors should expand their support for the development and use of training institutions that serve and are partially controlled and financed by employers.

Africa must intensify efforts to develop its own capacity to conduct research and to provide high-quality postgraduate education and research training in fields central to African development, for example, agriculture, health, management, and engineering. Determining which institutions will participate in postgraduate programs of excellence, in which fields, and at what levels, will not be easy—for African governments or for their international partners. Ultimately, decisions must be made on a discipline-by-discipline basis and in light of an assessment of regional requirements. Sustained collaboration with appropriate regional organizations, such as the Association of African Universities, may be useful in this regard.

Finance & Development, March 1988
Author: International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.