Accra — As the school year began this September, there was welcome news for Ghana's nearly half-million students entering high school: President Nana Akufo-Addo had fulfilled his campaign promise of free secondary education for children nationwide. He swore not only to do away with admissions fees, but also to provide free textbooks and meals, the cost of which had often remained a barrier for the poorest students.
Ghana had introduced free compulsory education at the primary and junior high school levels in 1995, but implementation had been painfully slow - and students' educational dreams were often cut off before high school. Even in 2014, only 37% of the nation's students were enrolled in secondary school, owing to high fees. The president's move is thus an inspiring example that Ghana's neighbors should follow.
Unfortunately, despite progressive reforms like these, students across Africa still face other steep barriers to a truly comprehensive education. In Ghana, for example, poor and rural children are unlikely to reap the full benefits of their new access to secondary education.
The situation is arguably worse elsewhere on the continent. The issue is not only lack of access to schools, but also lack of good schools. The results of a staggering new report from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics shows that six out of ten children and adolescents around the world - 600 million in total - are not achieving basic skills in mathematics and reading. In Sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that 88% of children and teenagers will enter adulthood without basic literacy.
This constitutes a moral and development crisis that demands immediate action. Having served as head of the department of Ga-Dangme education at the University of Education in Winneba, I know from first-hand experience that one of the main problems is lack of education and absenteeism among teachers themselves. The World Bank, which similarly raised the issue of "schooling without learning" in a new report, has corroborated my view.
Addressing this issue requires investing more in teachers' colleges, promoting teaching as the career of nation-builders, and encouraging the best and brightest students to aspire to a teaching career. We cannot expect students to learn from poorly educated, poorly paid teachers. We must also invest more in resources for schools and learning across the board, from scholarships for poor students to new libraries and classroom equipment.
With so many African governments already failing to provide equal, high-quality access to education for their citizens, this is not a challenge that they can take on alone. As the continent's population booms - half of the world's population growth between 2017 and 2050 is expected to occur here - African heads of state will have to work closely with key allies and multilateral organizations to bring in funding and share know-how.
Fortunately, with the launch of the UNESCO report, several partners have already stepped up. French President Emmanuel Macron is perhaps the most prominent of those who have promised to make investment in education in Africa a high priority.
As the UN's main educational and cultural organization, UNESCO itself will play a key role in promoting initiatives to bring free, high-quality schooling to students across the continent. And whoever takes over UNESCO, following the election of a new director-general next month, will have a make-or-break opportunity to craft the right agenda to meet this challenge. Currently, the organization is mired in a financial crisis and internecine disputes, and it will need a leader who has the vision to solve both internal and external problems.
Notably, France's candidate, former Minister of Culture and Communication Audrey Azoulay, has put both UNESCO's internal crisis and education at the top of her agenda. She has singled out the financial crisis as the biggest threat facing UNESCO and has stressed the need for greater dialogue with members in arrears, like the United States.
In her previous governmental roles, Azoulay helped launch a global plan for cultural diversity through books and introduced plans to protect cultural heritage in conflict zones. Azoulay also has called for UNESCO to treat education as a catalyst for development and gender equality, and as the best way to help combat the "radicalization of the mind." If elected, she has promised to put Sustainable Development Goal 4 - universal quality education - at the heart of UNESCO's mission, with a special focus on Africa.
The preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO declares, "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed." Unfortunately, in Africa, we know all too well what happens when efforts to construct the defenses of peace ultimately fail.
Islamist insurgents continue to pose a threat to Mali, where in 2013, they set fire to a library holding thousands of priceless historical manuscripts in the ancient cultural center of Timbuktu. The incident was not only a devastating blow to world heritage; it was also a reminder of Africa's history as a center for cultural exchange, literacy, and learning, and a call to action.
The stakes for Africa are high. Our children are threatened not only by lack of access to schools, but also by lack of opportunities to learn, and by the loss of irreplaceable fragments of their rich history. We must hope that more governments follow Ghana's example, that more allies like France increase their support, and that the new director general will place a high priority on UNESCO's missions in Africa, which are more critical than ever. Project Syndicate
Atukwei Okai, an award-winning poet, is Secretary-General of the Pan African Writers' Association.