Photo: Mohamed Sidibay, peace activist and law student from Sierra Leone, together with Jean-Yves Le Saux, Director of the Bureau of Strategic Planning and Charaf Ahmimed, Senior Advisor in the Cabinet of the Director General
“The picture of education in Africa is that of Africa at a crossroads. There is progress being made, but COVID has exacerbated some of the existing inequalities in education systems. In order to close gaps, we have to push upward societal mobility by training teachers and students for the 21st Century,” says Mohamed Sidibay, 27-year-old world peace activist and law student from Sierra Leone.
To do this, we must consider the future of education. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has impacted education the world over and triggered much – or at least highlighted existing – reflection to this end. In Africa, says Mohamed Sidibay, the COVID-19 response has been built on lessons learned in previous pandemics, and has highlighted gaps in education systems that need to be filled.
“Africa is not a monolith. When you look at West African Countries, who were badly hit by Ebola, they were more prepared for COVID than the rest of the world was. Ebola was a huge, harsh lesson, and a crucial factor in preparing for and having structures that help tremendously to tackle COVID.”
Education systems are not exempt from this, with the virus impacting differently in different regions. According to Mohamed Sidibay, West African societies were proactive and effective in contact tracing and combatting the virus. He considers that education systems in Africa also reacted quite quickly in terms of passing information and adapting to new forms of teaching, such as using radios to reach out to communities. Nevertheless, says Mohamed Sidibay, there is work left to be done.
The overall quality of education remains low, and for some children schools remain the only safe place where they get to be around people of their age and just be children.
Alongside implications for education delivery and quality learning, he believes that one of the key lessons learnt from COVID-19 lies in its exacerbation of structural inequalities in areas like access to technology.
“COVID has accelerated the need for the workforce to work remotely, and that puts emphasis on technology and distance learning. But when the crisis ends, societies that already have the foundation and structures to do remote work are going to excel, while societies which do not have such infrastructure are going to fall further behind”.
The pandemic situates youth as strategic agents of change
According to Mohamed Sidibay, a key aspect of tackling such inequalities lies in the power of youth.
“Because youth were among the most affected within some communities, they are the first finding solutions to these problems, and they are often underestimated and forgotten by governments and policy makers.”
In fact, Mohamed Sidibay points out, young people’s remarkable contributions to national and regional responses during the global pandemic have also transformed perceptions and narratives around youth’s contribution to societies more broadly.
Youth in Africa – in Ghana, in Sierra Leone, in Nigeria as well as in other regions – are using their networks to keep their communities safe from COVID. These don’t have to be high-tech things, just simple actions, like washing your hands, passing on information to their respective communities, doing contact tracing, or using technology, radios and social media platforms to spread the right message to communities sensitive to COVID-19.
More than ever before, youth have been acknowledged as strategic partners in responding to natural disasters and crises, and this is particularly true for Africa, where they constitute the largest portion of the population. Mohamed Sidibay believes that youth and youth-led organizations can be UNESCO’s best allies in thinking outside the box and reinventing education systems.
“Engaging with civil society and youth-led organizations are some of the best ways to get the conversation going, and to capitalize on this opportunity for UNESCO to use its resources, people and expertise to open up the current, oftentimes fragile, education systems. Through strategic partnerships with youth, UNESCO can build strong relationships on the ground and involve youth in dissemination of information, resources, and tools to their communities, so that everyone can benefit.”
Connecting with youth can also have a catalytic effect in accelerating the democratization of education. This is because they can not only help UNESCO transfer knowledge and resources to their close circle, but also amplify its effect, reaching wider circles in ways that can influence future generations.
“UNESCO is an intergenerational knowledge bank not just for the highly intellectual, but for everyone aspiring for change – academics, yes, but also young people.”
Opportunity for prioritizing an independent worldwide education agenda
This goes hand-in-hand with UNESCO’s roles as both knowledge broker, and laboratory of ideas.
“UNESCO is fantastic at providing research and expertise to countries, and I think that UNESCO’s added value is also to continue reimaging education from a 21st Century perspective.”
In Mohamed Sidibay’s view, this reimagining must be accompanied by commitment on the ground. Politics, he says, are often run on a platform of short-term goals, neglecting investments in long-term outcomes.
Education is sometimes not part of the higher discourse in the most powerful rooms, so when aid is given and money is spent, it gets allocated to short term results and not so much to investment in education.
Now more than ever, says Mohamed Sidibay, this discussion needs to change. Since the dramatic closure of schools in almost every country in the world, COVID-19 has represented an opportunity to reopen, reframe, and reimagine national education agendas. In view of the pandemic, and to avoid falling short of the realization of Sustainable Development Goal 4, says Mohammed Sidibay, one of the most pressing steps to be taken is meaningful investment in education.
“This pandemic will end – and we should be worried about what happens to the lives of millions of children that will be lost, unable to obtain an education, if we do not do our part in committing fully to funding education.”
Mohamed Sidibay is a member of the Director General’s High Level Reflection Group, an initiative of UNESCO’s Strategic Transformation designed to anticipate and analyse global developments and contribute to the enrichment of UNESCO’s next Medium-Term Strategy.
*The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or official position of UNESCO.