A man bends over a blackboard to write equations, while in the foreground a man in a red top takes notes at a a school desk.
Daniel (in the background) from the Kamajei chiefdom in Sierra Leone bends over a blackboard to write equations.

On 2023’s International Day of Education, the halfway point in the UN’s 2030 sustainable development agenda, 98 million children in so-called Sub-Saharan Africa will be out of school. While this number has no doubt been exacerbated by COVID-19 lockdowns and ballooning fuel costs, which have made the school run prohibitively expensive for many of Africa’s poorest, progress was slowing even before the pandemic.

Education is a right, not just a resource.

Education has always been a key aspect of our work at Action on Poverty, whether that’s in Uganda, where we are working with 12,000 families to keep their children out of child labour and in education, or working to address historic educational inequalities with numeracy and literacy training for women in Sierra Leone. These projects are advanced in the belief that, not only is education vital for families hoping to break the cycle of poverty, but education in itself is a right whose contribution to a full and happy life is priceless.

Indeed, as Mamie, a participant in one of our Sierra Leone projects put it, ‘learning is better than silver, than gold.’

By the same token, those who are excluded from education are resigned to living out what the Mamie describes as the feeling of what “would-have-been”—she laments, ‘my exposure to functional adult literacy learning 9 months ago […] manifested how talented I would have been if given the golden opportunity to attend formal education.’

Mamie has been able to learn the literacy and numeracy she missed out on in her childhood, and her future is richer with opportunities for it. Sadly, the world is filled with the lost potential of those who were unable to attain an education due to poverty and others like Mamie never get the chance to learn. Imagine how different the world could look if true educational equality was achieved.

A man to the right of a black board points at letters, as a woman to the left recites her ABC.
In Koiva, Sierra Leone, Hawa teaches the literacy training portion of one of our programmes.

In truth, we are still a long way away from this world. On a more recent trip to our child labour project in Kailuhun, Sierra Leone, a community member called Bakris told us directly, ‘one thing that would help the children is to encourage the minister of education […] to help us have good and approved teachers and encourage volunteer teachers with any means of compensation.’

Sierra Leone recently received a 6.85 million dollar grant from the World Bank as part of the Free Education Project in order to prevent COVID-19 from deepening educational inequalities further. Such investment in education is welcome but its remit remains preventative rather than transformative.

As Bakris relayed to us, ‘the level of the school isn’t as good as the urban setting school […] the walking distance for secondary school is 8-9 miles, in the rains in particular it’s likely that kids won’t go. The nearest primary school is in this town but they don’t have enough paid teachers.’ Such a situation perpetuates cycles of poverty in rural areas and leaves children vulnerable to the harmful child labour which our project aims to address. Moreover, where education is difficult or costly to access, marginalised people, like girls or people with disabilities, often get overlooked. Social inequality is therefore sustained by educational inequality.

And yet Sierra Leone remains something of an exception. Many other countries, including ones in which we work, have seen educational spending stagnate or reverse despite COVID. If the UN’s sustainable development agenda is to be met on education, a holistic and committed approach needs to be maintained, one which understands education not just as a resource but as a right.

We hope that, by addressing the causes of harmful child labour, which keeps children out of school, by ensuring women and people with disabilities are included in all aspects of our work and by providing training for those who never got the chance to learn literacy or numeracy or develop their skillset, we’re doing what we can to secure that right against poverty. But this International Day of Education, we’re calling on governments to join us in prioritising education and finding structural solutions to the growing inequalities that permeate it.

It is only by taking education seriously that the cycle of poverty will be broken.