African Sustainable Development: Invest in Adult Education

African sustainable development is entirely possible, despite the prevalance of doubters. But it will need to invest in knowledge of all kinds - especially in adult education.

Africa - in much of recent development literature, it has been termed not only the dark continent, but the 'forgotten continent' and 'x works everywhere except in Africa'. Some have even had the audacity to claim that if Africa disappeared, no one would notice. One must assume the speaker did not consider the billion-plus people who live on 20% of the earth's total landmass. The unfortunate perspective that 'Africa can not do develop' seems to be supported by recent historical evidence. But the vast and diverse continent - so culturally, lingusitically, climate and in other respects diverse that it is debatable whether 'Africa' exists as cultural entity - has been at the brunt of much of the worse aspects of overall global development. It suffered at the forefront of Western 'germs guns and steel' as Western expansion and later imperialism and colonialism was at its heights, loosing up to 30% (and in some places, nearly entire villages) to the slave trade. Most African countries have less than 60 years of independence. In more recent years, 'normal' cyclical growth patterns have been met by international financial institutions (ie, IMF) with highly detrimental policies - making difficult times significantly worse. So just because Africa has not 'caught up' as fast as China currently is, one should not assume that it can not do so.

One of the great unfortunate challenges of the past 40 years has been the lack of investment in adult and higher education. As climate change begins to take its toll, Africans will need not only far more trees and far less deforestation, they will need better water management practices, agricultural practices, transportation solutions, energy solutions, and other critical services and infrastructure than it currently has. That requires a high level of critical engagement with the issues, the technology, the challenges and with one another. That requires knowledge sharing at a level that has never been attempted anywhere. This level of adaptation is quite difficult without good adult education services including higher education that can connect Africa's intelligentsia - which will greatly inform and shape its politicians, civil service, business leaders and other decision makers in society - with one another, with the wider world and, importantly, with 'local' and community knowledge. It might be argued that this last one has rarely been achieved successfully in the UK; learning how to do so in Africa will take immense social entrepeneurship.

Perhaps several decades later than it should have done so, the London School of Economics has  recently created an 'African Development' initiative, and Malawian Professor Thandika Mkandawire, an economist who spent enough time in Sweden to pick up a Swedish passport is the new chair. Mkandawire has long been a respected African intellectual himself, and he plans to shape this new initiative to focus on this great need to build Africa's intellectual capacity. The new initiative - and his focus as chair - suggests not only that Africa can develop but that knowledge and higher education needs to be central to its development. This includes investing in higher education - something that has long fallen off the list of priorities in the rush towards primary school education - and encouraging African intellectuals (including their doctors and their nurses) to stay in Africa and not to be pulled into the better paying positions elsewhere in the world. But to face the challenges of sustainable development, African universities will need to not only expand to fit the needs and desires of a growing population and deepen their capacity to educate that population but to work with 'local people' and engage in immense varities of popular adult education regardless of people's literacy levels. And finally, it will need to seriously consider what, exactly, kind of development it wants. Economist Mkandawire has a clear emphasis on economic growth. With much of the Africa's population at levels of extreme poverty, the need for poverty reduction is clearly high, but so too is the need for reducing inequality and creating patterns of development that do not replicate the social and environmental damages that has been done in the US, in China and in India.  May African knowledge for sustainable development truly spread - and may the cradle of mankind grow wiser than its neighbors.

Photo credit: wabash