When it comes to primary education, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Enrollment has jumped across the world, and more children are in school than ever before. In the last decade, the number of out-of-school children has fallen by half, from 102 million in 2000 to 57 million in 2011.
But is showing up to school enough?
According to UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report, almost one quarter of the youth in the developing world cannot read a sentence. In countries with large youth populations, this can leave behind a crippling ‘legacy of illiteracy’. Despite almost universal primary enrollment in India – 97 percent – half of second grade students cannot read a full sentence, and almost a quarter cannot even recognize letters.
Reading is a foundational skill. Children who do not learn to read in the primary grades are less likely to benefit from further schooling. Poor readers struggle to develop writing skills and absorb content in other areas. More worryingly, learning gaps hit disadvantaged populations the hardest, limiting their economic opportunities. In Bangladesh, only one in three of the poorest quartile is literate, compared to almost nine out of ten in the richest.
The title of this post may seem a bit odd. What can an island of 20 million people and a diverse continent of 47 countries have in common? The answer: Both were thought to have initial advantages that would generate rapid economic growth; instead, they have fallen painfully short of expectations.
In the African case, the advantage was its rich natural resources such as oil and minerals. But instead of exploiting this potential ticket to poverty reduction, Africa’s natural resource producers have seen their per capita income grow more slowly than that of non-mineral countries. Nigeria is a case in point. Its per capita income in 1970 (before the oil boom) was $913; today it is $454.
Sri Lanka’s asset is its human resources—reflected in the high levels of literacy and low levels of child and maternal mortality that have stood out since the 1960s. Like Africa, Sri Lanka has been an exercise in disappointment. In fact, there is no other country with a lower infant mortality rate and a lower per capita income than Sri Lanka.
The question for Africa and Sri Lanka is therefore how to manage the enormous assets they posses in a way that translates into sustainable wellbeing for their populations?