Educational Reforms in Sub-Saharan Africa: 1980s-1990s

By: Tarnue Johnson

The Perspective

January 30, 2002

It is time to revisit the debate concerning a hitherto new wave of educational reforms across Sub-Saharan Africa, which began in the early 1980s and survived well into the 1990s, and now the new millennium. The reforms I am about to discuss have been under girded by certain core economic and fiscal doctrines. Invariably, these doctrines had been rooted in the “first principles” of liberal economic and conservative political thought. Again, the story began in the early 1980s, with the launching of what some keen observers have dubbed the Washington consensus.

Yes, the Washington consensus! The tenets of the Washington consensus, which advocated less state intervention in the economy, had first and foremost, been fashioned and propagated by the central pillars of global development finance- the World Bank and IMF. Thus, the central propositions of this consensus suggested new sets of rules to govern fiscal procedures and to reshape the politics of development interventions. This new politics of development was to fundamentally alter attitudes toward educational finance and reorganization in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Tanzania for example, the decline in government spending on education coincided with a period of structural adjustment reforms to restore economic growth (Gerard et al, 1998). Like some countries in the region, public spending on education rose during most of the 1970s, reaching a high of about 6 percent in 1979. The share of budgetary contributions to education fell just over 4 percent in the early 1980s, and then drop to below 4 percent by the early 1990s (ibid, 1998). Other spheres of social endeavors were also dramatically affected under the impact of fiscal retrenchment.

The Washington consensus signaled the death knell of the immediate postwar intellectual consensus, regarding the implementation of Keynesian macroeconomic and policy doctrines, to steer economies away from depression/recession into full employment and fiscal stability. The fiscal and economic doctrine of full employment was so pervasive in the immediate postwar period, to the extent that it became an official policy credo of the British Labor Party. Even political forces on the right had conceded, albeit as a signal of a momentary truce, that full employment and fiscal expansion were desirable goals of state economic policy.

Also, in American policy thinking, the doctrine of full employment and deficit spending had assumed a proud place, as the puritanist philosophy of the balance budget became obsolete, and effectively jettison as a modus operandi in the conduct of state affairs, during the heyday of the Keynesian revolution. Thus, there is the famous saying "that we have now all become Keynesians" uttered by the American President Theodore Roosevelt in the heyday of the Keynesian revolution. On the theoretical front, Alvin Hansen at Harvard emerged as a prominent figure popularizing Keynesian policies in and outside of the American Academy. Paul Samuelson adds to this list, with his elegant encapsulation in his economic textbooks of IS-LM models as ancillary theoretical categories of what would come to be known as the neo-classical synthesis.

However, this Keynesian consensus was to break apart, first under the pressures of the OPEC oil crisis in the late 1970s, and then as the result of the early 1980s' recession. The rightwing radical ferment that followed saw the ascendance of monetarism and liberal political philosophy, wrapped up in the discourse of the twin ideological towers of Reaganomics and Thatcherism. The most visible ideological representatives (at least in the field of theory) of this new attitude towards economic and fiscal management were Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, Frederick Von Hayek at the London School of Economics, and of course, Keith Joseph at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. Quite without coincidence, the Institute of Economic Affairs had been a Thatcherite policy think-tank very active during the heyday of the monetarist revolution.

This review draws from a variety of sources encompassing empirical, evaluative and theoretical studies. The World Bank has been the most vocal and by far the most important player in promoting liberal educational reforms during the period of the 1980s and 1990s, and at present to a large extent. Hence, this review draws from Bank-sponsored evaluative studies and independent scholars working in its name. IMF sources and reports of international conferences and other texts written on the subject have been cited in equal measure.

The Impact of Adjustment Policies on Educational Development
Researchers have used varying conceptual frameworks in studying the impact of adjustment policies on educational development. Examples of these conceptual frameworks include the so-called hypothetical counterfactuals, before-and-after comparisons etc. The counterfactual methodology adopts a control group approach by comparing a group of countries that have made an agreement with the World Bank to carry out an adjustment program with a control group of countries that have not ( Rose, 1994). An alternative approach is imbedded in the use of “matched pairs” of structural adjustment lending and non-structural adjustment lending countries (see Mosley, Harrigan and Toye,1991).

Reimers (1994) has employed a comparative approach by comparing the educational performance of adjusting and non-adjusting countries in sub-Saharan Africa between 1980 and 1988 (covering 8 years of the adjustment period). The central proposition of Reimers’ analysis is that the contributions of households to education declined dramatically in adjusting countries compared to non-adjusting countries. And that this decline affected many aspects of education including primary school enrolment, teacher salaries and the purchase of teaching and curriculum resources.

However, Groteat (1994) and Sahn (1992) to some extent, radically depart from Reimers’ heuristic approach. Groteat has conducted a case study of Cote d’Ivoire in which he concluded that focusing on changes in government expenditure as a way of evaluating the impact of adjustment policies on the social sectors, including education, is a methodological rehearing. The focus here is economic efficiency of investment, rather than the dynamics of government expenditure. Thus, the main concern of Groteat is that government expenditure is an inadequate reflection of the efficiency of the delivery of social services, which is more determined by the intra-sectoral and functional allocations of expenditures.

The empirical data reviewed by Groteat shows that during a period of structural change in Cote d’Ivoire, countrywide indicators were stable or declined only slightly, and government expenditure indicators even showed an upward trend, and yet, the poorest segments of the population suffered a significant decline in access to education and educational development. A reading of this data might seem to suggest that evaluative and policy studies must be based on household level information, which takes into account the distribution of beneficiaries of educational services.

After reviewing a number of country experiences with adjustment on a before-and-after basis, Sahn (1992) concluded that the intra-sectoral composition of expenditure is of equal or greater importance, than the overall level of expenditures in the social sector. Indeed, this conclusion is congruent with that of Groteat. Some authors are of the opinion that engineered adjustment programs, of the kind advocated by global financial institutions, do exacerbate pressures on the education sector. These authors include Hinchliff (1989), Fuller (1989), Hutchful (1994), etc.

The Drive Towards Educational Reforms
Reforms in this sector constituted part and parcel of the package of measures and adjustment conditionality in the 1980s. It was envisaged that these radical measures would constitute the requirements of overall structural and institutional transformation in the political economy of Sub-Saharan Africa. The emphasis on educational reform as advocated by the Breton Woods Institutions (World Bank, IMF) have been focused on two inter-related themes- improving efficiency of schooling and expanding access to fulfill the twin objectives of equity and quality of provision (World Bank, 1986). When these educational reforms begun in the early 1980s, there was little doubt that they would affect the nature and character of educational provision across an array of countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The main emphasis of the debate, which followed, was relative economic efficiencies of public versus private provisions in terms of cost implications, quality and quantity of provision, economic rate of returns etc.

The Orthodox Versus Neo-liberal Views
For many years the dominant view among development analysts and educational planners was that the state should have a major responsibility in the financing and provision of educational opportunities. This orthodox view is summarized in an article written by Colclough titled Education and the Market: Which part of the neo-liberal solution is correct (1996). According to Colclough, the orthodox view is underpinned by several arguments including those of externalities, merit goods, leads and lags, factors of decreasing costs etc. (ibid). For example, the leads and lags argument holds that investment in education has a long gestation period. And thus market signals, particularly for higher education, may involve waste because they may be slow to change (ibid, p.589). It is further claimed that the presence of externalities, which means the benefits of education to the larger society, suggests that private provision in the form of cost recovery would lead to under provision of schooling (ibid).

However, under the strains of fiscal crisis and subsequent adjustment in the 1980s, the stage was set for the ascendancy and eventual domination of neo-liberal analyses of educational policy and development. The neo-liberal view as opposed to the orthodox one, justifies a wider role for market disciplines in educational finance.

Nowhere was this evident than in the policy circles of International Financial Institutions. The policies of International Financial Institutions (principally the World Bank and IMF) had experience a detour under the weight of the new orthodoxy, which was as mentioned earlier, the Washington Consensus. Thus, in 1986 a World Bank study titled Financing Education in Developing Countries was published. This study explored three broad policy options, which were in consonant with the neo-liberal case for private provision and cost recovery in the education sector. The three policy options outlined in this study were as follows (ibid,p.2):

· Recovering the public cost of higher education and reallocating government spending on education towards the level with the highest returns;

· Developing a credit market for education, together with selective scholarships, especially in higher education;

· Decentralizing the management of public education and encouraging the expansion of private and community-supported schools.

This study was followed by another one called Education in sub-Saharan Africa published in 1988. This work traced the remarkable progress of education in the region in the post-independence era and set out a policy framework for future development through the 1990s. The policy framework for educational development set out in this study included three broad themes which perhaps formed the basis for much of the neo-liberal theoretical discussion: a) adjustment; b) revitalization and c) selective expansion. Adjustment suggested diversifying sources of financing and the imperative to contain unit cost. Meanwhile, selective expansion included making the necessary investments geared toward the realization of the long-term goal of universal primary education. Other areas earmarked for future growth and expansion included distance education, research and postgraduate education. The claims asserted by the World Bank have been reaffirmed by several proponents of the neo-liberal tendency (Mingat and Peng, 1986; Thobani, 1984; Psacharapoulos, 1977; Mcmahon, 1988).

Knight (1990) supports the World Bank view by arguing that a possible way out of what appears to be an impasse is a more extensive levying of user charges at the post-primary levels. But this has been strongly contested by Levy (1992, 1996). Levy has held that cost recovery at post-primary levels impact on household investment decisions in primary education. However, Knight and others (see Psacharopoulos, 1987) have accepted most of the premises of the neo-liberal viewpoint:

· Excess demand for secondary and higher education;

· Heavy subsidization of higher education;

· Existing inequality of access;

· Greater flexibility of student loans and selective scholarships for students at tertiary levels.

Mingat and Peng (1986) have argued that there is excess demand at low levels of education in developing countries. This recognition of excess demand suggests that user charges could be used to mitigate such demand, and also to mobilize additional resources for education, in an era of increased scarcity and fiscal imbalance. These authors maintained that the additional resources mobilized through the introduction of user charges could be used for quantitative expansion at the same level of education, or indeed, such additional resources could even be used for expansion of an activity outside of education.

The main thrust of this line of argument is that a policy of user charges would not have an adverse effect on the overall level of realized enrolment. I suppose this argumentation is meant to assuage those who believe that cost recovery may compromise concerns for equity in the distribution of educational benefits, in societies under stress from fiscal imbalance. These are precisely the concerns raised by Kless (1984) and others (see Colclough, 1990; Albrecht and Ziderman, 1993).

Klees (ibid) in a very elaborate attack on the theoretical structure of neo-classical economics, accuses the neo-classicists of being more interested in efficiency than concerns about equity and social justice. Klees adds (p.439); ‘the very real danger of the neo-classical perspective, so clearly embodied in Thobani’s paper is that it covers with a technical veneer what are really complex set of political, social, cultural and economic issues’. Tilak (1997) has reaffirmed Klees analysis by asserting that cost recovery measures might not necessarily induce internal efficiency.

The issue raised by Tilak is that students and households already incur significant costs of education, including direct opportunity costs. It is also argued that in the case of poorer students, fees may compel them to take up part-time work, resulting in less time for their studies. And the resultant is that the overall internal efficiency of education may actually decline instead of increasing, which from all indications would not be a desirable effect of the policy. Tilak has concluded, on an empirical basis, that the general case against cost recovery is very strong.

Other theoretical and empirical studies have also sought to modify cost recovery and other austerity measures, by advocating strategies to incorporate the social dimensions of economic growth (see Cornia et al, 1987; Engberg et al, 1996; Hekpo, 1992; Van Der Geest, 1994; Cornia, 1992; Samoff, 1996). Similarly, some studies have even advocated much more radical measures, such as dislodging the bonds of ‘international dependency’ in the spheres of language, patterns of curricula organization, foreign aid to education etc. (Samoff, 1996; Medahunsi, 1988).

The Kenyan novelist, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, for example - perceives language domination as the most potent symbol of Western cultural domination of Africa, and other formerly subject peoples. In Decolonizing the African Mind (1983), Ngugi elaborates on this theme by discussing how language carries ideology, and how national culture is endangered when the colonial language supplants the indigenous: “Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world…Language is thus inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world.” (see also Aguiar, htt:// Ngugi, like Senghor’s essentialist (unchanging core of black existence) interpretation of Negritude, is calling for the substantiation, in theory and practice, of a distinctive African identity exemplified in the display of linguistic self-expression, political power, and artistic creativity.

This essay has reviewed some of the discussion about educational reforms in sub-Saharan Africa. While these policy reforms may have reached their high points in the 1980s, and during a considerable part of the 1990s, the discussion about the efficaciousness of these policies must remain unabated. Two main analytical approaches have featured prominently in this discussion. The first analytical approach seeks to substantiate non-market solutions to the problems of resource allocation in the social sector, under the constraints of fiscal retrenchment. The second analytical approach underscores the conceptual and empirical problems of market oriented solutions, in distributing educational benefits in times of economic stress.

However, I am inclined to think that the demands for technical and internal efficiency must be accompanied by concerns for equity and social justice. And this is what is missing, or least, tends to be de-emphasized in the neo-liberal case. Hence, the discourse must be deepened by the proliferation of rigorous methodologies, which elucidate the role of agency in the process of educational change. The end of the 1980s did not mark the epilogue or the final scene in this drama to foster structural change, but rather a transitory and critically contingent phase in an unfolding process of dialogue. And this process of mutual exchange must continue in order to negotiate difficult paths and fertilize the soil for the growth of new scientific knowledge in this field.

For educational systems in Africa remain in dire need of reform, and a dose of fresh initiatives to effect the paradigmatic change that is so indispensable to future progress. This assertion could never be further from the truth. The need for educational change in much of sub-Saharan Africa is a sentiment-which reaffirm the Jomtien declaration of 1990, that education in the modern age is not a privilege, but a basic human right.

© The Perspective
P.O. Box 450493
Atlanta, GA 31145