Ambiguous education policies in many African countries to a large extent undermine development aspirations in the continent.

Education policymakers in sub-Saharan Africa, like their counterparts in other parts of the world, are attracted by the possibility of using policy design and implementation as tools for changing and directing people’s attitudes to development. It is often assumed that education policies can be used to drive economic growth in Africa. Unfortunately, many of the policies that are put in place do not reflect the unique nature and challenges of Africa — they are alien as they are often largely imported from the West says Uchenna Amadi-Ihunwo is a researcher at the Centre for Education Policy Development.

Uchenna Amadi-Ihunwo explains that the situation can be likened to transplanting an exotic plant to a different environment — while most die in their new alien environment, a few flourish and push out the indigenous plants. Equally, alien policy initiatives often push aside notions of indigenous knowledge and practices, which are better suited to our environment.

It is appalling that Africa’s policy-makers merely adopt policies that were designed in and for other parts of the world often struggling to interpret them in an African context. Uchenna Amadi-Ihunwo is right when he says that “in this way, many education policies turn out to be little more than burial caskets in the development experiences of African countries.”

Following independence most African countries believed that policies could deliver nation- building, rural development and education for all, among other aspirations. These education policies are often developed with many unrealistic expectations — to provide universal and equal access to education, to reduce unemployment and poverty, to impress donors, to comply politically with the demands of globalisation, to show the importance of particular political groups and to propagate the sometimes profane aspirations of a select few powerful individuals in the society. Most of the things on the list above never materialized.

Currently, African education policies should aspire to include practical and strategic measures that take into consideration the cultural experience and capital evident across the continent and so be able to deal with our uniquely African challenges. Until we diagnose our problems as Africans, and honestly confront them to the best of our abilities, we may continue designing alien policies that perpetuate a state of underdevelopment.

The possible explanation for this situation could be that education policymakers, eager to design what they consider to be in the best interest of developing Africans, borrow from the West without looking critically at the unique challenges and conditions of the continent. I believe that this tendency has been driven, at least in part, by a desire to be seen as “modern” and so escape from the pejorative label of “a backward continent”. As globalisation deepens, this tendency is likely to get worse if it is not consciously checked.

In their current forms the existing education policies in many African countries are weak as catalysts for meaningful development. As long as policymakers continue to perceive the functions and strategies of these policies merely as a way of identifying with global trends, instead of a means to effect decisive influences on African development, policies will remain alien and therefore will bury Africa’s development potential.

Modified from the Centre for Education Policy Development.