Education, democracy and poverty reduction

Clive Harber's article is based on his input to the Tide~ conference in 2004.  

Clive [Birmingham University] & Jeff Serf from Wolverhampton University were co-leaders of the Tide~ Seeking Ubuntu project.

My academic area is the politics of education and education for democracy. I have a particular interest in sub-Saharan Africa where I’ve been working and doing research for over 25 years. Given the agenda of this conference, which has sessions focusing on Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa and one called ‘A fresh look at Africa’, I want to put these two interests together and talk about education for democracy in Africa. The challenges this highlights are important to understanding Africa but they also raise questions for our own thinking in Tide~ about citizenship education and about education in this country.

In recent years an important theme of debates about aid and international development has been the need for poverty reduction. Education is seen [by DFID for example] to play a key role in poverty reduction:

“The elimination of poverty and progress towards sustainable development will only take place if there is increased and improved levels of education. Governments and international agencies have endorsed the force of this argument on many occasions”  [DFID, 2000b:1]

However, two important arguments are not clearly developed in this documentation. I propose to address these in relation to Africa.

The first … concerns the political [as opposed to the economic] link between education and poverty reduction via democracy. This is the argument that authoritarian government has exacerbated poverty and that education can play an important role in supporting democratisation, sustainable democratic development and therefore poverty reduction.

The second … is that education per se does not necessarily contribute to democratisation and indeed much of contemporary schooling may do exactly the opposite. Only forms of education that are more consciously designed to foster democratic values and behaviours and peaceful conflict resolution can help to further democratic processes.

Democratisation in Africa

Throughout the Cold War, Western and former Soviet bloc countries supported dictatorial regimes in Africa simply because they were pro-Western or pro-Soviet.

Internal pressures for democratisation grew in the early 1990s. A number of factors contributed, including the poor economic, social and human rights performance of authoritarian regimes in Africa, the collapse of the Marxist-Leninist alternative at the end of the 1980s and increasing hardship and poverty resulting from the loan conditions imposed by the World Bank.

Externally, democratisation or ‘good governance’ also became one of the conditions of loans and aid. This also stemmed partly from the end of the Cold War and the ‘victory’ of democracy, but also from the fact that the free market structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s had failed to produce much in the way of the predicted economic success in Africa. The World Bank explained this by the failure of public institutions in Africa – what was required for structural adjustment was not only less government but better and more democratic government [Abrahamsen, 2000].

Authoritarianism and poverty in Africa

The Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme has argued that there have been impressive gains in life expectancy, nutrition, adult literacy, poverty reduction and human rights in many developing countries over the last thirty years. The report puts much of this progress down to the spread of democracy and human rights.

“The basic conditions for achieving human freedoms were transformed in the past 10 years as more than 100 developing and transition countries ended military or one party rule, opening up political choices. And formal commitment to international standards in human rights has spread dramatically since 1990”
[UNDP, 2001:10]

However, it also notes that progress in sub-Saharan Africa has been disappointingly slow. Indeed, despite being richly endowed with natural resources, Africa is marked by poverty. Already-low incomes have been falling.

In the first 25 years of post-colonial Africa, authoritarian government was often justified on the grounds that Africa could not afford the competitive politics of democracy and that it was a price worth paying as it would bring the order and stability necessary for economic prosperity.

This was patently not the case and I would argue that there are a number of ways that authoritarian rule has exacerbated levels of poverty in Africa:

  1. Openness, transparency and accountability are not the hallmark of authoritarian rule. It therefore creates an ideal context for corruption.

    At the time of his death, General Abacha of Nigeria’s personal fortune was estimated at between $3 to $6 billion [McGreal, 1999b]. In what was then Zaire, President Mobutu amassed a personal fortune of $10 billion. Much of the money stolen from the state has been invested overseas. According to one UN estimate, $200 billion or 90% of sub-Saharan Africa’s gross domestic product was put into foreign banks in 1991 alone [Ayittey, 1998:20]. Corruption robs schools, hospitals and welfare services of funds and scares away foreign investors. In contrast, it has been suggested that the relative tolerance, civility and integrity of political life in Botswana could result from the fact that the Botswana Democratic Party leadership have predominantly been owners of large cattle herds. They therefore have a significant income before entering politics [Diamond, 1988:22].

  2. Authoritarian rule has been marked by violence caused by civil unrest, violent repression and wars against neighbours.

    UNESCO, for example, noted that out of 53 countries in Africa not less than 17 have suffered or are currently affected by the scourge of war [1997:9]. Again this climate of violence does not create a favourable climate for internal or external investment. For example, net foreign investment in sub-Saharan Africa dropped dramatically from $1.22 billion in 1982 to $498 million in 1987. In July 1997 the IMF halted a $205 million aid package to Kenya to reinforce its protest against corruption and poor governance. However, at the same time Kenya stood to lose at least $280 million from tourist earnings because of the political violence that hit the coastal region in August of that year. By contrast, after the civil war in Mozambique ended in 1992, its gross domestic product grew by an annual average of 6.6% for the next four years [Ayittey, 1998:11,188, The Mercury, Durban 24/12/97].

  3. Wars and the existence of military governments have resulted in levels of military expenditure which are far too high, essentially unproductive and dangerous.
    In many parts of Africa the military has often been used against the civilian population rather than to protect it. In 1990-91, for example, military expenditure as a percentage of combined spending on education and health was 208% in Angola, 190% in Ethiopia and 121% in Mozambique [UNDP, 1998:171]. Africa spends close to $8 billion a year on the importation of weapons and the maintenance of the military. African children, holding their own parallel mini-summit to the OAU Summit in Cameroon in 1996 noted that African leaders spend vast sums of money on arms. One 17 year old Ugandan said: “We wish that money to be used for economic activities, education and peace and more children’s summits. Africa is full of mess” [quoted in Ayittey, 1998:173,79].
  4. Authoritarian governments thrive on, and deliberately create, an atmosphere of repression, censorship, intimidation and intolerance.

    This stifles debate and the internal search for creative solutions to developmental problems, including the issue of poverty reduction. It also contributes significantly to the brain drain of highly educated Africans.

    It is estimated that there are about 100,000 highly educated African professionals working in the US alone. This has been linked by the IMF to the upsurge of absolute poverty in sub-Saharan Africa as investment in education in Africa is not being translated into a catalyst for economic growth [Kigotho, 1999].
    Another important aspect of this repression is the politics of exclusion, where the winner takes all and, in terms of public spending, favours only its own ethnic group, region or party. This in turn results in violent attempts to overthrow the regime or secede as in Rwanda, Burundi and Ethiopia, Liberia, Somalia and Zaire. In contrast, in Botswana the BDP has tended to play down its ethnic base and has distributed the results of government programmes equitably in regional terms [Holm, 1988:191].

  5. Under authoritarian systems the needs and interests of the poor can too easily be ignored by unelected and unresponsive elites more concerned with self-enrichment.

    In relation to the political empowerment of poor people the UNDP has argued that:

    “People must organise for collective action to influence the circumstances and decisions affecting their lives. To advance their interests, their voices must be heard in the corridors of power … Ending human poverty requires a democratic space in which people can articulate demands, act collectively and fight for a more equitable distribution of power … Government that acts in the interest of poor people is easier to achieve in democratic political systems where the poor represent a significant electoral bloc” [UNDP, 1997: 94,103,105]

  6. Rural poverty is an important aspect.

    This is particularly significant because the majority of the African population live in rural areas. Post-colonial political elites have been essentially urban elites unresponsive to rural needs because the undemocratic nature of their rule has made it unnecessary to answer to a rural electorate. Indeed, independence frequently led to a worsening of conditions for farmers as shown by the changes in prices paid to farmers, rural revenues or the distribution of public expenditure.

    Bayart [1993:63-70] notes that rural areas have often been said to have subsidised the towns or agro-industrial investments, which provide little benefit for peasant farmers. In Cameroon, for example, between 1960 and 1980 60-75% of all levies made on the agricultural sector were used to finance other activities. The result has been a dramatic deterioration in rural living conditions.

    Timberlake [1985], in a book written in the mid 1980s points out that since independence Africa has gone from food self-sufficiency to widespread hunger. It’s also interesting that one of the key points made by Amartya Sen is that no famine has ever taken place in a democratic state.

    This analysis of Africa is very much in line with the general analysis in Amartya Sen’s important work: Development as Freedom. In this book the Nobel prize winner argues that freedom is development both because freedom should be the major goal of development in its own right and because it is the most effective way of achieving the other social and economic goals of development.

    Sierra Leone provides a stark model in which most of these factors come together … and acts as a worrying reminder to nearby Gambia of what can go wrong. Sierra Leone is 162nd out of 162 in the UNDP’s Human Development Index [UNDP, 2001]. After a long period of one party and military rule, a democratically elected government came to power in 1996. However, by this stage a brutal civil war had been in progress for ten years, with the opposition to the democratically elected government coming from the rebel Revolutionary United Front [whose stated aim is to end corruption]. The war has generated about 500,000 refugees. As one commentator put it:

    “Successive administrations have ignored the needs of rural people, creating a pool of disenfranchised youth, from which the RUF has recruited a rebel force capable of sowing terror” [Doyle, 1999]

    Therefore, there are good reasons for the promotion of democracy, both in terms of moral arguments for human rights and freedoms and in terms of the relationship between democracy and development.

    The late Julius Nyerere, former President of Tanzania, put it that:  “Democracy means much more than voting on the basis of adult suffrage every few years; it means [among other things] attitudes of toleration and willingness to co-operate with others on terms of equality” [Nyerere, 1998:27]

    In this quotation Nyerere is arguing that democracy is not composed solely of the political institutions and processes of the state. If democratic institutions are to survive and prosper they must be embedded in a society composed of individuals and organisations that are permeated by the values and practices which are supportive of democracy.  

    The skills and values of democracy are socially learned. They are not in the DNA. It is therefore important that African education systems and the NGOs that work with them play a part in fostering the knowledge, skills and values necessary to promote and protect a democratic political culture.

    Unfortunately, however, schools in Africa have traditionally tended to promote authoritarian values and practices. They have not encouraged participation, debate, responsibility and critical enquiry and have preferred instead to use chalk and talk and rote memorisation to reinforce teacher-centred discipline [Harber, 1997]. Indeed, some systems, schools and teachers in Africa [as in many other parts of the world] have actually made matters worse by being directly violent to pupils; through corporal punishment, sexual abuse and learning to ‘hate the other’.

Therefore, as UNESCO put it,

“It is clear that in this context of societal crisis and conflict, the pursuit of development in Africa is highly problematic without the flourishing of a democratic political climate. It is therefore imperative that the continent should initiate a comprehensive educational programme to promote the enduring value of democracy and peace as a crucial feature in the quest for national development and transformation”  [UNESCO, 1997:9]

Clive completed his input by referring to the work in Towards Ubuntu and the need for basic debates:

“The people responsible for some of the major atrocities in history could read and write and do sums – so the ideological framework needs to be clear. We need to debate: literacy for what? … numeracy for what? … education for what?”


Abrahamsen,R. (2000) Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourse and Good Governance in Africa (London: Zed Books)

Ayittey,G. (1998) Africa in Chaos (New York:St.Martin’s Griffin)

Bayart,J-F. (1993) The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (London: Longman)

DFID (2000b) Education For All (London: DFID)

Diamond,L. (1988) ‘Roots of Failure, Seeds of Hope’, in L. Diamond, J.Linz and S.Lipset (Eds.) Democracy in Developing Countries: Africa (Boulder: Lynne Rienner)

Doyle,M. (1999) ‘Rebels Stand to Profit from Crude Tactic of Terror’, The Guardian 5/7

Harber,C. (1997) Education, Democracy and Political Development in Africa (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press)

Harber,C. (2001) State of Transition: Post-Apartheid Educational Reform in South Africa (Oxford: Symposium Books)

Holm,J. (1988) ‘Botswana: A Paternalistic Democracy’, in L.Diamond, J.Linz and S.Lipset (Eds) Democracy in Developing Countries: Africa (London: Adamantine Press)

Kigotho,W. (1999) ‘IMF Links African Slump to Brain Drain’, Times Higher Education Supplement 9/7

McGreal,C. (2001) ‘Give Them Hard Cash’, The Guardian 3/9

Nyerere,J. (1998) ‘Governance in Africa’, Southern African Political and Economic Monthly 11,6

Timberlake,L. (1985) Africa in Crisis (London: Earthscan)

UNDP (1997, 2001) Human Development Report (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

UNESCO (1997) Report on the State of Education in Africa (Dakar: UNESCO)