The upcoming sixth EU-African Union Summit (17 to 18 February 2022) should provide a turning point in relations between the two continents. Initially scheduled for 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen it postponed on several occasions.
We, the EU, have used this time to propose a new approach, one which we hope will become a cornerstone of our future relations with Africa, where the donor-recipient relationship evolves into a partnership on an equal footing. In declarations, this already began with the Juncker Commission’s Communication on a new Africa-Europe Alliance, followed by this Commission’s Joint Communication “Towards a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa”. The new approach was reaffirmed by the European Parliament in the 2021 Strategy for a new EU-AU Partnership and the newly adopted EPP Group position paper on Africa. Now, deeds must follow words.
“Access to education in many refugee camps is limited. A new generation’s potential may be wasted if we do not react”
The summit offers a unique opportunity to lay the foundations for a renewed, deeper EU-Africa partnership based on a clear understanding of mutual interests, which paves the way towards a partnership of true equals. Both sides have the opportunity to pursue their own interests while identifying common areas of cooperation such as trade, education, job creation, climate change, health, food security, development cooperation, good governance, peace and security, geopolitical competition as well as migration.
With this new approach, the EU and Africa have the opportunity to build back stronger following the Covid-19 pandemic, and to fully meet UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The most pressing issue - one which requires our attention after access to water and food is secured - is providing quality education for all. Africa’s population will double by 2050, and the majority of the current population is under the age of 25.
Each month, about one million young Africans enter the labour market without skills or education. Within the next 15 years, some 375 million young Africans will reach working age. If we do not equip this young African population with marketable skills and knowledge, we will never break the vicious circle of poverty, violence and political instability. Europe has an interest in Africa’s success, as new waves of migrants headed for Europe confirm.
But what does access to quality education for all mean in practice? First of all, the right to education is a fundamental human right, which the global community has committed to in the SDGs by ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education for all by 2030. Irrespective of gender, socioeconomic status, cultural background or religion, children should have access to education, even in remote areas such as refugee camps in fragile and conflict-affected countries.
In the success story of Gendrassa refugee camp, where classes for refugees were provided on a daily basis, 27 children passed South Sudan’s Upper Nile state exams allowing them to attend secondary school. This shows what can be achieved in even the most extreme circumstances. As an interim measure, UNHCR implemented community-based informal classes for those refugee children who have passed their primary school exams.
“The summit offers a unique opportunity to lay the foundations for a renewed, deeper EU-Africa partnership based on a clear understanding of mutual interests”
However, even in Europe, access to education in many refugee camps is limited. A new generation’s potential may be wasted if we do not react. That would be unforgivable, considering how new technologies and digitalisation have simplified access to education. These could be deployed to integrate all children and youth into schools even in the most marginalised communities.
Second, we should aim high; basic skills are no longer enough. Today’s labour market is highly competitive and only those with the skills corresponding to its demands will be able to emerge from poverty and create employment opportunities for others. That is why promoting a more flexible approach to individual career development and investing in vocational education and training is crucial. Greater attention should be given to producing well-trained teachers. That can be done by popularising scholarships and academic exchanges between youth in Africa and the EU through Erasmus+ and Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs, linked with teachers’ training.
Last, gender equality in access to education is paramount. In parts of Africa, girls do not have the same education opportunities, as, for example, they are responsible for supplying households with water from remote places. They also face barriers in accessing water and sanitation facilities at schools needed during menstruation. Both factors prevent them from attending school on regular basis and subsequently are the reasons of leaving school early, early pregnancies, child marriage and prostitution.
Education is a cross-cutting issue, relevant to all dimensions of sustainable development. Therefore, by strengthening the school systems we could solve other problems in Africa, and thus education is one of the main topics of the summit’s agenda. However, under the new approach, our role is not to give any concrete solutions but to engage in a discussion of equals with our African partners, in order to share the experience and achieve tangible results, which would benefit both continents and their populations.