Learning, not burning [churches]

“All these men just hanging around doing nothing…!”, my Mum kept commenting when she visited Tanzania. It’s true. Partly because social life happens outside, and partly because Time here is a different kind of commodity – something to be shared, not jealously guarded as it is by us in the West, running around shouting about how busy we are.

By now, though, I had stopped noticing the lazing and lurking and staring; I (sometimes) enjoy the gentler approach to time. And many of these men – they are usually men – do work somewhere, during irregular hours perhaps: selling produce in the market, working in a relative’s shop, repairing things.

But even if they’re lucky enough to have that informal employment, a desperate lack of skills prevents them ever getting more than unstable, unreliable work for a minimal wage.
That skills deficit starts at the most basic level. Tanzania has made progress: the share of national income spent on education more than tripled in the last decade; in the same period, enrolment in primary schools doubled. But just being in school, it seems, is not enough. Studies this year of East African pupils found quality of learning is still very poor. For example, 20% of children in Standard 7 (the last year of primary school) do not have Standard 2 level literacy and numeracy competencies.  At secondary level – among the 36%  of Tanzanians who even make it to that level – learning continues to be hindered by poorly trained teachers; lack of facilities; English as a medium of instruction  while most pupils (and their teachers) barely master the language.

How much do they actually learn? A public secondary school  in Dar es Salaam, 2012

It’s not surprising, then, that so many lack what experts call ‘foundation’ skills  – basic numeracy and literacy needed for self-sufficiency. Such foundation skills are the prerequisite for acquiring the next level of ‘transferable’ skills (such as problem-solving or communication) that employers of better paid and more stable jobs need.

Skills gaps are evident among professionals too. Sometimes, people we work with lack basic competences – struggling to send an e-mail or write correctly. Economist friends working here found themselves explaining the basic concept of inflation to the government officials responsible for the country’s economic planning. A friend teaching new media at a journalism school tells me his students – in their final year of studies – have barely used a computer. Shopkeepers struggle with calculations; handymen overlook logical ways to solve problems.

Globally, as unemployment soars particularly among young people, the talk is of addressing the mismatch between skills and the demands of the labour market. That’s true of Europe too, where they face rising costs of third-level education and an increasingly competitive labour market. 15% of all EU 15-29 year-olds – 14 million people – are not in education or employment.

But the fate of young jobseekers is extreme in Africa, partly because the average skills level is so much lower, and partly because of the sheer numbers. Two thirds of Africans are under 25 years old (compared to less than one third in rich countries). The implications of that may go far beyond even the economic and social, seeping into the political fabric of the continent. The recent unrest in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar are about more than just religion. As one commentator writes: “no one who has a job has the time to put down tools and go torch a building. The criminal insta-mob was made up of young men: we have tons of them sitting around looking for a way to keep body and soul together with dignity.”

Maybe Mum was right about to be concerned about all those men.

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2 thoughts on “Learning, not burning [churches]

  1. F. says:

    If Time is a cultural concept, education follows the same idea. In Tanzania you will often see people who either failed to get an education (at all), or have accumulated so many “masters” in the country and abroad that they would be unable to cite them all. The saddest part is that the latter group will not be more particularly productive than the former, but will get significantly more responsibility. The problem of the former group is that they are collateral damage following the will to achieve the MDG goal of offering education for all, where “education” translated into “classroom”, and not “classroom + reasonable amount of students per class + learning material + teacher who has a basic knowledge of what he is paid to do”. But don’t worry, if Europe fails to get back on its feet after the crisis, it might be experiencing the very same “unreliable work for a minimal wage” scenario… did I say “don’t worry”?

  2. patushka says:

    Yep, the uselessness of paper qualifications came up in a recent discussion I had with some education experts as well: apparently faking certificates and bribing PHD examiners is not uncommon. And lately there’s been a wave of cheating in schools as well. It’s become about the piece of paper, not about what you actually learn.
    The TZ government actually has invested a lot more in education in the past decade and it has made a different, but the question is… what now? Can someone convince those with the power that investing in education will actually be economically worth it (interesting case of Korea’s education/training policy contributed to putting it leaps and bounds ahead of similarly poor countries in just a few decades: http://efareport.wordpress.com/2012/10/18/skills-jobs-and-growth-lets-tell-the-world-about-koreas-success-story/)

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