This Black History Month, the U.S. should do its part as African leaders and communities continue to prioritize education

February 23, 2024

Frederick Douglass, the renowned Black abolitionist, feminist, and statesman, wrote, “Once you learn to read, you will forever be free.” This is a simple but transformative truth. Access to basic education affects quality of life and the pursuit of justice. This truth remains as relevant today as it was when originally penned by Douglass in 1845. In a similar spirit, the African Union (AU) member states came together and designated 2024 as the Year of Education

The AU leaders and member states gathered for a summit on February 17 and 18, 2024, to plan and celebrate the Year of Education. They discussed the goals driving the Continental Education Strategy for Africa. These goals include revitalizing the teaching profession and investing in education systems. Importantly, foundational literacy, math, and science education show up in many of these goals.  

The AU Summit reminds us that many African countries have prioritized education for decades. Most incoming African leaders focused on education policy after achieving independence from colonial governments that oppressed them. As a result, primary school enrollment throughout the African continent is at 80 percent.  

Youth in African countries continue to drive the focus on education. The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) unites governments, educators, donors, and more to promote access to quality education. One key set of stakeholders is the youth themselves. Young people from countries like Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania, and others spur forth change through the Youth Leaders platform. RESULTS had the honor of showcasing a message from Malawian Youth Leader, Eliza Chikoti, at a 2023 Congressional Roundtable event. 

But even as African leaders and communities invest in education, obstacles remain. The destructive and dehumanizing legacy of colonialism persists. Systemic barriers limit education access. These barriers include gender-based violence, child marriage, discrimination, and expensive school fees. Other factors like climate disasters, violent conflict, and the COVID-19 pandemic disrupt education access.  

As a result, we see data like this: in some African countries, as many as 86 percent of kids experience learning poverty. Learning poverty is when children do not get the opportunity to learn to read simple texts by age 10. This data may feel overwhelming and abstract. But we know this translates to millions of actual kids. These are kids with the same ripe curiosity and intellect as your child or your neighbor’s child, shut out from the chance to learn — the chance to be forever free. 

The U.S. government has a track record of support for global foundational education. RESULTS even produced a report examining U.S. global foundational learning efforts. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Assistant Administrator in the Bureau for Africa, Dr. Monde Muyangwa, recently spoke on a roundtable panel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to promote the Year of Education. In 2021 alone, USAID funded programs helping partners to reach 33.4 million learners. And yet, the House continues to delay reauthorization of the READ Act (the Senate passed it in 2023). This legislation would authorize essential programs supporting children’s right to quality education in places affected by learning poverty.  

We have arrived at February 2024 — Black History Month in the African Union’s Year of Education. This is a time to honor and celebrate the history and contributions of Americans of African descent. There is no more fitting time to call on our members of Congress to pass the READ Act without further delay. It’s time for us to do everything in our power to realize each child’s right to learn and be that much closer to forever free. 

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