Educational inequalities in the midst of persistent poverty: Diversity across Africa in educational outcomes

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Article (peer-reviewed)

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This paper explores inequalities in education across sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest continent. Although we primarily focus on primary school completion rates, some attention is also given to measures of basic literacy as a more proximate indicator of human capital acquisition. Using data from the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) and UNICEF's Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS), we present data on cross-country variations in primary school completion rates, including gender and wealth gaps. While these data paint a picture of overall educational progress, particularly for girls, this general picture is juxtaposed against an extremely diverse landscape across Africa with respect to primary school completion as well as retained literacy. Cross-country variation in primary school completion can be partially explained by variations in national per capita income and is highly correlated with cross-country variations in primary completion rates achieved 20 years ago, but we still find surprising variations in educational outcomes, among the poorest countries. Among the 24 sub-Saharan African countries with a purchasing power parity GNI less than $1000, we find a significant variation in both primary completion rates and achieved literacy, suggesting that educational progress is possible even in resource challenged environments. At the same time, our findings are sobering; in many countries, international educational goals are unlikely to be reached by 2015 and learning outcomes are frequently abysmal.