Harnessing religion to improve education in Africa

Africa Power and Politics Programme is thought-provoking, innovative and infuriating in equal measure. ‘Religion and education reform in Africa: harnessing religious values to developmental ends’, a fascinating new APPP paper by Leonardo A. Villalón and Mahaman Tidjani-Alou, examines recent educational reforms in Mali, Niger and Senegal, three overwhelmingly Muslim, francophone countries in West Africa. All three have tried to ‘harness the strength of popular religiosity’ in different ways ‘to make  schools more attractive to parents by incorporating  elements into schooling that reflect Muslim values  and expectations and ensure training for future  employment.’ Some background: The education system inherited from the French colonial period is deeply secular: ‘Under these systems, only a tiny Niger schoolpercentage of the population ever completed secondary education. Despite calls for reforms early in the post-colonial period, few changes were made.  As a result, most parents have seen official state schools as unattractive options at best, and often resist efforts to enrol their children. Across the Sahel, another response to the bad fit between the provision of public education and social expectations has been the development of a vast parallel system of informal and religiously-based education functioning outside the official state system.’ Things got worse in the 1980s as structural adjustment programmes cut into both state jobs (previously a motive to put kids through state schools) and the schools themselves. Reforms since then have largely ignored (or even tried to suppress) the flourishing parallel world of religious schools. Then the three governments decided instead to ‘go with the grain’ (a recurrent theme of the APPP), ‘both bringing unofficial  schools more squarely into the formal state system  and reforming the formal system by borrowing  characteristics from the informal, such as introducing  religious education in state schools. In each of the countries, states embarked on reform projects inspired and justified by what one key actor called ‘giving parents the educational options they want for their children’. Across the region, parents interviewed by APPP said that they want schools that incorporate religious values, but also schools that provide some hope of access to employment and practical life skills. Attempting to balance these dual demands, the reform projects have tried to recognise the parallel educational systems while imposing some degree of formalisation, or have tried to reform the official system by borrowing elements – such as religious instruction – from the informal. The result has been the creation of what are in effect ‘hybrid’ systems.’ APPP logo_enIn Niger, this involved expanding the existing network of ‘Franco-Arabic’ schools; in Mali, the government created incentives for previously unrecognized madrassas to adopt the official state curriculum without abandoning their religious mission. In Senegal, state schools have included religious instruction since 2002 in an effort to compete with the informal system. Some findings: ‘Hybrid schools in their various formats have been extremely popular with parents, and the major challenge to the State is how to meet the high and growing demand they have created. Despite the fears of some observers, the reforms have not exacerbated gender imbalances. At primary school level, for example, the emphasis on religion has proven particularly attractive to parents of girls. In many hybrid schools, girls outnumber boys, sometimes significantly. Finally,  preliminary indications suggest that the success  rates of the hybrid schools, as measured by  the number of students passing state exams,  is as good as or better than that of the classic  francophone schools.’ Conclusion? ‘The educational reform experiments in the Sahel provide strong evidence to support one of APPP’s core hypotheses. In the Sahelian educational context, building institutions that work with or tap into prevailing moral orders and cultural values shows real promise as a means to address some deeply entrenched obstacles to better development outcomes. Strikingly, however, while the cases suggest the importance of local values, they do not suggest a rejection of the state as a primary actor in development. Significant popular demand for education in the Sahel takes the state model as its point of departure, but asks that it be adjusted to local values. We find that the ‘grain’ of popular demand  in contemporary Africa is not a desire for ‘traditional‘  institutions, but rather for modern state structures  that have been adapted to, or infused with,  contemporary local values.’ The authors do, however, acknowledge that there may be trade-offs involved – for example on what the kids are actually being taught about gender rights, but think they should be acknowledged and debated. What I particularly like about this conclusion is that it doesn’t give up on state provision, but tries to make it speak to local culture and values, rather than those of some long dead, Voltaire-quoting colonial master. [Postscript: make sure you read the comments – really good debate]]]>

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24 Responses to “Harnessing religion to improve education in Africa”
  1. Alesh Brown

    Interesting ideas! If anyone wan’t to know more, I think Edinburgh University has done quite a lot of research around this areas and also holds yearly conferences on the interaction and implications of religion and faith in development – both from European and pro-poor perspectives.

  2. Caroline

    Too right we need to talk about how women’s rights (not ‘gender rights’, that’s making what we’re discussing much too anodyne) are compromised by religious education. Read Sara Hlupekile Longwe’s article ‘Education for women’s empowerment or schooling for women’s subordination’ to see a Zambian feminist take on this! http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/education-for-womens-empowerment-or-schooling-for-womens-subordination-131364
    We can’t talk about raising men’s and boys’ awareness of gender inequality, or about creating societies which consider these things wrong, when they’re there in schools. I wouldn’t want my own children in a faith-based school – speaking as someone brought up under the crushing weight of religion herself. Secular education is a right fought for in many countries, so let’s not let pragmatism blind us to the sacrifices we make if we have to accept faith providers. You’re wanting to consider this approach quite widely I think – but it is particularly critical for girls and women countries where appalling abuses of women’s human rights happen – for example, female genital mutilation; arcane and dreadful punishments, including stoning, meted out to young girls and women having sex (often forced) outside marriage. I wonder what’s happened to the ideas of Marx regarding religion, in our organisations which still cling to lots of his idealistic vision? Why have we lost that key part of his analysis?

    • Duncan

      Hi Caroline
      thought this might get a response, so let’s keep digging: ‘Secular education is a right fought for in many countries’ – not in West Africa it seems. Doesn’t your reasoning take us down the slippery false consciousness route of saying all these people who want religious instruction in schools have been brainwashed, so we can simply ignore their views? What price participation, bottom up, agency etc then? In essence, wasn’t that Marx was doing with his ‘Opium of the people’ shtick? If so, that may explain why marxism hasn’t exactly taken poor people by storm……. Maybe we’ve ‘lost that key part of his analysis’ because it was the weakest/most offensive part?

  3. Caroline

    Well sorry, I think religion is just that – brainwashing. And you’re incorrect if you think lots of people deciding to send their kids to these schools are religious in the sense in which it is conventionally understood, at all – there’s research showing how very cleverly people will manipulate religion to get development benefits – swapping religion to get access to resources and services – in both developing and ‘developed’ countries (see the scurrying to get children into more academic faith-based schools in the UK to see how universal this is). Which gives me a little hope… see also the feminist analysis of bargaining with patriarchy – Deniz Kandiyoti, ‘Bargaining with Patriarchy’, Gender and Society 3:8 1988 (it’s a long time ago she wrote it, so sad that it’s still so relevant). Much easier to allow your girls into a classroom if the schools don’t challenge inequality. We had this kind of education in the UK for most of my generation but I am happy to say I think my own kids are being taught (just a little bit) about individual thought (dare I say critical consciousness?) – surely what education is actually for? If we accept anything less we just bring up a generation which sees nothing wrong with the rules which girls have to obey to conform to their societies – what’s sad is that people have to behave in this way to get the education that should be a right for all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs…

    • Duncan

      But don’t you think that writing off the deeply held beliefs of the vast majority of poor people as either brainwashing or deliberate subterfuge (‘they don’t really believe that stuff, they just want to get their kids into school and/or a new roof for their house’) is not only a tad arrogant, but very counterproductive for people working in development? It means we start off by dismissing a lot of what matters to them, and then say, ‘right, now let’s listen to what you have to say’………

  4. Caroline

    Yes, of course it’s arrogant, in the same way that all proponents of universal human rights are seen as arrogant by proponents of cultural relativism. but it’s only the same conflict I have when I talk to my own mother, who sees me as the one with the false consciousness – welcome to the world of the first-generation atheist… going back to the matter in hand – i.e. development, belief, power, and who ‘knows’ – at the risk of stating the glaringly obvious, the problem you raised in your last comment comes up because of the ethical dilemmas involved in development and participation themselves – ‘we’ (development workers) have the resources on which ‘they’ (women and men in poverty) depend…and these aren’t just confined to formal religion, but why does formal religion get the respect that other dodgy beliefs don’t? For example, if a community believes in witchcraft – is that fine, or is it false consciousness – and do we try to transform those beliefs bearing in mind the negative impact of the beliefs (e.g. elderly widows who may be victimised on that basis?). What makes ‘religion’ different and to be respected, when the issues all come down to blind faith?

  5. Nicholas

    I doubt whether the proponents of Islam would imagine themselves as proponents of cultural relativism. This is precisely the point that Caroline is missing and yet why she objects to it. It is an alternative worldview that can be articulated, reasoned for, defended and committed to. Calling it ‘brainwashing’ is, I think, simply silly – it does not do justice to its reality and the way in which it works in people’s lives; and, for judging the lives of women and men living in, say, Mali (or anywhere) it is not only arrogant but patronizing. (I do not perceive atheists in that way either. They may be wrong but that they have come to their wrongness by legitimate ways that include both felt and reasoned approaches is a given).
    What is interesting to me in this actual example given is the opportunity this pragmatic approach allows for greater participation by girls in education and subsequently in opportunity and that we know, in time, is one of the key routes through which gender dynamics are changed. Knowledge (and participation in its learning and creation) is power – and girls are acquiring it in ways that are culturally acceptable and embedded in a state sanctioned criteria. What they do with that next will be very interesting…and historically what men and women in Western Europe did with it was to transform the relationship between religion and society in very constructive ways, including giving space to the creation of human rights approaches to anchoring what it means to be human!
    Meanwhile, even ‘witchcraft’ can be used pragmatically to achieve positive outcomes. I have worked on a project that changed both how traditional healers worked with mentally ill people and how those healers came to re-perceive their role in highly constructive ways that enabled mentally ill people to achieve their right to inclusion…leaving aside what we think about the epistemological status of witchcraft aside!

  6. Caroline

    No,I’m not saying the proponents of Islam are cultural relativists – I’m having a gripe about religions and the position of women, and saying that we shouldn’t lose sight of the impact of religious belief and culture on women’s ability to exercise their human rights. And the fact that education should teach people to think! And as for your point on witchcraft and mental illness – projects which engage with retrogressive forces to turn them progressive are fantastic. But the fact that they were needed to start with speaks volumes. Try asking anyone attempting to engage religious leaders on sexual health and HIV – they’ll tell you more than I ever could do!

  7. Nicholas

    Education should indeed teach people to think but you can think and be religious and you can use your thinking to transform your religion and its commitments in ways that promote human rights, including sexual health and HIV.
    A key question in discussing ‘religion’ must always be whose ‘religions’ and see it as a complex phenomena. You can indeed use your religion to achieve development goals instrumentally and be committed to your religion. This kind of dissonance, I think, is called being human.
    For example, Taso, the Ugandan AIDS organisation, received its primary funding in 1987 (via ActionAid) from a group of ageing, white middle class Christians who owned an estate agency (as a foundation) and whose wholly conventional views of sexual ethics were put into question by their religious commitment to respond to the greatest need and achieve justice and support for the most marginalized.
    Finally, it was you who characterized’witchcraft’as retrogressive (which it can be) but ‘my’ traditional healers did not stop being ‘witches’ only reconfigured ones…

  8. David

    It seems like the underlying takeaway is that we should not do the usual development take of “ooh, shiny, look at the silvery bullet” with regard to harnessing religious education as a means to education (Duncan, not saying you were doing that, BTW). Instead, it may be a question of how we can balance the power to get lots of children educated with the concerns around what values they are absorbing in a more nuanced way – rather than “support it” or “oppose it”.
    For example, it might be possible to adjust the state curriculum that madrassas agree to build off of so that it includes some national history that spotlights important roles of women leaders; or to ensure that the vocational training does not embed assumptions that women can only do “women’s work” if at all.
    The dirty little secret is that this is done in small, specific incidence of seeding the “with the grain” institution with potential hooks for change, rather than with sweeping statements or national-level reforms that will be too exotic to fit local frames. And you don’t spend your time telling people what you’re doing or why, necessarily, you just set about doing it.
    I fear that many in development do not take that type of path because it is incremental and does not allow a real debate of ideas the way a national forum over mandated curriculum would. But, taking APP’s point that going with the grain is what works doesn’t mean that you can’t alter the grain over time, particularly if you can find ways to empower girls in their own terms and then follow what works for them.

  9. Oxfam are I am afraid proponent’s of neo-liberal social engineering. Their ‘Send My Sister to School’ campaign was recently (about 18 months ago) featured in the Oxfam’s Bigger Picture (education) magazine. It clearly states that the level of girl’s education in Africa is a result of negative attitudes of African society, families and education systems. This is shameful in itself, but the failure to consider effects of SAPs and the figures on school attendence pre SAPs reflects how Oxfam is promoting a self-supporting agenda of ‘Africa is creating its own problems that Western NGOs need to sort out’ instead of fighting for economic and political justice. Shame, shame, shame.

  10. It appears that my second comment was moderated out of the debate. If that’s the case, I’d be very interested to know why as it was an earnest, serious and measured contribution.
    I’d also appreciate robust criticism of my point of view – I hope Oxfam espouses the principles of free speech and debate (or is your distaste for Voltaire that deep?).
    I’m confused about why Oxfam is happy to criticise the involvement of others in African organisations in African schools, but unwilling to accept criticism of its role in UK schools.

  11. Ken Smith

    “Most parents have seen official state schools as unattractive options at best, and often resist efforts to enrol their children”
    I’m very surprised at this. I would have thought parents would have bent over backwards to have pupils sent to exclusive colonial schools that more or less guarenteed a good education and job. I’d join the Church of England in a flash if my children could go to Eton.

  12. Ref posts 12, 14 and 15:
    The “send my sister to school” teaching resourcce is on page 7 of the magazine:
    Kaltume (the girl in the picture) summarises her lack of enrolment as stemming from the restrictions placed on her by her African family, society and education system.
    There is mention of gender, but no mention of the macro economic policies and IMF led constraints that have enforced the cut backs in investment in education and led to dropping enrolment.
    So Oxfam is teaching UK kids that what needs to change is the African society, family and education systems’ attitude towards gender and that SAPs have nothing to do with it.
    Oxfam is teaching UK kids that they can ‘make a difference’ by lending their support to the western NGO campaign to socially engineer gender relations in Africa.
    Oxfam is teaching kids that the solutions lie in this neo colonial approach, rather than in addressing the blatant trade, political, economic and power imbalances.
    As a teacher I don’t need Oxfam lending its support to the neo-liberal status quo in this way and I would much rather Oxfam supported the teachers in providing real education rather than distorted realities aimed at gathering support for its publicity campaigns. Otherwise, Oxfam should leave the job of educating to the educators.
    There is no malice whatsoever in these earnest comments and I would really like my point of view to be challenged. Please look at the article and see what you think.

  13. Elly

    I agree. As teachers we seem to be saying to the children that “yes, there are serious problems in the world but as long as you wear a silly hat and raise money – or maybe even write to your MP and ask them to give even more money, then it’s all ok.”
    Why aren’t we teaching them the underlying facts so they can decide if they are happy with the status quo or whether they want to challenge it when they grow up?

  14. Elly I fear that Oxfam do not feel that UK children should be learning about SAPs, IMF policies and the like.
    Oxfam want UK kids to understand that ‘we’ are the saviours not the perpretrators of far off problems – its a far better publicity and donation gathering message. Duncan, please prove me wrong!

  15. Elly

    Re: Ken Smith (16)
    Eton might guarantee an excellent ‘academic’ education but letters after your name are not all that matters.
    Many people do not worship the fact that children can jump through hoops like circus animals.
    I want my children to go to a school where they receive a good all round education, including mixing with people from a diverse range of backgrounds. Something they would not find at Eton.
    In the quote you refer to I guess those parents also feel there is more to education than grades.

  16. John McLaverty - Oxfam Youth & Schools team

    ‘Send My Friend to School’ isn’t an Oxfam Campaign. It’s managed by the Global Campaign for Education, an international campaign whose UK membership consists of 27 INGOs, trades unions and civil society organisations. Oxfam actively participates in ‘Send My Friend’ as we believe strongly that every child has the right to receive a quality education. The schools resources are written by a number of coalition members, including Oxfam.  
    How to best achieve education for all raises challenging questions. Reclaim Education dismisses the impact of writing to MPs and attacks ‘Send My Friend’ as ‘neo-colonial’. I would argue that, within the UK, young people’s sustained participation in keeping the issue of education for all at the front of MPs minds has been an important factor in shaping DFID’s leading role within global education and has helped bring millions of children into school. Campaigning here in the UK is reflected by similar GCE coalition campaigns in over 120 countries in the global south, where young people and civil society are demanding the right to go to school from their governments. Rather than being ‘neo-colonial’ the UK campaign is part of a wider global movement of ‘active citizens’ sharing the same goal.
    Active citizenship most certainly involves young people developing a critical awareness of why children aren’t in school. Reclaim Education’s comments add valuably to this debate. However I wouldn’t wish this to be a static debate. The world has changed since the zenith of structural adjustment in the 1980s. The introduction the MDGs and PRSPs in the early 2000s shifted the nature of conditionality towards combatting poverty and now the global financial crisis is asking serious questions of the neo-liberal world order and its paradigm for development.
    Change also occurs between countries as well as over time. Some countries have been much more successful in overcoming poverty and meeting the MDGs than others. These are the ‘effective states’ and neo-liberalism isn’t so rigid that these effective states can’t find democratic space to bring about lasting changes.
    Finally factors such as gender and disability can be either more or less significant as barriers to education, depending on the particular country and the context. It is just as inaccurate to stress gender is the only cause of not receiving an education as it is to dismiss it altogether. Kaltume is growing up in northern Nigeria, a region where a disproportionately large number of girls don’t attend school. This is a fact and should be addressed in an honest and balanced way.
    So the arguments cut many ways and are complex. Reclaim Education draw conclusions from only a tiny number of the learning and campaigning resources produced over a number of years by the Global Campaign for Education. However I hope we can all agree that continuing to promote learning, debate and action among young people about the universal right to education are important elements of the ‘real education’ that Reclaim Education advocate.

  17. David Week

    I’ve arrived via google at this rather old conversation.
    What’s strikes me most is that almost every post assumes that citizens of the OECD world will have a measurable impact on how other countries develop. I’ve spent forty years in development, and I can’t recall a single country I’ve been in where the historical trajectory of the country has been diverted by aid programs.
    In terms of total economy (counted and uncounted) and certainly in number of human hearts and minds, aid programs are tiny and uninfluential. The people of these countries have shown their resilience against colonial intrusion, missionism, war, famine, and poverty. They continue to think in their own ways, shape their own history, and resist efforts by outsiders to press them into an outside mould.
    The Americans have spent three trillion dollars in the tiny nation of Afghanistan, and have achieved little or nothing. This is an indicator that no amount of strategy, money, intellect, or skill will shape another nation.
    So if I don’t accept that idea that foreign aid develops or shapes the fate of nations, why do I continue? Three reasons. First: I like the people I work with—generally a better class of humans than I generally find in rich countries. Second: I feel honoured to work with them on what they see as their problems, because they are always important problems. Third: I am so lucky to be paid to do so, and therefore can. Fourth: The more people of different cultures work together, through different channels, the more understanding is built, and the more peace and prosperity. I have no desire to guide, shape, or determine their future in any way. I am happy to help: human-to-human, equal-to-equal, without pretence that I or my culture is superior or wiser in any way shape or form. (There’s an apocryphal story about Gandhi that when asked what he thought of Western civilisation, he replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” I concur.)
    Intellectuals in the former colonised states have shared with us their discovery that they must decolonise, in order to find a better future. We, from the former colonial powers, also need to decolonise. One vestige of our history as colonizers is the illusion that we can stride across the world in seven-league boots, expecting it to conform to our will. At this stage in history, that illusion is ludicrous, impractical, and serves no-one.

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