Interview with Oley Dibba-Wadda, Executive Secretary of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA)
Marilyn Achiron: What do you consider to be the greatest challenge facing African youth today?
Oley Dibba-Wadda: The challenge that youth are facing, first and foremost, is skills for employability. It is a fundamental issue. What we have realised in education is that going to school has not necessarily translated into quality learning. The learning being taught in schools does not resonate with the current job market. Then there is the issue of financing capital investment for youth who want to go outside of the formal employment system, to go into small and medium enterprises, to go into agriculture, to start their own little businesses.
MA: Do you feel that these challenges are qualitatively different from the challenges facing youth in Europe or America right now?
OD-W: I don’t think they’re qualitatively different. Youth in Europe have better opportunities; but the mindset, the needs, the wants, the thinking, the aspirations are the same. There are better opportunities here [in Europe] than on the African continent, and for me, that’s what the difference is.
All youth are asking for is opportunities, opportunities, opportunities. They know what they want, they know where they want to go, they know how to get there. What they’re challenged with is the financing to do what they want to do, and to have youth champions: adults in influential positions who can be champions to advocate for [them]. Youth want agency: they want to be able to do things the way they want to. We keep saying “they are the future”. They’re not the future; they are the present. We need to acknowledge and appreciate that.
MA: What would be needed to improve the alignment between what students are learning in school and what the labour market demands?
OD-W: First of all, we have to appreciate that the African continent is very diverse. The education system in Francophone West Africa is completely different from the education system in Francophone Central Africa; the education system in Anglophone West Africa is different from that in Anglophone East Africa. We need to contextualise each system of education. What type of education is required? What I was taught when I was going to school was education for a white-collar job: going to school, holding a briefcase, having a suit and tie. That’s what we were trying to instil in our own children, and that’s what [today’s youth] is thinking. What we need is a paradigm shift of mindset to get our kids to look at being self-employed, to start thinking outside of the box, to start learning to do, learning to be more innovative. But also to learn to find jobs that resonate with their interests.
I mentor a lot of youth in Africa, and one thing that comes up is not just the issue of hard skills for employment and employability, but soft, emotional life-skills, such as the ability to speak in public, to express themselves, to read and write basics… to be able to take risks and jump, to express themselves, to feel motivated and inspired. A+ students might not be able to prepare themselves for the world of work because they lack self-esteem, they do not have the confidence to be assertive, to ask questions.
MA: Is that something that can be taught in school?
OD-W: It should be; it has not been done. Our education systems are preparing our youth for examinations; they are not preparing them for work.
MA: As the head of a pan-African organisation, how do you hope to shape each individual country’s approach towards education?
OD-W: Our role is to engage more with policy makers. We do not implement activities, per se; we engage at a higher political level. We engage with the policy makers, ministers, heads of state, the permanent secretaries, administrators within the ministries of education. ADEA also provides capacity-building support to these ministries on best practices. So we say, for example, to a country like Angola: “Rwanda is doing something fantastic. You may want to go there and explore what they’re doing and see how you can adapt that to your context” because the environments are different; you cannot cut-and-paste. We also explore what is happening in other parts of the world. Finland has a very good education system. We engage with the minister in an African country and encourage the minister to go and do a study tour in Finland.
MA: Do you feel that African countries can learn lessons from countries in other parts of the world, and vice versa?
OD-W: They can and they could and they should. But what they shouldn’t be doing is transferring the same model from there and expecting it to work. We have a lot of donor agencies and partners who come in and say “We’re interested in supporting early childhood education; this is something we have done in South America and we want to do it in a particular country in Africa”. And we just take that model and do it because there is money attached to it. So what we have been doing in Africa is following the money, rather than using our own blueprint and saying, “You have this plan, but this is what we feel would be beneficial to us.”
We need to encourage our countries not to follow the money, but to have their own blueprint and then go out and invite [assistance from outside countries]. What we’re trying to think of now at ADEA is how to get countries to take responsibility for education as a global public good….ADEA is trying to engage with all stakeholders, both within the African continent and outside, to set up an African education fund [the African Development Bank is supporting a feasibility study for this fund]. There are so many funds out there that are being used for education in Africa and it’s just not working. So if we have an African education fund that is managed for Africans, by Africans, and [countries] take responsibility for this, then they can invite other stakeholders to contribute money so we can create an education system for Africans that resonates with the current state of the job market…If we continue to have funding coming from the outside, of course: he who pays the piper determines the tune. That’s what we are struggling with now.