School children attending parade. South Africa. Photo: Trevor Samson / World Bank

How can business help boost the quality of education?

By Hikmet Ersek, President & Chief Executive, The Western Union Company

How can business help boost the quality of education?

“We will continue to invest in our future leaders, not simply for our important philanthropic goals but because the sustainability of our business and the economies in which we operate depend on it.”

As 2015 fast approaches, discussions relating to the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals have shifted to a dialogue around the post-2015 Development Agenda. Whereas MDGs 1 and 8 – ‘Eradicating Extreme Poverty & Hunger’ and ‘Developing a Global Partnership for Development’ – are intrinsically part of our daily business, MDG 2 – ‘Achieving Universal Primary Education’– has also been an area of focus for Western Union, our Agents and most importantly for our customers.

Our own research tells us that a significant percentage of the funds remitted by our customers through Western Union are used for education. Also, over the years, more than 60 percent of the grants designated for Africa by the Western Union Foundation have supported education-related initiatives. Well over half of those projects were co-funded by our Agents. A large proportion of the remainder of funding for Africa was used to support the development steps of vocational training and entrepreneurship initiatives.

As a company we are aligned with the interests of our Agents and our customers, as well as development agencies and most African governments. We all recognise that education paves the way for development and believe that investing in our children’s education will afford them better life opportunities.

Enrolment in primary education increased by 18 percent in sub-Saharan Africa between 1999 and 2008, but we are now seeing a trend whereby children are leaving school without adequate practical knowledge to prepare them for higher education or the workplace. This issue is clearly illustrated by the problems of unemployment. While literacy and primary education enrolment rates continue to rise in many African countries, large sections of economies are struggling with unemployment. In the ‘youngest’ continent in the world, the majority of unemployed people are aged 15-24. This is a figure that concerns me greatly – the amount of untapped talent going to waste is immense.

Africa’s unemployment problems are often blamed on structural and policy issues relating to education. This is not news to many governments; the World Bank’s new education policy from 2011 targets learning rather than access to education. South Africa now has an Action Plan to 2014 that focuses on minimum quality standards, improving average performance as well as continuing to improve access.

This shift in emphasis from solely access to quality of education is beginning to spread, but similar problems are also occurring at the graduate level in Africa. According to the African Development Bank, of the five million graduates who are produced annually by African universities, many continue to experience under-employment, forcing young people with little or no work experience into low quality jobs mostly in the informal sector. While in many ways the private sector continues to flourish in Africa, human resources departments still struggle to build appropriately skilled workforces.

Looking outside of the continent at Germany, we can see that the dual system that offers on-the-job training is having a positive effect on employment rates – the country currently has less than 7 percent of its working age population without a job. This approach may provide youth with clear skillsets in order to enter the workplace, but is it really enough? Is education ranking high enough on thebusiness agenda? If people are the foundation of business as is often cited, then surely business should be prioritising investment in its future leaders at all levels and should be active in pushing the post-2015 development agenda in this area.

Over the years, I’ve taken pride in the complexity of our business because we succeeded in creating a model and network that provides access to important financial services in nearly every habitable part of the earth. However, I continue to remind myself and my colleagues to focus on the basics – the foundations of what makes us successful. For our business, our success is reliant on that of the people we employ and serve. So issues relating the MDGs and beyond are naturally of importance to us and the business community more widely. Observing the many private sector participants of the UN Global Compact, Western Union included, it’s clear that there is recognition of these issues as shared, global challenges.

Western Union supports learning and access to education not only in areas where it is still a basic need, but through job training and language acquisition that prepares people to enter the workforce; programmes that support small businesses and create jobs for graduates; as well as financial literacy programmes that help people convert wages to wealth as the basis for a more secure future.

In 2011, Western Union partnered with Business for Social Responsibility and held a shared value summit that focused on education. The summit brought together internal business leaders; external experts from development organisations; academia; NGOs and other organisations, and aimed to explore un-met needs in education. The outcomes and lessons learnt during the summit have fed into our business.

We will continue to invest in our future leaders, not simply for our important philanthropic goals but because the sustainability of our business and the economies in which we operate depend on it. With beneficial partnerships between business and education we will help develop skilful young people. It is these future leaders that will provide innovation and will strengthen the countries in which they live and work.

Editor’s Note:

This article was first published on This is Africa and is reproduced with permission.

As the international community begins defining a post-2015 development agenda, Africa faces a twin crisis of access and learning. With new research, in depth coverage and perspectives from leading thinkers, This Is Africa considers the role learning might play in a post-MDG development agenda on education.

This September This is Africa is taking an in depth look at the state of education in Africa. With less than three years remaining until the 2015 deadline to meet the Millennium Development Goals, there are mounting fears that low income regions – in particular sub-Saharan Africa – are at risk of falling well short of MDG2, which focuses on equal and universal access to primary education.

To coincide with the launch of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Education First Initiative on September 26th, This Is Africa has produced a special report on education, which includes perspectives from leading figures in the field, new data on learning in Africa and in depth reporting on key issues shaping the global education debate. They are also widening the conversation on the This Is Africa website, and will be running an extensive series of perspectives from a broad range of voices in business, development, policy and civil society in the run up to and beyond the launch of the Barometer.

Visit the Access+site for regular updates on the debate around access and learning.

Follow on Twitter @FT_ThisIsAfrica and join the conversation #Africalearning

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