Harnessing religion to improve education in Africa

July 6, 2012 23 By admin

The 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.’


‘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]