A new UNESCO publication says thousands of African children lack textbooks or must share them. Education experts say that along with skilled teachers, textbooks are essential for meeting the U.N.-backed Sustainable Development Goals, which call for inclusive and equitable quality education for all.
The recent Global Education Monitoring Report published by UNESCO discusses the extent of the shortages and proposes solutions.
It says that in Cameroon, one study showed there were 12 students for one reading book and 14 to a math book. In some parts of Uganda, there were up to 30 pupils per textbook.
Asma Zubairi, a researcher for the report, said shortages could be particularly acute according to primary grade level and location of the school.
“The provision of books in the earlier grades,” she said, “should be paramount because it’s where the largest impact on learning can take place — where many children are without access to textbooks. Similarly, schools in remote or rural areas often face the largest book shortages.”
Budgets and earmarks
The World Bank recommends that 3 to 5 percent of a country’s education budget be spent on textbooks. But the report found that in reality, a very small amount is earmarked for such purchases. In fact, UNESCO said that in Burundi and the Central African Republic, the figure is only 1 percent.
Other problems contribute to the shortages. Money promised to schools for books and materials in the approved budget may arrive late or be diverted for other uses. Also, some African officials try to save money by purchasing books with poor quality paper and binding.
“[In one example] in Ethiopia,” said Zubairi, “secondary school textbooks were being printed on poor paper and poor binding, although they were being produced quite cheaply. But this meant the textbooks were having to be replaced more frequently. This, coupled with poor distribution and storage facilities, meant that many children were being left without books.”
Remedies for the shortages include increasing the share of education budgets spent on textbooks and improving transparency.
Zubairi said Africa could make use of a model created in the Philippines, where at one point, 40 percent of book deliveries were not accounted for. The problem was solved with improved monitoring and transparency, thanks to the cooperation between civil society groups and the Ministry of Education.
Commercial distribution systems should also be more efficient. Zubairi said that books used to cost 50 percent more in Kenya than in neighboring Rwanda. Rwandan publishers delivered textbooks directly to the schools, while Kenya used booksellers acting as middlemen.
“The number of people it has to go through as far as distribution,” she said, “adds to the cost. So cutting through the number of actors involved in delivering to schools could be one way distribution costs could be lowered.”
The UNESCO report also says funding can be made more available — and costs contained — with improved forecasting of the number of books needed over a multiyear period.
“As the health sector has demonstrated with demand forecasting for vaccines,” she said, “it not only leads to more predictable funding but also reduces wastage. It’s something the textbook sector should emulate to ensure there’s not a shortage or surplus of stock, which can lead to the increased cost of textbooks.”
Zubairi said a proposed Global Book Fund could help estimate Africa’s book needs over the medium term. It would encourage donors to pool resources and make bulk purchases of textbooks.
If it works as well in the education sector as it does in the health sector, the plan could attract sustainable funding over a multiyear period and encourage private investors to take part in the book market.