The challenge the world faces in order to meet the MDG of universal primary education by 2015 is greatest in West/Central Africa. In 2001 NE/AR in the region was just 55 per cent, despite having increased at an average annual rate of 0.8 per cent since 1980. More than a third of the 21 countries worldwide in which net primary school participation is below 60 per cent are in the region.
The only countries in West/Central Africa that are currently close to universal primary participation are among the smallest in terms of population: Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe. At the other extreme, in Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Niger, fewer than two children in every five benefit from primary education.
The gender gap in West/Central Africa is particularly wide, with a GPI of just 0.90 (90 girls in school per 100 boys) according to UNICEF projections for 2005. Only five countries – Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Mauritania and Sao Tome and Principe – are on track to achieve gender parity in primary education in 2005. The countries in the region in which girls are most disadvantaged educationally are Chad (with a GPI of 0.69) and Niger (0.67).
This region has been disproportionately blighted by emergencies, with major armed conflicts having taken place between 1990 and 2003 in Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone (6). The damage done by war to the educational prospects of children in these countries has been incalculable. Among the most notable marks of progress, however, have been the back-to-school campaigns in the Central African Republic, Congo, Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia.
Governments in this region are constrained by poverty and heavy external debt repayments. They struggle to keep pace with the demand for places in school from a population in which the numbers of children are still rising every year. In a region where the NE/AR will need to increase by 3.2 per cent a year to achieve primary education for all by 2015, emergency measures are needed – along with emergency levels of international support and funding.