A postcard from… Abuja

A week away from Westminster offers our Parliamentarians an opportunity to travel. And whilst Ros Scott went north, as we’ll see later today, Mark Williams headed towards the warmth of West Africa. He sent us this…

If ever there was a justification for our coalition government’s commitment on overseas aid, it was laid bare for me on a half-term trip to Nigeria as part of the All-Party Group on Global Education working with the charity ActionAid International. I will never forget the village school in Abuja with 700 children with absolutely no water supply, no toilet provision, no drinking water, but an abundance of enthusiastic youngsters; or the city school in Lagos proudly boasting its DFID-funded toilet block.

The case for education for all is not lost on the Nigerian government Ministers I met. There are clear guidelines from the federal Government, but aspirations are not cascading down in terms of adequate financial resources and Nigeria is overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge, with up to 8 million out of school children, inadequate teacher training and a desperate school infrastructure. Add to this mix variant policies in Nigeria’s 36 states, the huge economic and cultural challenges where grinding poverty means parents can’t release their kids for school and in the Islamic northern states in particular, where girls are discouraged from attending school. The DFID-funded girls’ education project, GEP, is attempting to lessen the disparities between girls’ and boys’ enrolment in primary schools.

It is no surprise that the northern states are proving fertile territory for the terrorist group Boko Haren, areas where huge numbers are out of school and illiteracy levels staggering. ActionAid and the ESSPIN project are undertaking significant community empowerment work, promoting real community engagement through School-Based Management Committees. It is hoped that engendering a sense of ownership for schools will actively promote the education sector. It was a pleasure to meet Civic Society leader, parents, and traditional tribal and religious leaders actively demanding educational resources from their politicians.

There also remains the vexed issue of educational fees. Nigeria’s Universal Basic Education Act of 2004 promotes free education entitlement; however in reality even state schools are charging fees. Levied at perhaps only £2 a term, this is highly prohibitive to most families in a country where 64% live on less than $1 a day.

DFID has described Nigeria’s educational system as facing “a multi-dimensional crisis”. It is also hampered by a wide perception of corruption at all levels of Government, and transparency and accountability have become key messages from Nigeria’s commendably free Press. Nigeria is not an aid-dependent country. Indeed, aid represents less than 1% of GDP. We have a long history of involvement in Nigeria, and it is commendable that UK support will help 800,000 more children into education in Nigeria, including 600,000 girls, and encourage 5000 women in rural areas from the north into teacher training. The need is there, the opportunities vast.

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