Reexamining Sources of Growth: the Quality of Basic Education

Latest Issue: 
  • Volume 7


  • The seventh issue of the “Cameroon Economic Update” underscores the need to improve the quality of basic education in Cameroon.
  • Cameroon, a Central African country with its sights set on achieving emerging market status by 2035, allocates just 3.3 percent of its GDP to education, compared to an average of 4.3 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • While access to basic education has improved considerably over the past decade, the quality of education has deteriorated, and significant imbalances remain.

YAOUNDÉ, April 24, 2014 — According to the most recent issue of Cameroon Economic Update, if Cameroon hopes to meet its objective of achieving emerging market status by 2035, it must invest in human capital, starting with improving the quality of its primary education. 

A biannual World Bank publication that assesses the country’s economic outlook, the magazine focuses its latest issue on basic education as a key source of growth.  “Although the Cameroonian economy has been growing at a fairly decent rate of between 3 and 5% per year for the past decade, at this pace the country will not be able to achieve the target set by the government in its Vision 2035 working document,” said Souleymane Coulibaly, World Bank lead economist for Central Africa and one of the principal authors of the report.

Reexamining the sources of growth is therefore critical, and must begin with basic education, a pillar of long-term growth. “Primary education allows a significant portion of the population to participate in the production and growth process,” said the economist, noting that “there is in fact a strong link between the level of education and the likelihood of households falling below the poverty line.”

While access to basic education has improved considerably in Cameroon, with primary completion rates jumping from 53% in 2001 to 80% in 2011, academic performance in Cameroon has nonetheless declined.

Indeed, the report notes, the standardized test scores of Cameroonian children declined between 1998 and 2005, although they were higher than the test scores in many francophone African countries. A 2010 study conducted by the Ministry of Basic Education (MINEBUB) among primary school students confirms this finding: 49% of Cameroonian children in the third year of primary school struggled to read, while 27% could not read at all, demonstrating the urgent need for Cameroon to improve the quality of its education.

The Cameroon Economic Update also refers to the persistently huge disparities at the inter- and intra-regional levels, as well as between genders and among social classes. By way of example, while the primary completion rate in urban areas is 91%, the rural completion rate is only 68%. In addition, the adult illiteracy rate is three times higher in rural areas (57%) than in urban areas (17%).

Another telling statistic regarding the disparities that characterize the Cameroonian education system is the enrollment rate for rural girls: just 65%, compared to 79% for boys. Furthermore, while virtually all children from the most prosperous families complete primary school, only 40% of children from the poorest quintile complete this level.  

" Primary education allows a significant portion of the population to participate in the production and growth process "

Souleymane Coulibaly

World Bank lead economist for Central Africa

Measures to improve the quality of primary education

Why do these gaps exist? “This situation is in part attributable to the fact that Cameroon allocates substantially less of its resources to primary education than countries with a similar income level,” explained Shobhana Sosale, a World Bank education specialist who co-wrote the report.  Although public expenditure on education increased rapidly between 2001 and 2003, rising from 1.9% to 3.3% of GDP, it has since remained stagnant and is currently well below the regional average of 4.3%. “We also need to include the shortage of teachers [one teacher for every 53 students] and the lack of teaching materials in primary schools,” she added.

The report states that although basic education is supposed to be free in Cameroon, it is in fact rather costly, as parents have to pay for textbooks, uniforms, exam fees, and transportation.  Lack of financial resources is thus the main reason students drop out of school.  While particular attention has been paid to the southern regions (the poorest ones) under the Education Priority Zone (ZEP) program, which seeks to increase access to education and improve its quality, results are still not encouraging.

The Cameroon Economic Update also notes that governance problems and lack of transparency worsen the situation. In fact, the review points out, according to Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, Cameroon’s education system is the fifth most corrupt in sub-Saharan Africa. 

“Going forward, authorities will be able to focus on the essential by improving data collection, so they can better monitor the provision of education services, assess student learning more systematically, and increase budget allocation to education as a whole,” notes Shobhana Sosale.

The report also recommends reprioritizing public spending for the ZEPs, ensuring transparency in budget allocations, and revisiting textbook policy. Currently, parents are responsible for buying textbooks. The books are designed so that students can write in them, requiring the purchase of new ones each year. The result is that in Cameroon, only one out of 12 students had access to textbooks in 2011.

Increasing the availability of textbooks is the most cost-effective and productive way to improve the quality of learning.


Issue No, 7: Revisiting the Sources of Growth