Leading article: Africa has to spend carefully

The Chancellor of the Exchequer's plan to ensure that all children around the globe receive a primary-school education is laudable. We wish him the best of luck. Whether all of the money to fund it will be new is questionable. The history of aid pledges to the developing world does not inspire confidence.

But, assuming that the money does materialise, it is hard to argue against expenditure on education per se. There is debate over whether economic development is promoted best by spending on primary schooling or by a mix of primary, secondary and university education. You certainly can't have a good secondary-school system unless you have a good primary one. And the economic returns from primary education are firmly supported by the evidence. Gordon Brown is certainly concentrating on an area of importance.

But there are wider questions to be addressed. First, whether education is indeed the key to economic development; and second, whether this huge investment of £8.5bn will actually work. Will it, for example, deliver what is promised? Will Africa manage to build the schools, train and pay the teachers, and buy the books and computers that are needed to get all of its children into primary school?

On the first question, whether this is the wisest way to spend development money, we just do not know. Development is a complex and inadequately understood process. The World Bank was fond of contrasting Ghana and Korea. When it achieved independence in 1957, Ghana had a higher per capita income than South Korea. But South Korea overtook it long ago, and now has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Why? Was it down to the investment that South Korea made in primary education? Or was it the different cultural, historical and economic context?

On the second question, whether Africa will be able to spend the money wisely, history is not encouraging. Aid has poured into Africa for decades, but African governments have been unable to deliver the education systems for which their people yearn. Ultimately, the test will be whether African governments can make judicious use of the resources, and whether the people can hold them accountable.

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