Education as an Influential Factor in Developing Countries

If anyone in the developing world knew so much about the influence of education, it was the late Dr. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Mandela once described education as the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. As a human Mandela saw apartheid as an unjust system that foisted racial inequality on South Africa. But it was through his education as a lawyer that he was able to engage the apartheid regime intellectually. Mandela confronted apartheid from an intellectual standpoint. His effort, together with those in the ANC and others, led to the crumbling of apartheid in 1994. This paved the way for participatory democracy.

First educated by the early Catholic missionaries, and later at Makerere University (Uganda) and Edinburgh University (Scotland) where he won an MA in English, Julius Nyerere, as leader of the movement for the independence of Tanganyika (which later united with Zanzibar across the Indian Ocean Channel to form the United Republic of Tanzania) rallied the people to a struggle that culminated in Tanzania’s independence in 1961 (BBC FOCUS ON AFRICA, January-March 2000, p. 23).

Other educated African nationalists such as Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello (Nigeria), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya),etc, were able to liberate their fatherland from the shackle of colonial rule. It is doubtful whether these nationalist leaders would have been able to engage a colonial authority that boasted of highly educated officials in the fervent deliberations and negotiations that eventually culminated in national independence if they themselves were not educated.

History is replete with examples of the influence of education in the developing world. In medieval Europe, for example, religious dogma had stifled the propagation of arts and science as well as rational thinking and free speech. In 1619, for instance, Galileo Galilee became embroiled in a controversy with Father Orazio Grassi, a professor of mathematics at the Jesuit Collegio Romano. It began as a dispute over the nature of comets, but by the time Galileo had published The Assayer in 1623, his last salvo in the dispute, it had become a much wider argument over the very nature of science itself. (“Galileo Galilei”, Wikipedia, Galileo was tried by the Holy Office, then found ‘vehemently suspect of heresy’, he was forced to recant and to spend the last nine years of his life under house arrest.

It was Charlemagne, the 8th century Frankish king, who brought a shining light on Europe by instituting far-reaching educational reforms that saw the unrestrained propagation of scientific and artistic knowledge during the renaissance era. This reawakening of learning that Charlemagne ignited, the Encyclopedia Britannica reckons, witnessed the discovery and exploration of new continents, the substitution of the Copernican for the Ptolemaic system of astronomy, the decline in feudal system and the growth of commerce, as well as the invention of such potentially powerful innovations as paper, printing, the mariner’s compass and gunpowder. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo had registered their artistic footprints during this era with such great paintings as the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Judgment’ which have persevered through ages and civilizations to this day while retaining their prestige as some of the world’s most invaluable artwork of all times.

Investments in technology-related education and research have enabled Brazil, for instance, to become a major producer of ethanol made from sugarcane, which is a renewable source of energy. Sugarcane-derived ethanol fuel is more sustainable and eco-friendly than those derived from corn, sugar beet, wheat, or hydrocarbons, especially in an era when global effort is concertedly geared towards ensuring biodiversity and halting anthropogenic climate change to save our planet Earth. A network of scientists and universities in the U.S. and Brazil in the ‘US-Brazil Biofuel Network’ are collaborating on a number of bio-fuel-related researches.

Japan, a somewhat insular and tradition-bound society, was able to transform into a modern and industrial society on the influential heels of education. Japan’s modernization, kick-started during the Meiji era that lasted between 1867 and 1912, was hinged on the abolition of the feudal system, the equality of the classes, a free movement of people and of local trade, among others, and more importantly, on the establishment of schools, colleges and experimental agricultural stations. By the 1970s and 80s the Pacific Asian country had evolved into an industrial giant with a new breed of super-competitive Japanese upstarts including Canon (CAJ), Toyota (™) and Sony (SNE) blindsiding American icons such as Xerox (XRX), General Motors (GM) and RCA, as Bloomberg noted (Businessweek Magazine, January 22 2006).

Japan’s success story opened the pathway of success for other Asian Tigers. Improved education that incorporated strong teaching, learning and research, concomitantly resulting in higher levels of literacy, has transformed countries such as South Korea and Singapore, once categorized as developing countries by the World Bank and IMF in the 1950s and 60s, into industrialized nations, with thousands and possibly millions of their citizens lifted out of poverty.

The lesson developing countries can draw from these examples is that, even without being manifestly endowed with mineral resources, countries could still become highly economically developed and technologically transformed, the major influential factor to accomplishing this being education. Developing countries should therefore aspire to imbue their educational system with a strong teaching, learning and research component. Qualitative research, experiment, carefully streamlined with innovative thinking and out-of-the-box approach, will create pragmatic solutions that can solve many of the challenges confronting humankind.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the greatest lessons to learn from this. Despite the gains by her nationalist leaders in the struggle for political independence in the 1950s and 60s and her huge natural resource endowment, this region still has the greatest number of people wallowing in abject poverty and disease. In a world where knowledge has transformed countries in similar circumstances into developed economies and technological hubs, this is highly regrettable, even unacceptable.