Ultra-fast 5G wireless technology has been widely touted as a potentially transformative development, on a par with the advent of electricity. This is not mere hyperbole. One area where 5G will play a decisive role is in progress toward achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted unanimously by the United Nations in 2015.
Consider sustainable development goal (SDG) 4 — to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” — which affects the achievement of the other goals, beginning with ending poverty (SDG 1). As the UN Development Programme’s Multidimensional Poverty Index shows, of all of the deprivations that affect the poor — including inadequate nutrition and access to clean water and sanitation — lack of quality education is among the biggest obstacles to upward social mobility.
The adverse effects of educational deprivation intensify as a person ages. And, because the children of uneducated adults are less likely to attend school, deficient education is a leading contributor to intergenerational poverty.
It is easy to see how this can undermine the achievement of other sustainable development goals. An uneducated workforce is a low-skilled workforce, ill-equipped to secure productive employment (SDG 8), close income gaps (SDG 10) or build strong institutions (SDG 16). Unesco estimates that in low-income countries, each additional year of education adds about 10% to an individual’s average lifetime earnings.
Ensuring quality education is also closely tied to the goal of achieving gender equality (SDG 5). In Africa, women lag behind men in educational attainment by one year. In countries such as the Central African Republic, Chad and Niger women are expected to complete six years of schooling. In Eritrea, that number falls to just four years. Unsurprisingly, men earn an average of 1.6 times more than women.
More educated women have better health practices, marry later and have fewer children. This leads to better maternal and child health. Furthermore, the children of educated mothers are more likely to attend school, creating a virtuous cycle of intergenerational progress.
The obvious question is how to achieve universal quality education in a region such as Africa, where schooling can be prohibitively expensive for many. With 85% of the multidimensionally poor living in rural areas, access is a major problem. To serve all of sub-Saharan Africa’s children, a new primary school would need to be completed every hour between now and 2030.
Even if the region’s governments had the money for such rapid construction (which they don’t), they would have to secure the land and ensure its accessibility to enough children — efforts subject to complex procurement processes with rigid timelines. Teachers would also need to be trained and deployed.
This may not be impossible, but it is not really feasible either. A better approach would take advantage of 5G technology to offer improved remote-learning opportunities. This would eliminate the need for large-scale land use and construction while keeping procurement processes confined largely to investments in the technology itself. These investments should not be too difficult to secure, given that 5G’s applications extend well beyond the education sector.
Remote learning has already begun to take off in some parts of the world. But 5G would greatly improve the quality of such learning, because of its sheer speed — up to 100 times faster than 4G — which would allow for instant interactivity without much energy consumption. This means that, rather than watching videos of distant teachers, schoolchildren in remote villages would be able to participate in classes in real time.
This would vastly expand the pool of qualified teachers available to educate young Africans. With volunteers able to teach from wherever they are, there would be no need to train local teachers or attract foreign teachers to underserved areas, with all of the bureaucratic difficulties that entails.
Beyond facilitating the delivery of traditional schooling, 5G is creating opportunities for entirely new approaches to learning. For example, haptic gloves could be used to track and record the movement of an expert — from a pianist to a surgeon — in real time, using 5G technology. That information could then be uploaded into a skills database accessible to students.
The challenge of achieving the sustainable development goals is daunting, but a powerful tool for overcoming that problem is already here. African governments must come together not only to invest in building 5G networks but also to seize all of the opportunities those networks make possible, including quality education for all. — © Project Syndicate
George Lwanda is a regional programme adviser on extractive industries at the United Nations Development Programme Africa regional service centre and a 2018 Asia global fellow