Home > Research > AIDS and Society Research Unit > Publications > Publications All > Pub home > The limited impacts of formal education on democratic citizenship in Africa

The limited impacts of formal education on democratic citizenship in Africa

Year: 2009
Working paper number: 255
Author: Mattes, Robert
Unit: DARU

Africa is the poorest and most underdeveloped continent in the world.  Among many political and social consequences, poverty and the lack of infrastructure place significant limitations on the cognitive skills of ordinary Africans, and thus their ability to act as full democratic citizens.  Along with limited access to news media, the extremely low levels of formal education found in many African countries strike at the very core of the skills and information that enable citizens to assess social, economic and political developments, learn the rules of government, form opinions about political performance, and care about the survival of democracy. 

On the basis of the systematic socio-political surveys that have been conducted in Africa thus far, only a minority of Africans can be called committed democrats (Bratton, Mattes & Gyimah-Boadi, 2005). Yet poorly performing leaders, governments and political regimes are often accorded surprisingly high levels of positive evaluations and high levels of trust by their citizens. These two factors often co-occur in a particularly corrosive form of "uncritical citizenship" whereby citizens exhibit higher levels of satisfaction with the quality of governance and the performance of democracy than actually demand to live in a democracy (Chaligha, Mattes, Bratton & Davids, 2002; Mattes & Shenga, 2007).  Uncritical citizenship stands in direct contrast to Pippa Norris's (1999) concept of the "critical citizen" who supports the ideals of democracy yet is likely to identify shortcomings in their representative institutions, elected leaders, and the policies they pursue. 

While these maladies of democratic citizenship have usually been attributed to deeply-rooted cultural values endemic to African societies (Etounga-Manguelle, 2000; Chazan, 1993), previous research has found at least some evidence that Africans are more likely to act as agents, rather than subjects, once they gain access to higher levels of formal education, make use of print and electronic news media, and gain basic knowledge about their political leaders (Bratton, Mattes & Gyimah-Boadi, 2005; Mattes & Bratton, 2007; Evans & Rose, 2007a, 2007b). 

As part of a larger research project on the various linkages between higher education and democracy in Africa, we extend these studies in this paper in three important ways. First, we attempt to unpack the various elements of cognitive awareness and isolate and trace the direct and indirect effects of formal education.  Second, we examine the effects of formal education across a much broader range of dimensions of democratic citizenship than others have studied.  Finally, we attempt to isolate and assess the specific impact of higher education within this process.

Publication file: WP255.pdf