By the time most African countries achieved independence in the early 1960s, education had become a sacred cow for both the governments and the people. For the former, education represented a major tool for nation-building and development which, in those days, meant essentially rapid industrialisation; for the latter, education–especially at the post-primary levels–was the main vehicle for social mobility, primarily because it made possible the acquisition of a well-paid job in the modern sector. For a few years it looked as if there was no contradiction between the aspirations of the people and the goals of the governments, on the one hand, and the socio-economic realities, on the other. Soon the bubble burst, however: industrialisation turned out to be no panacea; the limits of Africanisation were rapidly reached in the civil service, but proved to be a protracted affair in the economy. As the ugly scourge of youth unemployment started to spread in Africa by the mid-1960s, attention was focused on educational systems which began to be perceived as 'dysfunctional'–i.e. as incompatible with the social and economic realities which were largely agricultural and rural. But more ominously, schools came also under attack as serving mainly the interests of the emerging bourgeoisies.
The rapidly deteriorating social and economic situation in sub-Saharan Africa, and the need for large-scale action to reverse that ominous trend, are captured well in the following paragraph:
It is becoming evident that Africa is in a state of breathtaking and grievous crisis whose… likes may not have been seen anywhere in the West since the 14th century Plague. Twenty-nine of the world's 36 poorest nations are to be found south of the Sahara desert… and 24 of them are now appealing for emergency aid to ward off famine… The percentage of Africans living in absolute poverty rose from 82 percent to 91 percent through the 1970s. In 1983 per capita food production was down by 14 percent from 1981. Five million Africans are currently refugees. Five million African children died this year; another five million were crippled by malnutrition and disease.