PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — It has been more than a half century since most African countries gained independence from their European colonizers, who spent decades mining the continent’s precious natural resources and spreading Christianity.
Yet many decades later, African Christians are still seeing bigger generation-over-generation educational gains than Muslims, and they’re seeing even larger gains than those who practice traditional Indigenous religions. And in some areas, the educational gap between Christians and non-Christians is growing wider.
That’s according to a new study led by economics scholars at Brown University, Harvard University and the London Business School. The study drew on 50 years of census data from 2,286 districts across 21 African countries to present the first comprehensive account of the differences in intergenerational educational mobility across religious denominations of Africa, home to 17% of the global population and some of the largest Christian and Muslim communities in the world.
Published in Nature on Tuesday, May 16, the study raises new questions about the connections between education, wealth and culture in Africa.
“It has always been well understood that there is an educational gap between Christians and Muslims in Africa,” said co-author Stelios Michalopoulos, a professor of political economy at Brown. “What was less understood was whether the gap was changing from generation to generation, particularly after many African countries underwent decolonization. We wanted to find out: Is the gap shrinking, expanding, staying the same? And what we found is that the gap has remained stable in the last 50 years, and in some cases, it has even grown wider.”
Michalopoulos and his co-authors found that, over the last three generations, Christian children across 21 African countries have surpassed their parents’ level of education at a much higher rate than Muslim and traditionalist children. That was true, the scholars found, even when Muslims lived in the same districts as Christians and came from households with comparable economic and family backgrounds.
Take Nigeria, for example — Africa’s most populous country, where the population is roughly evenly split between Christians and Muslims. The researchers found that Nigeria’s overall rate of intergenerational educational mobility over the last 50 years was 0.612 — in other words, 61% of all Nigerian children whose parents didn’t finish primary school have been able to surpass their parents’ education levels, completing primary school and attaining literacy. That rate was much higher for Christians — 0.786 — than for Muslims — 0.466. For traditionalists, the rate was even lower, at 0.229.
With the goal of understanding the drivers behind that mobility gap, Michalopoulos and his colleagues analyzed census data while controlling for a series of factors, including household and community characteristics.
The scholars found that differences in household size — Muslim and traditionalist households are larger on average than Christian households — played a very small role in educational mobility differences between religions. Differences in occupational structure and income played virtually no role in explaining the gaps.