What’s so important about education?
According to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to a basic level of education. Education is fundamental to human development, playing a key role influencing an individual’s economic security, life opportunities, social status, health and happiness. In the words of Nelson Mandela, ‘Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mineworker can become the head of a mine, that the child of farm workers can become the president of a nation’. On a macro level, it can also be a major determinant of the welfare of nations.
Well what’s the problem then?
At the turn of the millennium, millions of children still had no access to education. Six ‘Education for All’ targets were set and committed to by over 160 countries. They sought to give every child the opportunity to attend free primary school of an acceptable standard and vowed to achieve gender equality in education, to improve early childhood care, to provide more learning opportunities for youths and adults thereby halving adult illiteracy, and to improve all aspects of education quality. Two of these targets - achieving universal access to primary education and gender equality - were appropriated into the ‘Millennium Development Goals’ to be achieved by 2015.
How’s that going?
Almost 12 years on and some striking advances have been made in education. As many as 52 million children who were out of school now have access to education. 61 million children of primary age are still out of school, however. And now, in the aftershocks of a global financial crisis, slower economic growth, budget pressures and rising poverty are threatening to undo the progress made over the last decade. If current trends continue, as many as 72 million children will be out of school in 2015, substantially more than today. Irina Bokova (UNESCO Director-General) explains, ‘While rich countries nurture their economic recovery, many poor countries face the prospect of education reversals. We cannot afford to create a lost generation of children deprived of their chance for an education that might lift them out of poverty’. The latest Global Monitoring Report to independently assess the progress made towards these goals emphatically asserts that the world is not on track to achieve the Education for All targets set for 2015.
So what needs to be done?
Unfortunately the education sector receives a meagre 2% of the already substantially underfunded humanitarian aid on offer. An estimated US$16 billion is needed annually to bridge the Education for All financing gap if these targets are to be met. More importantly, however, these targets cannot be achieved by simply pumping money into ‘developing’ countries’ education systems. Intricate & complex context-specific plans for education, set within a wider development narrative, need to be conceived & implemented – a great deal of research, discussion & debate at global, national & local levels is needed. As Kofi Annan asserts, ‘We have the means and capacity to deal with our problems, if only we can find the political will’. In order to merely prevent a reversal of the progress that has been made since 2000, let alone striving to meet the targets set, a vast amount of political will is required; the will of governments to take seriously the goals they have set themselves & to accept accountability for their successful realisation.