Let’s keep our promise to the world’s children

Every child knows that you shouldn’t break a promise. Yet governments are on the brink of breaking a Millennium Development Goal promise made to the world’s children — the promise of a decent quality basic education for all by 2015.

As political leaders prepare for the MDG summit in New York next week, they have an opportunity to act on the education pledge. It is vital that they seize that opportunity, not just because education is a basic human right denied to millions of children, but also because education is one of the most powerful catalysts for accelerated progress in other areas. Give a kid a decent education today, and you are making an investment in economic growth, poverty reduction, child survival and democracy for tomorrow.

The good news is that we know the MDG target is achievable. Over the last decade there has been some extraordinary progress. The number of children not in school has fallen by about 37 million. Some of the world’s poorest countries, like Ethiopia, Tanzania, Mozambique and Kenya, are edging towards universal primary education. Gender gaps in enrolment are shrinking and in some countries, like Bangladesh, they are disappearing.

So why, in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy, do we still have about 69-million children out of school? And why is progress towards the goal of universal primary education slowing down to the point of stalling? Our most recent projections indicate that in 2015 there may well be more children out of school than there are today.

The big numbers on how many children are not in school capture just one part of the problem. Many kids who are in school are getting an education of abysmal quality. They are being taught in over-crowded classrooms by over-stretched, under-qualified and poorly supported teachers. Unsurprisingly, many come out without literacy and numeracy skills.

Governments have been slow to realise that faltering progress in education has wider consequences. Education is one of the MDG foundation stones. It’s what equips and empowers vulnerable people with the skills they need to escape poverty, improve their health and participate in economic and political life.

Consider the links between education and the first millennium goal, poverty reduction. We estimate that if every child in a low-income country had left school with basic reading skills, there would be 171 million fewer people in poverty. That’s because education can enable small-farmers, slum dwellers and other groups to raise productivity and find more remunerative employment.

It’s the same story on child survival. We know from the evidence in one country after another that children born to educated mothers are far less likely to die before their fifth birthday.

The bottom line is that slow progress on education will act as a brake to progress across all of the millennium goals. The bad news is that we are just one primary school generation from failure to deliver on the pledge to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Delayed action is not an option for a very obvious reason. You have to invest now in building the classrooms and recruiting the teachers needed to deliver education in the years ahead.

So what needs to happen – and how can the MDG summit make a difference?

Of course, every country has to address its own problems and there are no blueprints. Many developing country governments – especially those in South Asia – spend far too little on their education systems, and pay insufficient attention to raising learning standards. Others have made remarkable advances, like Tanzania, which has managed to get another 3 million kids into school over the last seven years.

The bigger problem is the ‘I’ word. Inequality remains the most potent destroyer of opportunities for education. In Nigeria, the average male from a wealthy, urban home can expect on average about 10 years of education. Meanwhile, poor girls in rural northern Nigeria average less than six months in school. Kenya is making sterling progress towards universal primary education – but its slum dwellers and pastoralists are being left far behind.

Inequalities in education can be narrowed through practical policies. Gearing public spending towards the most deprived regions, building decent classrooms in deprived areas, and – crucially – creating incentives that link the best teachers to the most marginalised kids can all make a difference. So can cash transfer programmes and safety nets that enable poor parents to withstand drought, sickness or unemployment without dragging their kids out of school.

But while national governments need to live up to their responsibilities, donors also have a role to play. Even with a scaled-up financial effort in developing countries, achieving the millennium education goals will require another $13 billion in aid annually. Yet having promised to back strong national policies with the support needed for delivery, aid to basic education is stagnating.

So here are two simple prescriptions for the New York summit. First, let’s put equal opportunity in education where it deserves to be — at the heart of the MDG agenda. Setting a target to halve school attendance gaps between rich and poor and between the best and worst performing parts of a country would be a step in the right direction. Second, aid donors need to act on their part of the bargain, either by increasing aid or by putting in place some innovative financing solutions such as an MDG tax on financial transactions.

Nobody is saying that a renewed global commitment on education will be easy to achieve. But there’s a very good reason to act now with urgency: you don’t break a promise made to the world’s children.

MDG Facts and Figures

Kevin Watkins is director of the UNESCO’s annual report on the state of education around the world, the Education for All Global Monitoring Report

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