Universal primary education can be achieved by 2015 – EU commissioner

There is still time to fulfil the key millennium development goal (MDG) of achieving universal primary education by 2015 if the world can muster the political will to reach out to millions of marginalised children, the European commissioner for development has said.

Despite Unesco’s declaration on Thursday last week that there is “no chance whatsoever” of hitting the key educational goal, Andris Piebalgs believes that getting the 58-million children who are not in school into classrooms is “doable” by the end of next year. 

He said that even though Unesco’s prognosis was depressing, it had at least served to highlight the scale of the work to be done. “Enrolment doesn’t cost that much and it’s really doable by 2015,” Piebalgs said. 

“If we talk about [the goal of reducing] maternal mortality, I would say the costs involved are very considerable – and it takes more time. 

“Education enrolment is about political attention and I hope that what Unesco is saying will be a wake-up call for governments because it’s about niche groups, or people in the slums, or the kids of some minorities.” 

Political dividends
He said that getting the remaining children into school – a third of whom are disabled – would not only help the children and their parents, but would also pay huge political dividends. 

“Most of these people are marginalised and don’t play a role in politics,” he said. “But that means there are potential voters – parents – out there … It’s as simple as that. How do we incentivise the parents? If the child is at school, give him a free school meal. Then parents will send their kids to school because it costs less.” 

But at the same time, Piebalgs, a former headmaster who has served as Latvia’s finance minister and deputy prime minister, cautioned against becoming distracted by targets and figures. Getting children into school was only the beginning, he said.

“We’ve looked on education in a rather shallow way: we set the target of getting kids into school and that was it – we were just hoping that they would get something out of school,” he said. 

“It’s rather a cost-effective investment because school-building doesn’t cost a lot and teachers’ salaries don’t cost a lot. You can achieve a lot. But for me, what is crucial is the quality of education you get: the quality is not less important than enrolment.” 

Funding figures
At the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) replenishment conference on Thursday, the EU pledged a further €375-million (about R5.5-billion) to support the provision of basic education in more than 50 countries over the next seven years. 

Total EU finding for education in developing countries is expected to reach €4.5-billion over the next six years. The EU and its member states, which are the biggest GPE donors, helped train 1.2-million primary school teachers and get 13.7-million children enrolled in primary education between 2004 and 2012. 

While acknowledging that competing development agendas such as justice, investment, human rights and healthcare had sometimes stopped the international community from speaking on education with a single voice, Piebalgs said the importance of learning could neither be overestimated nor overstated. “There are too many priorities, but I don’t think it’s wrong that we have a long list,” he said. 

“But education is the first sign of equality; [it shows] that each child has access to the education system free of charge and that a state is taking care of its citizens. It represents the least capital investment of anything you can do in your country – everything else costs money.” 

Speaking to the Guardian in Brussels before leaving office later this year, Piebalgs said that although progress on the MDGs had been mixed, he felt “we’ve done reasonably well”.

But that was not to say there weren’t valuable lessons to be learned as work continued on formulating the sustainable development goals that will replace the MDGs. 

Anticipated difficulties 
“We’re facing difficulties that we could have anticipated more – such as maternal health – which require very fundamental changes in some countries’ health systems and cultures,” he said. “It’s more capital intensive. Sanitation requires more effort and more investment, but it’s all related, because sanitation starts with education; with having toilets at school and learning the habit of washing your hands.” 

He said most of the MDGs – from nutrition and food security to sanitation and clean water – would have benefited from a more educational scope, “but the programmes have been too diverse and as a result we have not focused on a centrally based approach”. 

Piebalgs, who was the European commissioner for energy between 2004 and 2009, hit back at those who object to the growing role of the private sector in development, accusing them of peddling a “very artificial and misleading argument”. 

In May, several nongovernmental organisations warned the commission that its latest moves to throw the EU’s weight behind the development agenda of private companies risked putting profits before the needs of the world’s poorest. 

Free from profit margins
Oxfam said areas such as health and education should not be determined by profit margins, adding: “Governments should provide free and public essential services for all, and maintain stringent rules for any business which might risk hindering social and environmental progress.” 

The commissioner dismissed such concerns, saying that some kind of private sector had long since appeared in most countries. “When I was in Papua New Guinea, I wanted to go to Mount Wilhelm,” he said. “You go in a 4×4 but the road is in a terrible condition and so you get stuck. Straight away, young guys come along with rope and say they’ll pull you out for some money. If there’s a landslide, they’ll help you, but you need to pay.” 

He added that while people in developing countries were used to paying for such services as healthcare and education, they often lacked the knowledge and experience to grow their businesses and get their products to the market. And that, he said, was where the private sector came in: the EU simply lacked the necessary funds and expertise. “What’s the problem?” he asked. “Capital is needed so much in these countries and even if you took all our budgets, they wouldn’t be sufficient for the needs of developing countries. It’s obvious.” 

Nothing but capitalism
Being blunt, Piebalgs said, there was just no alternative to capitalism. “It’s a painful process but, at the end of the day, there’s no other economy in the world that has developed differently. The Soviet example was not sustainable: it went bust and embraced the free market.” 

He said the presence of private companies in developing countries often served as a spur for governments to clean up their acts. “I believe that private-sector development is crucial for democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” he said. “It puts pressure on governments; if there’s no pressure from the private sector, they’ll do whatever they want.” 

Piebalgs was equally candid when asked about the series of emergencies convulsing the world, from Syria and Iraq to South Sudan and the Central African Republic. According to the UN, the number of people forced to flee their homes across the world has exceeded 50-million for the first time in almost 70 years. 

“I’m scared about what’s happening,” he said. “I think we’ve never had it on such a scale before. Now they’re saying that there are more refugees than during the Second World War, but I think the situation is even more complicated because the surrounding countries are not the most stable and there could be contamination and the technologies for killing people have also evolved.” 

A fine balance
Such crises, he said, made balancing humanitarian necessities and development priorities all but impossible. “You have to do your best to help people but you’ve also got to remember that you’ve got to rebuild later on,” he said. “Lives could be lost later on because of disease or the lack of food. We just need to be prudent and not put all our money into humanitarian aid.” 

The key to solving such manmade disasters, according to Piebalgs, lies in finding political solutions as quickly as possible: “That’s the only way to avoid being locked in for a long time.” 

Reflecting on his five years in the job, he said Europe’s attempts to make itself the pre-eminent global speaker on development issues were often thwarted by its constant internal chorus of competing national priorities. 

“There’s still a very, very national agenda in each country,” Piebalgs said. “If you talk about development policy in Poland, forget about Africa – you need to talk about eastern Europe. And the perception of a German colleague will be very different. We will always be diverse and I would definitely say that’s a weakness … when you’re the US, it’s easy because it’s one country and they decide what’s important. 

With a smile, the man the Economist named Eurocrat of the Year in 2007, added: “The best method would be to get countries to devolve money to the commission so it could decide what it should do, but I don’t think that would be a very popular measure.”

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