The Race to 2015: Education and the Millennium Development Goals

A World at School

With just under 1,000 days left until the 2015 deadline of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), members of civil society organizations, think tanks, and multilateral institutions convened in Washington, D.C. last week from April 15th to 19th to discuss the state of education in the developing world. The events coincided with the spring meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose economic priorities have often left education low on the agenda. According to the top experts and panelists who attended, education can no longer be a side issue. In fact, a strong educational foundation is necessary for societies to excel in all other spheres of development.

The State of Education

The reality is that despite genuine efforts to prioritize education, 61 million children of school age remain out of the classroom, and many fear it is too late for them to ever return. The causes are varied: cultural tensions, economic burdens, disabilities, and child labor top the list. The statistics are startling:

  • 115 million children are subject to forced child labor
  • 34 million adolescent girls are out of school
  • 16 million children with disabilities are out of school (1/4 of them are blind)

Fortunately, the issue of education now has more attention than ever. The World We Want 2015, a survey conducted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) asked people of all ages and walks of life across the globe to rank their priorities for the post-2015 development agenda. Almost unanimously, they voted for education. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl and education activist, was shot by the Taliban on her way to school in October 2012 for championing girls’ rights to education. She has since made a full recovery and returned to school in the United Kingdom, but her incredible story has finally drawn the world’s attention to one of the gravest human rights abuses in history: the denial of education.

Education Events

On April 17th I attended “The Sprint to the 2015 Development Goals: Reaching the Marginalized with Quality Education and Learning,” two panels hosted by the Brookings Institution that were titled “The Global Education Financing Gap” and “The Quality Gap – Equitable Opportunities to Learn.”

The first discussion highlighted the serious lack of funding for education projects, noting the $26 billion financing gap, and brought to the table important issues related to responsibility and aid effectiveness. Rebecca Winthrop, Director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, mentioned some of the financial actors in the education sphere. Many governments, including those of low-income countries, are doing their part, devoting about 20% of their budgets to education, but must make better use of their available resources to ensure that they are being maximized. Aid donors, on the other hand, are not towing their weight: existing investments are stagnating when they need to be increased. As 2015 approaches, we must shift our focus to new mechanisms and models for investment, such as the private sector, which currently spends 6 times more on health than on education. Some governments, including France, have implemented financial transaction taxes, whose money benefits development project financing. Whatever happens, the panel made it clear that funding for education must derive from global partnerships; as no one source alone has enough financial resources to meet the demands of the education sector.

The second discussion focused on equitable learning with the realization that the MDGs focused largely on access to education, without emphasizing the quality of learning. The current buzzword in the education sector is now “learning outcomes,” which highlights not only the importance of children attending school, but also what they get out of their education. There are huge learning achievement gaps across countries, economic divisions, and gender boundaries. “Learning outcomes” encompasses literacy as well as life skills, which are necessary for children to succeed. Focusing on outcomes also ensures that children stay in school, rather than drop out to take on a job to supplement their family’s income.

On April 19th, I attended “The Final Sprint to 2015: Delivering Quality Education & Learning for All,” a series of panels hosted and moderated by UN Special Envoy for Education Gordon Brown, also a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Gordon Brown gave a compelling introduction about the absolute crucial nature of education in furthering human development. “If we cannot achieve education,” he said, “every new [development] goal we set will lack credibility.” When Mr. Brown visited families in the newly-formed South Sudan, he asked parents what vision they had for the future of their children. All parents said that what they wanted most was for their children to receive an education. The situation is particularly dire for girls: only 501 school-age females are enrolled in school in South Sudan. Mr. Brown also mentioned a 12-year old girl he spoke to in Morocco who was visited by the very Minister of Education and asked why she was in school when she could be married and having children. These are the stories we must remember, he said. It is our duty to combine measurable goals with available resources to ensure that education does not fall through the cracks.

Youth Advocacy Group

One of the most inspiring groups in attendance at all of the events was the Youth Advocacy Group for UN Education First (YAG-UNEF), several high school-age students from around the world selected to mobilize young people to support the global education movement. They have been tasked with advising the UN Education Envoy on issues they feel should be prioritized on the education development agenda and holding political influentials and thought leaders accountable to their commitments. Each of them spoke candidly about their experiences, seeing girls or children with disabilities denied an education.

What is at Stake

If we fail to address the world’s education needs now, we forever risk the chance to speed up development in all other sectors. Education is a basic human right, and governments have a responsibility to provide education not as a public good, but as a public service to their citizens. Education leads to shared prosperity and inclusive economic growth, progress in health and nutrition as well as poverty reduction, and improved gender equity. It is the silver bullet of development, and without it, society as a whole falls behind.

26 April 2013

This post is one of a series that I contributed to The MIDCM Column, a blog written by students in the Minor in International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland.

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