In April, this year’s Global Education Action Week focused on raising awareness of “education as a human right.” As global issues go, there are few more pressing, yet the international community has been slow to heed its own rhetoric.
Despite the existence of four international agreements supporting a child’s fundamental right to a free primary education, building on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, 34 percent of children in sub-Saharan Africa remain out of school today. Of the 77 million children worldwide denied this essential human right, more than half are girls and 43 percent live in countries affected by conflict. Clearly, we need to do more than agree and declare.
When people are empowered to demand and direct educational services based on local needs, the results are striking.
This March, the CEOs of 13 nonprofit organizations signed and delivered a letter to Congress urging a funding increase for basic education overseas, to at least $800 million in the 2008 budget, in order to reach the millennium development goal of education for all by 2015. We argued for the need to increase the global investment in education as a proven antidote for so many of the developing world’s chronic ills.
Education protects against HIV/AIDS, for example; Oxfam International estimates that 700,000 new cases of the disease could be prevented each year if all children completed a primary education. Education builds stronger, healthier families, since educated women have fewer children, are more likely to immunize the ones they have, and are more prepared to seek care for themselves. And education supports national and global security, by promoting stronger economies and building civil society, the pillars of stable, democratic societies. The list of benefits goes on.
Knowing all this, why has progress toward universal education been so slow? The reasons are many and varied, including insufficient funding and chronic corruption and conflict in many of the nations with the worst records. But one reason that begs more attention is the disempowerment of local communities when it comes to their children’s education. Here in the United States, we know that broken school systems can’t be fixed without the support and involvement of the community. It’s a creed repeated at every PTA and school budget meeting across the country. The same principle needs to be embraced in developing countries, where one-size-fits-all, top-down solutions too often miss their mark because local community members are left out of the decisionmaking process.
Human rights need to be claimed and enacted as much as they are declared and extended.
When people are empowered to demand and direct educational services based on local needs, the results are striking. In Benin, West Africa, where only 47 percent of girls attend primary school, a small-scale community-action project in 386 of the country’s poorest rural villages more than doubled girls’ enrollment over a four-year period. Through local partners, villagers were mobilized to identify obstacles to girls’ attending school and help determine strategies for overcoming them. These included encouraging girls and parents to delay early marriage, constructing classrooms, and using “model mothers” to serve as positive mentors for girls. Communities even installed ferries so a river would no longer come between children and their future. By implementing their own solutions, community members gained the critical capacity to organize and work together on both present and future challenges.
Human rights need to be claimed and enacted as much as they are declared and extended. If we are to meet the millennium development goal of education for all by 2015, we need international attention and funding to match the challenge at hand. But we also need to involve and empower local communities to steer those resources toward effective, long-term change.
A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2007 edition of Education Week as Claiming Education for All