Congress Mulls Aid For Education Overseas

By Sean Cavanagh — September 18, 2002 6 min read
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These are the days of pleading from the voters back home and needling from the colleagues down the hall. Over the next month or so, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are expected to enter the final stage of the typically fractious task of passing an annual budget, debating the merits of multimillion-dollar commitments to homeland security and highway funding, college financial aid and biodefense, in a year when extra federal dollars are suddenly scarce.

Despite those odds, supporters of an effort to win more congressional aid for education overseas in the fiscal 2003 budget are convinced their chances are good.

The Basic Education Coalition, a group of 16 aid and development organizations that formed about a year and a half ago, is trying to hike U.S. funding for education efforts in poorer countries to as much as $250 million in 2003—a 52 percent increase—and $1 billion annually by 2006.

At a time when the federal government is coping with the budget-busting effects of terrorism, a wheezing economy, and an income-tax cut, backers of the education effort nonetheless believe they can make a strong pitch. Investing in education overseas now—from early childhood and primary school through secondary school— makes developing nations more fertile ground for democratic, politically stable governments later, they argue, and less susceptible to terrorist influence.

“If you don’t have education in these countries, you’re not going to be able to achieve those objectives,” said George M. Ingram, the executive director of the Basic Education Coalition, a Washington association of aid organizations. “Congress and the administration have come to recognize that the war on terrorism has to be about more than just war and security.”

Enormous Task

Much of the extra money would go to regions most in need of basic education, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern and Western Asia, but also in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet republics. Today, U.S spending on education in other countries supports teacher training, improved school curricula, and outreach aimed at getting parents and local communities—rather than simply national governments—involved in education. The Basic Education Coalition wants to secure even more money for those efforts.

In many parts of the world, the needs are even more basic: School buildings are scarce or dilapidated, and classroom supplies are sparse. U.S. support could help pay for those resources. Currently, much of the U.S. funding for education overseas flows through the Agency for International Development, a federal office that would distribute the additional money to foreign-assistance programs based either in this country or abroad.

By most measures, the task is enormous. In the world’s least developed countries, 40 percent of students who enroll in primary school do not complete 5th grade, according to UNICEF and the World Bank. If current trends continue, 30 percent of the world’s children by 2015 will not attend school or learn to read or write. While primary school enrollment has more than tripled over the past half- century, to 681 million children in 1998, and literacy rates have risen 50 percent since the 1960s, roughly 113 million primary-school-age youths remain out of school today.

In some countries, problems stem from a mixture of culture, economics, and geography. Developing nations with large, rural regions often cope with what Mr. Ingram describes as “girl focused” barriers to education, such as social or family pressure to keep girls at home to work, and parents’ worries about the safety of sending daughters miles away for classes.

The United States’ financial commitment for next year depends on Congress, and the Basic Education Coalition has been closely monitoring every step in the budget process for months. In the current fiscal 2002 budget year, which ends Sept. 30, basic education in developing countries received a total of about $165 million in funding.

So far, coalition representatives have been encouraged by what they’ve seen. Two weeks ago, the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee approved $218 million in international education aid for fiscal 2003 in a line item known as Development Assistance. The coalition’s supporters hope the remaining $32 million of their $250 million goal will come from other accounts in the foreign-operations budget, after the final budget becomes law.

Eventually, the foreign-operations appropriations bill—one of 13 separate House spending proposals—will have to be approved by the entire House Appropriations Committee. It then must be passed by the full House and go through a House-Senate conference committee.

The Senate, busy with its own versions of the 13 spending bills, has allocated $200 million to the international basic education fund. President Bush’s spending plan, released early in the year, called for only $165 million. But advocates of basic education aid are hoping lawmakers will settle on an amount closer to the House level of funding.

In the long term, the goal is to build up to $1 billion in annual U.S. support, with that money coming from several different sources in the budget, said Mr. Ingram, a former longtime staff member for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Basic education programs are central in our foreign-aid bill,” Rep. Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said in an e-mail. “They create opportunity for many of the world’s poorest children and help to develop stability and peace through knowledge.”

No Panacea

When it was created, the Basic Education Coalition brought together a varied group of foreign-assistance organizations. They include CARE, an international humanitarian program whose mission is to fight global poverty, with U.S. offices in Atlanta; Women’s EDGE, a Washington organization seeking to empower women through political and economic reform; and other relief and education programs.

Earlier this year, the coalition arranged for members of Congress to visit schools in Egypt and Ethiopia, which struggle with teacher shortages, poor facilities, and other problems.

The coalition has won the support of Washington insiders such as Gene B. Sperling, a former chief economic adviser to President Clinton. In an interview, Mr. Sperling voiced disappointment that the Bush administration did not make a more firm financial commitment to a worldwide compact supporting international education at the Group of Eight summit in Calgary last June. But he predicts that support in Congress for global education would rise, if advocates could prove to lawmakers that U.S. spending would have immediate and long-term benefits in developing countries.

“You have to show people that success is possible,” said Mr. Sperling, now the director of the Center for Universal Education at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank with offices in Washington and New York. “We have to show them that we are as committed to performance and accountability as they are.”

At the same time, Mr. Sperling and other coalition backers are cautious not to present universal education as a panacea for overseas problems.

It would be far too simplistic to think that boosting education in developing countries, or reducing poverty, would end terrorism, said Stephen F. Moseley, the president of the Academy for Educational Development, a New York nonprofit devoted to improved understanding of health, education and youth issues. “No one believes that,” he said.

But Mr. Moseley said he saw other rewards for the United States in supporting schools in the years ahead. “When the U.S. is focusing so much on military security,” he argued, “I think it’s important that people around the world understand our interest in children, and promoting development.”

Coverage of international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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