Some of the world’s most impoverished countries have made dramatic progress in their quest to ensure that all children get a basic education, but political indifference, failed domestic policies, and broken financial promises have pushed the international goal of universal schooling off target, according to UNESCO.
As world leaders mobilize resources to combat a global financial crisis, international-development experts are urging similar action to tackle the education challenges facing many poor countries.
“When financial systems fail, the consequences are highly visible and governments act,” UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura said in a statement for the release of the “Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2009” on Nov. 25. “When education systems fail, the consequences are less visible but no less real.”
More than halfway through the Education for All campaign—which aims to get primary-aged children around the globe in school by 2015–some 75 million boys and girls worldwide do not attend school. The latest report on the program, produced by researchers convened by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, found a “vast gulf in educational opportunity separating rich and poor countries.”
While many leading countries, including the United States, promised to invest in the effort when it was initiated in 1999, most have failed to fulfill those commitments.
The United States would have to double its pledge over the next year—to $1 billion—and boost it to $3 billion annually over the next five years to meet what is deemed to be its share of the cost. Bills to do so have been introduced in Congress, one as recently as last May, but have not made it out of committee.
Earlier this year, the United Kingdom surpassed its share of funding for the program with a pledge of $1.5 billion for Education for All over the next decade. (“Prime Minister, Pop Star Push for Global School Aid,” April 22, 2008.)
Now that many world leaders are focused on solving the global financial crisis, concern is growing that financing for Education for All will suffer further. Some countries have focused their aid on improving higher education in countries that send relatively few students to college, taking needed resources away from programs that serve a broader population.
“Many people are worrying about what’s happening in their own backyard much more intensively,” said Kevin Watkins, the director of the report. “But we’re talking about something like .001 percent of the resources being mobilized to bail out banks to achieve one of the most basic human rights.”
Education and economic prosperity around the world, he added, “are not incompatible goals.”
Poverty, malnutrition, corruption, and prejudice often combine to limit educational opportunities. Yet, in some parts of the world—particularly sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia—policy changes have opened the schoolhouse doors to millions more children, according to the report.
In Ethiopia and Tanzania, for example, 6 million fewer children are out of school than several years ago because those countries eliminated school fees and offered incentives for disenfranchised groups to attend. Bangladesh, which had historically low attendance rates among girls, now has as many girls as boys attending primary school. And Nepal made significant gains even while the country was in the midst of civil conflict.
Despite the efforts, many children who enter school drop out before finishing their primary education, or receive poor-quality schooling, the report says. And learning is difficult for many because of malnutrition and other problems. Many more adults in those countries—as many as 776 million—also lack basic literacy skills, the report says.
Education for All, however, has led to significant improvements in school attendance.
Since 1999, some 40 million more children are in school, says the report, which is based on UNESCO’s evaluation of how well the educational policies of 134 countries examined have met six of the U.N. organization’s goals: early-childhood care and education; universal primary education; lifelong-learning needs of adults; adult literacy; gender equity; and quality education.
The countries that made the most progress had the commitment of national leaders to improve education; worked to boost attendance among girls, the poor, and other marginalized groups; and built schools in remote areas.
A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2008 edition of Education Week