The Long Road to School

The social cost of the global failure to educate all children.

An outdoor school at the Dadaab Somali refugee camp in Kenya, 2006.

On the first day of class in 2004, 84-year-old Kimani Maruge picked up his cane and walked four kilometres to school to start first grade. His classmates at Kapkenduiywa primary school in eastern Kenya were all between five and eight years old, but Maruge bent his long legs under his tiny wooden desk and sat with them, waiting for their teacher to start. Three of his own grandchildren were already attending the school: eight-year-old Sammi in second grade, nine-year-old Naomi in third grade, and twelve-year-old John in fifth grade. With his wrinkles deepened by his ever-present smile, Maruge turned up his hearing aid and leaned forward in his desk to listen to his teacher. It was not only the beginning of the school year, it was also the beginning of an education that had been denied to Maruge his entire life.

“I have suffered so many problems from being uneducated. People used to cheat me when I bought goods. I couldn’t write my name or read the Bible,” Maruge told Britain’s Daily Mirror in 2005. “My next goal is to be able to read and write better than my grandchildren, who are in higher classes than me.”

Maruge decided to go to school after the government of Kenya announced in 2003 it would be introducing free universal primary education, referred to as elementary school in North America. For years, schools charged fees for everything from text books and writing exams to extracurricular activities and uniforms. The change in public policy was part of the international movement Education For All (EFA) initiated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which seeks to make quality primary education available to everyone in the world free of charge by 2015.

The goal was first formulated at the World Conference on Education for All at Jomtien, Thailand in 1990. It was reaffirmed a decade later in the 2000 Dakar Framework for Action, which assured developing countries they would be given the international aid necessary to help them succeed in delivering free education to their citizens.

“No countries seriously committed to Education for All will be thwarted in their achievement of this goal by lack of resources,” the Framework stated. “Funding agencies are willing to allocate significant resources towards Education for All.”

But the 2011 Education For All Global Monitoring Report shows international funding partners have not lived up to their commitments. Countries that were promised international aid for education if they increased education funding in their own domestic budgets now find themselves over a decade into ambitious education programs without the international support necessary to continue building schools, training and hiring teachers, or acquiring books and resources for students.

Some countries in sub-Saharan Africa will receive less than half the funding they were promised in 2000. In countries such as Burkina Faso with its 26 percent literacy ranked among the lowest in the world, substantial increases in domestic funding in education over the past decade have come at the expense of other essential public services, such as health care. The international community assured these countries that their investments in education would be backed with multilateral aid and the return on their investments was guaranteed, but that just hasn’t been the case.

With the impending failure of the program, the Global Campaign on Education held the Copenhagen Replenishment Conference in November, 2011 with renewed calls for wealthy nations to live up to their commitments and not break their promises to the world’s children.

While donor countries and aid agencies have blamed the 2008 global economic crisis for the funding shortfalls, the failure to live up to these funding commitments has set back global progress on education and made funding partners complicit in the ongoing denial of human rights.

Today 67 million children are still not receiving primary education. The cost of this global failure goes far beyond people not being able to read and write. Education has long been recognized as one of the primary social determinants of health, and in countries with low literacy levels and poor education systems, there are higher mortality rates and a higher incidence of diseases, the most serious being HIV/AIDS.

 

Education is a human right. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Convention Against Discrimination in Education established education as a fundamental human right in 1960. The Convention stated that education could not be denied to a person on the prohibited discriminatory basis of “race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic condition, or birth.”

The right to education was further expanded upon in 1966 in the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Article 13 of the Convention states the participating countries agree “that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Most importantly, the countries stated the first goal in achieving the full realization of the right to education was, “Primary education shall be compulsory and free to all.”

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child further expanded upon the right to education in 1989. Parties to the convention recognized “the right of the child to education . . . with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity.” The Convention further stated that primary education should be compulsory and available free to all and that countries should encourage the development of secondary education to make it accessible to every child either by offering free education or financial assistance. The 1989 convention went farther than earlier declarations of the right to education by also stating educational and vocational information should be made accessible and available to all children and that nations should take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and reduce drop-out rates.

The convention also expressly drew the link between education and health, happiness and human potential. The countries agreed the education of the child should be directed to the development of the child’s personality, talents, and abilities to their fullest potential. The convention went on to state education should instill a respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, cultural identity, language, and values.

Finally, in emphasizing the right to equal access to education, the convention stated education should “prepare the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin.”

Despite all these assurances and education having been first recognized as a basic human right over 50 years ago, 20 percent of the world’s population today is illiterate according to UNESCO.

 

Representatives from 164 countries came together at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, in April 2000 to reaffirmed their commitment to the EFA initiative established a ten years earlier at Jomtien, Thailand. The Drakar Framework for Action established six specific goals, including universal free primary education for all by 2015. The six goals were as follows:

 (i) expanding and improving comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children;

(ii) ensuring that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to and complete, free and compulsory primary education of good quality;

(iii) ensuring that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life-skills programmes;

(iv) achieving a 50 percent improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all adults;

(v) eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005, and achieving gender equality in education by 2015, with a focus on ensuring girls’ full and equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality;

(vi) improving all aspects of the quality of education and ensuring excellence of all so that recognized and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential life skills.

The Dakar Framework for Action acknowledged the right to education is a human right, and affirmed the commitment that wealthy nations would provide the aid necessary to reach these goals. The document stated the following:

 All states must fulfil their obligation to offer free and compulsory primary education in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international commitments. The international agreement on the 2015 target date for achieving Universal Primary Education (UPE) in all countries will require commitment and political will from all levels of government.

No countries seriously committed to Education for All will be thwarted in their achievement of this goal by lack of resources. Funding agencies are willing to allocate significant resources towards Education for All.

However, countries that have shown serious commitment to EFA in their own domestic budgets, continue to be thwarted by a lack of resources—specifically, a lack of international aid they were promised.

 

The 2011 EFA Global Monitoring Report states unequivocally the failure of the international community to live up to the funding promises made at Dakar. The report documents some of the extensive efforts and new budget strategies developing countries have undertaken to make education a priority since the Dakar Framework for Action. Most developing countries that required assistance have re-organized their domestic budgets over the last decade to devote more resources to education in the hope of achieving universal, free primary education. Unfortunately, most of the countries that pledged aid for education—including six of the eight G8 nations—have not lived up to their funding promises.

Among the nations hardest hit by this funding failure is the landlocked nation of Burkina Faso in sub-Saharan Africa. After the Dakar Framework was established, the country was among the most successful in the region at mobilizing resources domestically to work toward education for all. However, with substantial shortfalls in international aid, it will be impossible for the country to achieve the EFA goals by 2015.

With a literacy rate at the time of just 26 percent and with primary school enrolment percentages historically in the single digits, in 2001 Burkina Faso developed a full Poverty Reduction Strategy, a key component of which was the Ten Year Basic Education Development Plan.

It was an ambitious plan under which the government made education a top priority.

Pierre Kouraogo, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso’s captial city, wrote in January 2010 that the country’s Ten Year Basic Education Development Plan (2001-2010) sought to implement poverty reduction goals in the education sector. He noted the plan’s many goals included quantitative, qualitative, and institutional objectives, including raising primary school enrolment to 70 percent while reducing gender and regional disparities, raising the country’s overall literacy rate to 40 percent by developing and diversifying adult learning programs, and improving the control, management and evaluation of the educational system through improved training and research.

Since establishing their education development plan, Burkina Faso has more than doubled its education budget, increasing spending to 20 percent of the national budget. However, five international bilateral donors have pulled funding, meaning it will receive less than half the funds pledged in 2000. That leaves the country’s education budget with a $150 million shortfall that will result in millions of children going without education.

This situation is not unique to Burkina Faso. Zambia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Mozambique have all increased their domestic education budgets in the past decade, undertaking ambitious programs with the promise of international funding that has not been provided.

In a 2010 interview with Nkepile Mabuse of CNN, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that while 40 million additional children had been educated overall since the start of the EFA initiative in 2000, the G8 nations have failed to live up to their funding promises.

“There has been some success, but there is also this terrible figure: nearly 70 million children who are not at school today—most of them in Africa, of course, the majority girls. It’s a real problem that if we don’t solve will make people think that promises that are made are not kept; promises are made in a casual way rather than made in a serious way. And I think a promise made to children, as Nelson Mandela himself has said, is a particularly sacred promise that has got to be observed; it’s got to be honoured; it’s got to be implemented,” said Brown, head of the High Level Panel on Education, part of the Global Campaign for Education. “We need a million more teachers. We need the classrooms built. We need the educational materials.”

Of the G8 nations, only the United Kingdom and Australia have stepped up with substantial commitments. The United Kingdom has pledged $352 million in education aid over the four years from 2011-2015, while Australia has pledged $278 million over the same period.

In contrast, the United States has pledged only $20 million— less than both the Netherlands and Denmark.

In total, donor countries have committed just four percent of their aid budgets to education while acknowledging the goal of EFA cannot be achieved unless 10 percent is committed.

The Global Campaign for Education says the World Bank is among the worst performers. The amount of aid it gives to education now sits at a 20-year low. World Bank president Robert Zoellick announced increased aid for education in 2010, but GCE says in 2011, the World Bank provided only one-third of the aid for funding it provided the previous year.

“As the world is enraptured with the fight for economic justice— education must be prioritized. Our ‘fund the future’ report shows that spending on basic education is dangerously low and poorly invested. We don’t need rocket scientists to fix the global education crisis, but we do need good quality education for a new generation of scientists, teachers, and doctors. For economic justice to prevail we must fund education, and fund it well,” said David Archer, Global Campaign for Education board member and Head of Education at ActionAid International.

The global financial crisis of 2008 continues to have an impact, placing constraints on the percentage of domestic spending poorer countries can commit to education as well as on the amount of international aid wealthier countries can afford to give.

“The financial crisis has had an impact on government spending on education. Analysis undertaken in the policy focus section shows that seven of the eighteen low-income countries with available data cut education spending in 2009,” stated the 2011 EFA Global Monitoring Report. “In other countries the rate of increase in education spending has slowed considerably. Post-crisis plans to reduce fiscal deficits threaten to undermine financing plans for achieving the EFA goals.”

As the report states, the dual funding commitments to increase domestic education budgets and increase international aid for education are both being challenged by the need to reassess priorities in light of the financial crisis.

“The 2008 financial crisis and subsequent slowdown in economic growth has left many developing countries facing acute fiscal pressures. There is a danger that budget adjustments could starve Education for All financing plans of resources, which would mean fewer teachers, fewer classrooms and, ultimately, fewer children receiving a decent education,” the report said.

“With many major aid donors also seeking to reduce large fiscal deficits, there is a parallel danger that development assistance flows for education could shrink, which would be especially damaging for many of the world’s poorest countries. “

With time running out on the goal of achieving universal, free primary education by 2015 and with funding decreasing rather than increasing, the Global Partnership for Education held a Replenishment Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark in November 2011. The partnership consists of 46 partner countries receiving $2.1 billion in aid. More than 30 bilateral, regional, and international organizations, development banks, private sector and civil society groups also participated in the conference, which focused on renewing international commitments and reminding donor countries and agencies of the importance of achieving EFA’s goals.

In a press release before the conference, GCE said it would take a further $8 billion in aid to meet the goal of educating the 67 million children still going without a primary education. But the conference ended with international donors pledging only $1.5 billion in aid.

“We’re here to remind donors that promises to children should never be broken—yet many have continued to do so for every year since 2000 when they pledged to ensure that no country would be unable to educate their children for lack of finances. Whilst we welcome today’s commitments of about $1.5 billion over three years, we urge donors to try harder. There are still more than 60 million children out of school—and none should be left behind,” Monique Fouilhoux, chair of the Global Campaign for Education, said at the conclusion of the conference.

Unless there is a renewed commitment from wealthy countries to live up to the promises made in the Dakar Framework in 2000 and find the additional $6.5 billion needed, EFA’s goals will not be achieved by 2015 and millions of children will continue to be denied one of the most basic human rights. The cost of this failure cannot be overstated.

 

The cost of this failure is human health and safety. Since the EFA initiative was first conceived in Jomtien in 1990 and reaffirmed with the Dakar Framework in 2000, education has been discussed as the end goal. But education is actually the means of achieving the broader goal of human health and safety. For many of the 67 million children not attending school today, the opportunity to receive an education will literally mean the difference between life and death.

With education comes critical thinking, life skills, and more informed decision-making. This puts people in a better position to care for themselves and their families, make healthier choices, and avoid disease and sickness. According to GCE, seven million cases of HIV/AIDS could be prevented in the next decade if every child receives an education.

The vast gender inequities in education in developing countries affect not only women, but the survival and health of current and future generations. A child born to a literate mother is 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of five years.

“Evidence from household surveys consistently points to maternal education as one for the strongest factors influencing children’s prospects of survival. If the average child mortality rate for sub-Saharan Africa were to fall to the level for children born to women with some secondary education, there would be 1.8 million fewer deaths – a 41% reduction,” the GCE said in its 2011 Global Monitoring Report.

In addition to infant mortality rates, female literacy also has a significant impact on a country’s birth rates. As the planet reached a population of seven billion people in 2011, female education is one of the most important factors in dealing with the issue of overpopulation—such as 850 million people in the world who are malnourished and 1.1 billion who do not have safe drinking water, according to the United Nations.

United Nations researchers have shown that in areas where females complete primary education, there is a significant reduction in the birth rate. Education leads to increased awareness of their own reproductive health and a greater autonomy in decision-making, both of which mean women are less likely to become pregnant and more likely to be able to take care of their children when they do. Thus female education accounts for both a lower birth rate and lower infant mortality in the event of pregnancy.

The World Health Organization recognized education as one of eight “Prerequisites for Health” in the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, established at the first International Conference on Health Promotion in 1986.

“The fundamental conditions and resources for health are peace, shelter, education, food, income, a stable eco-system, sustainable resources, social justice, and equity.”

Education is essential for the health of individuals as well as communities because knowledge enables people to make better choices. The Charter said the following:

Health promotion supports personal and social development through providing information, education for health, and enhancing life skills. By so doing, it increases the options available to people to exercise more control over their own health and over their environments, and to make choices conducive to health.

Enabling people to learn, throughout life, to prepare themselves for all of its stages and to cope with chronic illness and injuries is essential. This has to be facilitated in school, home, work and community settings. Action is required through educational, professional, commercial and voluntary bodies, and within the institutions themselves.

Michael Marmot, a leading authority on the social determinants of health, has shown mortality rates vary inversely with education. In a 2005 journal article, Marmot compared Matlab, Bangladesh and St. Petersburg, Russia and found that in both places, mortality rates were lower among the more educated and higher among the less educated.

In research on health literacy, Ilona Kickbusch of Yale University has noted the important connection between education and health:

Health researchers and health care professionals, from both the developed and developing worlds, have long been concerned about the link between health and education

Reports abound from developing countries that highlight the positive impact of education and literacy on population, health and, in particular, womens’ health and the health of children … The recent report on the State of the World’s Mothers by Save the Children … has identified the adult female literacy rate (the percentage of women over the age of 15 years who can read and write), as one of the 10 key indicators to assess ‘women’s well-being’. It is estimated that two-thirds of the world’s 960 million illiterate adults are women. All countries ranked in the top 10 for ‘women’s well-being’ have a female literacy rate of 90% and higher. Latin America has an 80% female literacy rate—the highest among developing nations. In contrast, Africa has the lowest rate with wide disparities. For example, South Africa and Zimbabwe have a literacy rate close to 80%, while in some of the poorest countries, such as Niger and Burkina Faso, only 10% of women can read and write. A mother’s level of education correlates closely with a child’s risk of dying before age 2 years. Developing countries that have achieved a female literacy rate ranging from 70 to 83% have also achieved an infant mortality rate of 50 (per 100,000) or lower.

A 2009 report from UNICEF on infant mortality rates also highlights the important role education plays in the health of both infants and mothers.

“We know that women that have earlier child birth are at much higher risk of dying themselves and their infants have much higher risks as well. We also know that women who are educated make better decisions about health care for themselves and their family,” Peter Salama, UNICEF’s Chief of Health, told the IPS news agency in Johannesburg when the report was released.

 

Lower education rates mean higher mortality rates. The inability to read and write present barriers to gaining the knowledge necessary to make the best decisions for personal health and security. In short, people who do not receive an education will have shorter, less healthy and therefore less happy lives.

It was this realization that motivated Kimani Maruge to walk the three miles to his primary school each day. While he had already lived almost twice as long as the average male life expectancy, Maruge wanted to set an example for his four children, 19 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Knowing that education is a basic human right, he wanted to live his life confident that he understood simple transactions when he was buying goods. He wanted to be able to express himself and better understand the world around him. It was through this determination that he eventually achieved one of his lifelong goals: each morning before he went to school, he would sit by himself and read his Bible.

In September 2005, Maruge boarded a plane for the first time in his life and flew to New York City as a guest of UNESCO. At 85, the oldest primary student in the world addressed the United Nations Millennium Development Summit, speaking on the importance of universal free primary education and urging world leaders to fulfil their promise to make education free for all.

“I want that all the children in the world be educated,” Maruge said. “It is my life dream to make sure nobody has to wait as long as I to receive an education. It is a basic human right.”

But after his return to Kenya, his own education was interrupted by post-election violence in 2007. After living in a refugee camp, Maruge relocated to a retirement home in Nairobi and enrolled in the sixth grade. He continued his studies but was two years short of completing his primary education when he passed away at the age of 89 in 2009.

In becoming the world’s oldest student, Maruge attracted the interest of the world media, drawing attention to the significant challenge of achieving EFA’s goals by 2015. If countries who pledged aid can find inspiration in Maruge’s determination, perhaps that larger goal will not have died with him.

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