The quiet emergency

Girls at school in Ghana. Photo Morgana Wingard/ONE.

Girls at school in Ghana. Photo Morgana Wingard/ONE.


By almost any definition, the struggle to educate all the world’s children is an emergency.

When 57 million children worldwide (more than half of whom are girls) are not in school, that’s an emergency. When an additional 250 million children drop out of school or are unable to perform basic literacy and numeracy tasks by the time they reach grade four, that’s an emergency.

It’s an emergency when a boy loses the only opportunity in his lifetime to get a solid education because his country is ravaged by conflict or natural disaster.

It’s an emergency when a girl’s family insists that she marry young, have children, and take a job rather than go to school. And that’s an emergency happening millions of times every day to millions of girls and boys.

And yet, despite all this, there is not much urgency around the world to get more kids in school and give them a quality education.

Consider: international development aid for education has dropped by no less than 10% since 2010. Some donor governments that had once contributed to help developing nations build their education systems have recently announced that they are cutting or, in some cases, zeroing out their support.

When diseases or famines sweep across countries, it would be unthinkable for the international community to cut back its investment in tackling such threats. Somehow, though, even as we learn that a quarter of a billion children are not learning, there isn’t the same sense of urgency.

This makes no sense. We know that without basic education, countries hurt their chances to make progress in other development areas. I’ve lived and worked in East Asia, and I know how much the astonishing gains in prosperity and life chances there over the last 50 years have depended on a national commitment to access to high-quality education for all. With educated citizens, nations are more likely to tackle poverty and other economic, social, and health challenges. In fragile and conflict-affected states, education helps insulate children from chaos and insecurity.

That last point is particularly important. When a fragile nation loses a whole generation of talent to illiteracy and innumeracy, it takes many more generations to return to a path of stability and growth. Moreover, as education levels rise, the likelihood of civil war, militant extremism, and cross-border conflict drops.

To be sure, many developing countries have expended a great deal of energy and resources on building strong, sustainable, and equitable education systems over the last decade and many donor countries, NGOs, and multilateral organizations have provided significant support. Bringing all these partners together and focusing them on locally-owned strategies that can truly transform a country’s education is the role of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), which was founded in 2002 as the Education for All Fast Track Initiative.

On June 26, some 500 global education leaders, ministers, and representatives of donor, NGO, multilateral organizations, and the private sector will convene in Brussels for the Second Replenishment Conference of the GPE. At the top of the Conference agenda is a funding target of US $3.5 billion for the four-year period 2015 to 2018. That level of funding can secure a 25% increase in the number of children who complete primary education annually, from 16 million in 2014 to 20 million in 2018.  And in an important development, developing country partners will commit to spending more of their domestic budgets on education. Others will pledge further funding and in-kind assistance to get more of the world’s children in school and ensure they get a good education. So this isn’t just a case of the rich world sending resources to the poor; it’s a mutual global commitment.

A key question is whether the US, which is currently only a minor donor to the Global Partnership, will rise to the occasion and demonstrate its leadership on this global challenge – as it has on so many development issues – through a significant contribution to the GPE Fund.

Now, as ever, the international community has an obligation to signal to the millions of unschooled children and the nations whose future relies on them help is on the way, that the crisis of education is truly urgent and that we are all committed to doing something about it.

As with any emergency, every year, every month, every day counts. Let’s get the job done.

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