Redefining education strategies in the world

By Stephen St. Denis

Special to The Black Business Journal

Special to The Black Business Journal

In 1990, 155 governments promised at a global conference to provide universal access to good-quality primary education and an end to gender inequalities by the end of the 20th century. With over 125 million children worldwide still without access and another 150 million being forced to drop out before attaining basic literacy and functional skills, the conference has turned out to be nothing more than an exercise in rhetoric. UNICEF, in its State of the World's Children 2000 Report, makes the scathing remark that the failure is largely due to "a vacuum in leadership."

This week, there will be a World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal in an attempt to kick-start the Education for All movement again. There will be representatives from over 180 countries attending. The Forum will redefine education strategies and set clear goals based on a new Global Action Plan for attaining universal access by 2015. Governments will be called upon to renew their commitments made a decade ago by making a concerted effort to mobilize the resources required to carry out this plan.

Universal access to primary education would allow the productive potential of the poor to be released, thereby spurring global economic growth and enabling them to receive a fairer share of its benefits. According to the World Bank, between 60 to 90 percent of the growth achieved in Japan and other East Asian industrialized countries is explained by an educated population, rather than by natural resources or access to capital. As the world becomes quickly transformed by a fundamental shift towards globalization and knowledge-based economies, access to skills provided by education will play an increasing role in determining standards of living.

What is just as tragic is the fact that in much of the developing world girls are twice as likely to be denied access to education than are boys. This disparity is even worse in some regions of Africa, where education for girls is nearly non-existent. This has prompted UNICEF's Executive Director to say, "If I had only one wish for Dakar, girls education would become the global priority of the coming decade." There are many reasons for this gender gap such as religious beliefs, cultural customs, unsafe school environments, teenage pregnancies, discriminatory labor practices that limit employment prospects and parents' lack of education.

But poverty by far outweighs all these other reasons combined. Families living under extreme economic conditions cannot afford the direct and indirect costs of schooling as well as forfeiting the household and agricultural work traditionally delegated to girls. Even in countries where primary education is deemed to be "free", quite often user fees are imposed for admission and examinations, school building funds, parents and teachers associations, books, uniforms, transportation and extra tutorials that far exceed the cost of tuition.

The success of enrolling and retaining girls in school also depends very much on the quality of education. Quality enhancing strategies include increasing the proportion of adequately trained female teachers, gender sensitization training, safe learning environments, gender-neutral curricula with suitable textbooks and the availability of remedial help. UNICEF reports that "a quality education has the power to transform a society in a single generation· and offers protection from a multitude of hazards, such as a life consigned to poverty, bonded labor in agriculture or industry, domestic labor, commercial sexual exploitation or recruitment into armed conflict." Clearly, a quality education enables girls to have much greater control over their destiny.

Investing in girls' education has significant social benefits. Studies have shown that the returns of female education often exceed those of male education. For instance, in Zambia, rural women with 8-12 years of education are half as likely to be living in extreme poverty as those with no formal education. There are intergenerational benefits; one additional year of formal education translates, on average, into an additional year of schooling for their children. Educated women are also more likely to adopt newer, environmentally friendly technologies and manage natural resources more effectively.

Perhaps the most profound effect is on fertility patterns and in maternal and infant mortality rates. For instance, in the Uttar Pradesh State in India, fertility rates dropped by 30% and the perceived ideal number of children dropped by 25%. Even with a few years of education, women are more likely to seek pre-natal and post-natal care for their infants and to better care for them in the long run. Niger and Zimbabwe provide two cases to illustrate this. Evidence has shown that maternal primary education has improved survival prospects by an astonishing 60% in Niger and has reduced the incidence of malnourished children by more than 50% in Zimbabwe. Imagine the number of lives that could be saved if universal access to education was a reality.

It is rather shocking to learn that developing countries spend on average a paltry 2.0% of their total aid budget on primary education. Given the large body of well-documented research supporting investment in this key area, we have a moral duty to foster development in less fortunate countries by championing the cause of higher-quality and more accessible primary education, especially for girls. To continue to ignore their plight is an affront to their inherent dignity at human beings.

St. Denis is a member of RESULTS Canada, a citizens' action group committed to ensuring that the basic human needs of all are met, and to demonstrate that informed and concerned individuals can make a difference.

Sources: State of the World's Children 2000, UNICEF, December 1999 Education Now Break the Cycle of Poverty, Kevin Watkins, Oxfam, 1999 Primary Education in India, Work Bank, 1997 Investing in All the People: Educating Women in Developing Countries, Larry Summers, World Bank, 1994