Bridging Education Gaps Key to Developmental Path

For far too long, the cause of universal education has taken a back seat to other great international movements for change. Now, for two new reasons that lie at the heart of the United Nations’ Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s launch of the “education first” initiative, education has returned to its rightful place atop the global policy agenda.

First and foremost, young people have themselves become the biggest advocates of universal education for girls and boys. Refusing to remain silent when denied opportunity, young people – particularly girls – have launched one of the great civil-rights struggles of our time.

Few could remain unmoved by the brave fight of the young Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, after the Taliban shot her in the head simply because she insisted on the right of young girls to an education. Few have failed to notice the massive public outpouring of support inPakistanand elsewhere for the cause that she is championing.

Likewise, we have also seen in recent months the creation, by schoolgirls inBangladesh, of child-marriage-free zones, aimed at defending the right of girls to stay in school instead of being married off as teenage brides against their will. InIndia, the global march against child labour has rescued thousands of young boys and girls from a life of slavery in factories, workshops and domestic service, and has ensured that they return to school.

These demonstrations by girls and boys demanding their right to education have made the fight for basic schooling impossible to ignore. Consequently, every government now feels under even greater pressure to deliver the second of the global Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – to achieve universal primary education – by the end of 2015.

But a second worldwide force also has propelled education to the centre of the policy agenda in most countries: the increased recognition of the importance of education by those who examine why countries succeed or fail. For years, academics have debated whether culture, institutions, ideology or resources cause some countries to lag behind. Today, a growing number of writers, researchers and policymakers see the crucial link between education and national economic success.

The deployment of human capital has become an important factor in explaining why some countries remain stuck in a “middle-income trap” and why others cannot break out of a low-income status. And research assessing a country’s human capital now focuses on the quantity and quality of basic skills, qualified graduate manpower and expertise in research and development.

Putting education first is urgent in view of the scale of wasted talent and potential worldwide. Some 57 million children still do not go to school, 500 million girls will never finish the secondary education to which they are entitled and 750 million adults remain illiterate.

The link between education and economic success makes the delivery of quality schooling and training a hugely important issue for business as well. By 2020, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, we will face the twin problems of a shortfall of up to 40 million high-skill workers and a surplus of up to 95 million low-skill workers. By 2030, the global workforce of 3.5 billion will include an estimated one billion workers who lack a secondary education, significantly hindering their country’s economic prospects.

As a result, without urgent action, businesses are likely to face a huge skills shortage, especially in emerging markets and developing countries, where most economic activity will be concentrated.

Unless we act, by mid-century the global economy will be characterised by a massive waste of talent and unequal opportunities. According to new figures from the Wittgenstein Centre’s forthcoming book – “World Population and Human Capital in the 21st Century”- only three percent of young adults in some Africa countries are projected to have a tertiary education in 2050; the expected proportion forNorth Americaas a whole is 60pc; the forecast for Sub-Saharan Africa is 16pc.

Such figures reveal a world divided between those who have and those who lack educational opportunity, with huge potential repercussions, not only in terms of skills shortages and economic waste, but also in terms of social stability. The late US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren’s words, which struck down the legal basis for racial segregation inAmerica’s public schools, is no less relevant today: “It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” AsWarrenput it – “Such an opportunity is a right, which must be made available to all on equal terms”.

We have little more than two years to turn basic education from a privilege for some into a right for all. We need to do everything possible every day until that deadline in December 2015 and work as hard as possible to ensure every child is in school.


By Gordon Brown
He is the former prime minister of the United Kingdom. He is now the United Nations special envoy for global education.

Published on December 02, 2013 [ Vol 14 ,No 709]



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