No child left out

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

On a re­cent visit to a camp for Syr­ian refugees in Turkey, I wit­nessed some of the most pow­er­ful dis­plays of hu­man en­durance that any­one can imag­ine. And yet, amid all the sto­ries of trauma and loss, what af­fected me the most was th­ese refugee fam­i­lies’ un­quench­able thirst for ed­u­ca­tion.

The chil­dren I spoke to told me of their con­tin­ued de­sire to learn in the camp’s makeshift schools, crammed into classes and taught in shifts run­ning from be­fore dawn un­til af­ter dark. Their par­ents spoke of the hope they place in the trans­for­ma­tive power of ed­u­ca­tion.

Syria once boasted uni­ver­sal ed­u­ca­tion. Now, with more than four mil­lion peo­ple forced to flee their homes be­cause of the vi­o­lence wrack­ing the coun­try, it has be­come one of the world’s many places suf­fer­ing from what can only be de­scribed as a global ed­u­ca­tion cri­sis. There are an es­ti­mated 58 mln pri­mary-school-aged chil­dren out of school world­wide, and those af­fected by con­flict and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters are among the hard­est to reach.

Worse, the num­ber of child refugees cut off from school – in places like Nepal, Myan­mar, and Ye­men – is in­creas­ing at an alarm­ing rate. If the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity does not act to nur­ture and ed­u­cate th­ese chil­dren, the cy­cle of poverty and con­flict will be re­pro­duced for gen­er­a­tions to come.

The fact that so many chil­dren are cut off from ed­u­ca­tion con­sti­tutes a clear fail­ure on the part of the world’s gov­ern­ments, which promised in 2000, when the Mil­len­nium Devel­op­ment Goals (MDGs) were adopted, to en­sure pri­mary school­ing for all chil­dren by 2015. To achieve this, it is not enough to en­roll chil­dren in school; they must be kept there and pro­vided a qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion. UNESCO es­ti­mates that at least 250 mln of the world’s chil­dren of pri­mary-school age are un­able to read, write, or do ba­sic arith­metic. The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity has a chance to do some­thing about this scan­dalous state of af­fairs. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers from around the world will meet in South Korea at the World Ed­u­ca­tion Fo­rum to agree on the global ed­u­ca­tion tar­gets that are set to re­place the MDGs.

It is truly fit­ting that South Korea is host­ing this fo­rum, be­cause it is so of­ten seen as a model of what in­vest­ment in ed­u­ca­tion can de­liver. Some 8% of South Korea’s GDP is spent on ed­u­ca­tion, and UNESCO es­ti­mates that ev­ery dollar in­vested in pri­mary schools gen­er­ates $10-$15 in eco­nomic re­turns. South Korea, which has lifted it­self up from the ranks of the world’s poor­est coun­tries to among its rich­est in just two gen­er­a­tions, is living proof that ed­u­ca­tion pays off.

The new Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Goals that are to be agreed this year un­der­score the chal­lenges that world gov­ern­ments must ad­dress by 2030. I in­sist that qual­ity uni­ver­sal pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion must be one of the SDGs’ top pri­or­i­ties. The em­pha­sis here is on qual­ity. Suc­cess is mea­sured not only by the num­ber of chil­dren we en­roll, nor by their achieve­ments on stan­dard­ised tests; the most im­por­tant out­comes are the tan­gi­ble and in­tan­gi­ble im­pacts of ed­u­ca­tion on the qual­ity of stu­dents’ lives. This is the un­fin­ished busi­ness of the MDGs.

Wher­ever I travel with the Ed­u­ca­tion Above All foun­da­tion, I en­counter bright, mo­ti­vated chil­dren who have been de­nied the chance to learn. As the world moves on to new pri­or­i­ties, we can­not for­get our re­spon­si­bil­ity to those who have been failed by our com­pla­cency. The job is not done. We must re­main com­mit­ted to achiev­ing the goal of qual­ity pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion for all chil­dren – not some, and not even most – wher­ever they live.

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