While progress has been made toward the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education, 61 million children are still left without schooling. Education aid has been dwindling in the past five years as economic conditions have worsened. Now development advocates are pushing for renewed efforts by the international community to prioritize global education.
Gordon Brown, former British prime minister and current U.N. special envoy for global education, has gathered school and finance ministers from some of the countries which are experiencing the worst gap in universal primary education. Though the 10 percent of children still lacking primary schooling has dropped from 18 percent in 1999, three quarters of these children are concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Brown is working to link funders and international agencies with these countries which are lagging the farthest behind in order to see why progress has stalled and attempt to correct these problems.
Brown is not the only one who has identified the need for renewed attention to countries with the most marginalized children. Both Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations and President Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank have been meeting with officials from South Sudan, India, Nigeria, Yemen, Ethiopia, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bangladesh in hopes of reaching the poorest children. Much of the progress that the world has seen in terms of universal primary education has left children in these countries unaffected.
Girls face additional obstacles where they live in environments of female harassment, forced marriage, and the gendered responsibilities at home. Around one in three girls are married by the time they turn 18 and parents often value their daughter’s work at home doing chores more than they value her education. In addition, the danger that girls face is exemplified by Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani girl who was shot dead by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ education.
But not all hope is lost for children in these adverse conditions. Universal education advocates argue that with appropriate funding and initiative, these children can have access to schooling. Rebecca Winthrop, the director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, is one such voice that believes education can exist in the worst of war-torn environments. “There are examples of kids continuing to learn in refugee camps, in displaced persons camps, sitting under trees,” she said. “There are models that work.”
Given the opportunity, many children in conflict-afflicted countries express high ambitions to learn. With a renewed will on behalf of the international community to beat the gap in universal primary education, there can be significant gains for children in the most hopeless conditions.