Education is empowering. This year on her birthday, 12 July, Malala Yousafzai chose to celebrate with the world by addressing global leaders at the United Nations in New York. She called upon governments around the world to ensure free, compulsory education for all children.
Malala envisions a world marked by equality, in which all children, regardless of gender, race, religion, or socio-economic background, receive an education. Furthermore, Malala views education as enabling, from which any young individual can utilize his or her classroom knowledge to be an independent and active member of a global civil society.
Importantly Malala is not alone in her pursuit for universal primary education, Millennium Development Goal 2 (MDG2) also shares her vision. MDG2, along with its corresponding target to “[e]nsure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling,” seeks to be a means for a productive and dignified life.
Fast-forward to September 2013 in New York where the 68th UN General Assembly meeting – “The Post 2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage!” took place. As 2015 arrives in less than 1,000 days, global leaders congregated to discuss the future of the UN development agenda.
However, before the international community moves into a post-Millennium Development Goal world we need to consider what has been achieved for education.
So, how far has the international community come since the new millennium? In 2013 more than 90 per cent of children in developing countries are enrolled in primary school. In contrast, the same figure was 82 per cent in 1999, which creates the illusion of progress and that MDG2 is on the proper track to obtain universal primary education. While on the surface the numbers seem impressive, we need to consider who are we missing.
The un-enrolled ten per cent are 57 million children, of which 31 million are girls, and more than half of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, just because a child becomes enrolled in primary school, he or she still has a 25 per cent chance of dropping out before completion.
Children who are out of school or have dropped out need immediate attention as this a developmental conundrum will only amplify in the future; for instance, in sub-Saharan Africa the population of children between 5 and 14 years old will grow by approximately 45 per cent between now and 2030. Even though progress has been made since the beginning of the millennium, there is an urgency to achieve more in order to reach those out of school and ensure future generations will have access to education.
MyWorld2015, a UN-led online survey, captures global civil society’s desire for education, as an issue that makes a positive difference, in the new development agenda. Seventy per cent of over 850,000 participants from across the globe designated education as a top priority for a post-2015 development agenda. Education is fundamental, as outlined by Malala and citizen voices around the globe; however, the post-2015 framework ought to make some meaningful changes away from the limiting and stark MDG2.
First, MDG2 focuses on access and completion of primary school, or essentially the statistics that can be quantified to chart success. However, what is absent from this goal is the content and substance of what children actually learn in school. For example, among today’s children who reach the fourth grade 250 million are not able to read or write. Without learning key writing, speaking and numeracy skills these children will likely neither advance to higher levels of education nor gain more meaningful and life-bettering employment. Without increased quality of what is learned in school, these children will merely be trapped in a vicious life cycle of poverty and lack of opportunities to ameliorate their livelihoods. The post-2015 agenda ought to recognize that the content of what children learn, and not just attendance taken, will ultimately help more youths to thrive in society.
Second, inequality remains a major obstacle to the education development agenda. Inequality exists on the gender level, as girls account for 54 per cent of the 57 million children out of school. Gender-based violence within schools often keeps young girls away from the classroom and may lead to her dropping out altogether. Across the African continent girls who live in poorer, rural regions represent 26.3 per cent of children who do not complete primary school.
Inequality also occurs within regions of a country. Often the most remote and poverty stricken regions will lack access to the funds and support required to build educational infrastructure. In Nigeria, primary school completion rates range from 2 per cent to 99 per cent, with the northern regions of the state in deplorable need of stronger education investments. Marginalized regions within states should be better recognized and perhaps promoting education goals at a more local level would better serve communities.
Furthermore, the eight MDGs seem to be treated as discrete, individual projects. However, in the future it is imperative to show how education relates to promoting a healthier lifestyle – as women are empowered to make decisions on contraception – or reducing poverty – as education inspires entrepreneurship and innovation. Essentially, education has the potential to support the achievement of other development goals and create a thriving development agenda.
It is the quality of education, increased equality among gender and regional lines, and more linkage between education and a cohesive development agenda that will lead to progressive human development. As Malala said, “…the pen is mightier than sword,” and it is ultimately education that will better our international community.