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Walking through doors of opportunity

Published by Newsweek on 2000-04-01

In the world's $300-billion-a-year development industry, big ticket items such as telecommunications and dams elicit far more enthusiasm from donors and recipients than education. That's often because education generates controversy over curriculum and content in many developing (and industrialized) countries. Moreover, education can rarely be pigeonholed as an easily fundable, one-time "project"; it is a lengthy process requiring not just continually replenished budgets but also schoolhouses, a cadre of trained teachers, and a social environment that encourages parents to send their progeny to classes. Perhaps most of all, a successful education program in any developing country needs full political commitment from the national leadership. For these leaders, there are often other distractions such as beefing up the military, coping with ethnic crises, and alleviating poverty.

So it was no wonder that the several thousand delegates from 180 countries who gathered last week in Dakar, Senegal, for the "World Education Forum" received only a bit of good news and lots more of bad news from the development community's brahmans.

The good news: Since the Forum's last talkfest in Jomtien, Thailand, in 1990, the number of children in primary school had increased by 100 million to 700 million. In particular, regions such as East Asia, Pacific states, and much of the Caribbean and Latin America had achieved virtually universal primary education. Why? Because countries of these regions had made a spirited effort to channel funds into training teachers and also fashioning imaginative, socially relevant education programs that are also culturally sensitive.

The disheartening news, according to World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn: Nearly 115 million children--mostly in Africa and South Asia--have no access to primary education. And 60 percent of these out-of-schoolers are girls. No wonder that in virtually every country of these regions, illiteracy rates continue to be very high for women. And yet, when women's education is emphasized, family income increases, families tend to be smaller--and therefore more affordable for parents--and children are invariably healthier (Costa Rica, South Korea and Tunisia are stellar examples of countries that have promoted women's education and thereby benefitted). Uneducated children grow up to be "marginalized" youth who are unprepared for the rigorous demands of a globalized world.

The Dakar delegates--who included several heads of state, and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan-- went home at week's end with yet another resolution to achieve "Education for All"--including, of course, for the girl child. They vowed to meet again in 15 years to assess countries' actions. But absent a implementable mechanism to accelerate political will in developing countries, the next education talkfest is certain to be just that. In view of the growing cohort of the global illiterate, what specific steps might developing countries and their donor-nation patrons take, and in what areas? Here are some pointers:

_ Funding. The 29 industrialized countries currently donate around $40 billion annually for development purposes, much of it for infrastructure projects; only 15 percent of the aid is allocated for education. The multilateral aid organizations give barely $1.2 billion, down from $2 billion in 1994. In developing countries hit by economic problems--such as Indonesia and Thailand--expenditures for education and social projects are usually the first to be trimmed. Globally, about 63 percent of the cost of education is met by national governments, according to the United Nations, and 35 percent comes from the private sector; overseas aid accounts for barely 2 percent. Foreign donors should channel more aid into education projects, and also set up monitoring structures to ensure that the money is spent as it's been meant to.

_ Mechanisms. Nongovernmental organizations can play a significant role in participating more in education, and perhaps lowering their recently pumped-up--and expensive--activities in protests against global organizations such as the World Bank. Instead of corrupt and inept agencies such as Unesco "managing" global education, perhaps its Paris neighbor, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development can establish a global education fund. The OECD can spawn more workable education programs in cooperation with local educational organizations in developing countries, which would surely welcome such international participation.

_ Teachers. In much of the developing world--which has nearly 5 billion of the global population of 6 billion--the teaching profession has become unattractive because of low salaries and poor facilities. International organizations and bilateral donors could set up a global teacher's corp that would enable young professionals from industrialized countries not only to teach in poor nations but also train a new generation of indigenous tutors. Business in developing countries, who stand to gain by increased literacy, can surely contribute both money and equipment. And why can't businesses loan more personnel for voluntary teaching positions in the developing world's thickening cities and dilapidated villages? There are now more than 1 billion people between the ages of 15 and 24 in need of basic education--and there's nowhere near the number of teachers needed for the task.

_ Technology. While there's universal adulation for the Internet revolution, the "digital divide" affects education in a big way. In India, for example, only 100 million people can read and write in English--the major language of the Web--and this excludes 900 million people. That means schools who might otherwise be wired are forced to do with computers since few programs exist in widely used Indian languages such as Hindi and Tamil. In addition to speeding up basic education and literacy, the development community needs to focus on how to adapt the "new technology" to specific needs of developing societies. This would involve not necessarily making a quantum jump to the Internet only but, as Djibril Diallo--Director of the UNDP's Communications Office and spokesman for the World Education Forum--puts it, using a "mixture of appropriate technologies, including radio and television, which tend to be less costly." At the same time, students in poor countries must be brought up to speed concerning the "new technology" so that as citizens they can help their countries better compete in the global economy.

Finally, no global movement concerning education can ignore the devastating impact of AIDS on the developing world. Piot Piot, the U.N.'s AIDS czar, said last week that in Zambia, for example, nearly two-thirds of newly trained teachers die from AIDS-related causes each year; in COte D'Ivoire, five teachers die each week from complications associated with AIDS. "In the age of AIDS, life-skills education is far from a luxury," Dr. Piot said. And so, education must focus on much more than literacy; health issues need to be woven more sharply into school curriculums.

The essence of development aid is to enhance the capacity of the poor to create better lives for themselves. The late President Lyndon B. Johnson put it quite piquantly when he said, speaking of education in what was then called the Third World: "We must open the doors of opportunity. But we must also equip people to walk through those doors."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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