Giving education a sporting chance

By Kevin Watkins, director of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report

You are probably wondering what a UN official is doing writing about the World Cup. So let me start with an assurance. I’m not about to offer post-match analysis, express a view on the vuvuzela or take a position on the merits of the official World Cup football.

A British football manager was once asked whether he thought football was a life or death issue. “Of course not,” he replied, “it’s much more important than that.” When you ride the roller coaster of the World Cup, you get a sense of what he meant. Whole nations hold their breath, experience those moments of soaring hope, and then slide into collective anxiety. Yet in the end football is game. What makes this World Cup different is that it has given football and South Africa a chance to tackle a real life and death issue – a global crisis in education that is blighting the lives of a whole generation of children in Africa and beyond.

In football, both teams follow the same rules. Matches are won or lost through the skill of the players, the tactics of the coaches and sometimes moments of chance.

Nobody would think it fair if a match kicked off with one team’s forwards having their feet tied together. Yet poverty and gender inequalities in education shackle the talents of Africa’s children. This is one of the greatest social injustices of our time.

The 1Goal campaign – a global partnership between the world soccer federation Fifa and civil society organisations across the world – has helped to focus attention on this crisis in education. On July 11, the campaign will culminate in a special education summit in Cape Town, hosted by President Jacob Zuma. The aim: to get the 72-million primary-school-age kids currently denied an education into decent quality schooling by 2015.

This World Cup summit is a one-off chance to galvanise the leadership and the financial resources needed to make this happen. So far, political leaders have failed to treat the education crisis with the urgency it merits. Perhaps that’s because you don’t see kids dying for want of schooling. But when 72 million children don’t have a chance to go to school, there are deep social, economic and human costs.

Consider the links between maternal education and child survival. Children in Africa born to mothers with a secondary education are half as likely to die before the age of five. Put differently, universal secondary education in Africa would avert around 1.8 million deaths a year – a stark illustration of the fact that gender inequalities in schooling cost lives.
Failing to educate young girls, the majority of those out of school, is not just immoral and a violation of their human rights – it’s also plain stupid. Denying girls an education is bad for economic growth, bad for the health of the country and bad for democracy. It’s like missing an open goal in the World Cup final.

Achieving the 1Goal ambition will not be easy. If we carry on as we are, the target of “Education for All by 2015” will be missed – there will still be 56 million children out of school. At a time when rich countries are struggling to come to terms with fiscal deficits, more aid is vital. Estimates by our Global Monitoring Report suggest that another $11 billion will be needed annually.

Yet despite repeated pledges to do more, donors have been cutting aid to education. If broken promises to the world’s children merit a caution, several G8 governments would be heading for a red card and an early bath.

The education summit on July 11 provides an opportunity to chart a new course. True, the price tag might prompt some people to question whether the aims of the 1Goal campaign are realistic. But how “realistic” is it to deny vulnerable girls and boys a passport out of poverty? As the old saying goes, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

As Nelson Mandela once put it, “Education is the great engine of personal development.” It equips people with the skills they need to work their way out of poverty, to broaden their choices, and participate in political processes that affect their lives. And in our increasingly knowledge-based global economy, education is the surest route to higher economic growth, decent jobs and future prosperity.

When it comes to global reach, soccer could make the United Nations green with envy. The World Cup will be watched by a cumulative audience of 26 billion people for all matches. In a world scarred by so much violence and conflict, football cuts across ethnic, religious and cultural divides – and unites people across national borders.

In two weeks’ time, the final whistle will blow and the winning team will collect the World Cup. One set of supporters will be euphoric. The rest will be left trying hard to remember that football is just a game, and that there will be another World Cup in four years.

Whichever team we are backing, all of us should be supporting the demand for an education summit that delivers a result. Education is not a game. And kids get only one chance to go to school. Giving them that chance would really make this a World Cup to remember.

A version of this article was published on June 25 in The Mail and Guardian, South Africa.


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