Education is the catalyst for the millennium goals

Education plays a special role in global efforts to improve people’s lives. As world leaders prepare to gather in New York to review international development goals, we think it’s time to underline just how special that role is.

In 2000, representatives of every country agreed to work together to help the billions of people who still live with poverty, hunger, disease and illiteracy. They established the Millennium Development Goals, a set of concrete targets to be reached by 2015.

With only five years to go to the deadline, the leaders meeting in New York on September 20 will hear some good news and some bad news. It is vital that they remember that education can make a crucial difference right across the global development agenda.

Education is the second Millennium Development Goal. It is also a catalyst for progress towards achieving all the other goals. (We’ve mounted an exhibition on this theme at United Nations headquarters in time for the summit. A virtual version is online here.)

It sounds like just plain common sense that education is a good thing. But if you take a look at the numbers, you can see that it gives people extraordinary power to change their own lives and the lives of their children.

Take Goal 1, eradicating poverty:

One extra year of schooling increases an individual’s earnings by up to 10%.

If all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty – that’s equivalent to a 12% cut in world poverty.

Or take Goal 3, promoting gender equality and empowering women.


Education is the key to addressing gender-based inequalities and exclusion. For example, it helps to give women more control over how many children they have. An extra year of female schooling reduces fertility rates by 10%.

In Mali, women with secondary education or higher have an average of 3 children, while those with no education have an average of 7 children.

Goal 4 is about reducing child mortality, where mothers’ education is absolutely crucial.

A child born to a mother who can read is 50% more likely to survive past the age of 5. Children of mothers with secondary education or higher are twice as likely to survive beyond 5.

The health of mothers themselves is the focus of Goal 5.

Complications in pregnancy and childbirth claim hundreds of thousands of mothers’ lives each year. In rich countries, women face a 1 in 8,000 chance of dying in childbirth. In Niger, the odds come down to 1 in 7.

Here again, education can make a radical difference. In Burkina Faso, for example, mothers with secondary education are twice as likely to give birth in health facilities as those with no education.

Education combats HIV and AIDS, malaria and other life-threatening diseases – the focus of Goal 6 – by fostering access to treatment, and reducing stigma and discrimination.

Women with post-primary education are five times more likely than illiterate women to know necessary facts about HIV and AIDS.

HIV transmission risks can be reduced by mothers taking drugs during pregnancy, for example. In Malawi, 27% of women with no education know that. For women with secondary education, the figure rises to 59%.

Education helps people make decisions that meet the needs of the present without compromising those of future generations – the subject of Goal 7, which aims at environmental sustainability.


To take one example, a large proportion of the world’s population lives without access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

In Ethiopia, 6.8 million people gained access to improved sanitation from 1990 to 2006. This was partly the result of educating communities about the links between sanitation and health.

Goal 8 is about building and maintaining a global partnership for development.

Just as the Millennium Development Goals represent an integrated view of global development, the Education for All goals, adopted in 2000, set out a broad strategy for providing a quality education for everyone on the planet.


It is estimated that reaching some of the Education for All goals by 2015 will require an additional $16 billion per year.

If that sounds like a lot of money, let’s put it in the context of some other global expenditures.

To counter the recent global economic downturn, advanced economies made about $10 trillion available to shore up their financial systems.

Worldwide military expenditure for 2009 was $1.5 trillion.

To bring things down to more everyday level, $16 billion per year is about half of the amount Europeans and Americans spend on ice cream annually ($31 billion).

With only five years until the 2015 deadline, governments can no longer afford to neglect education and its vital role in empowering people.

What can you do? Stand up for your own right to education, and the right of others around the world. Tap into the power of education – at home and abroad ­– as part of a global partnership to make the Millennium Development Goals a reality that changes the world for good.



  1. Education is what will liberate the poor from the chains of poverty. Any effort to give a child education, anywhere the need exists, will help to transform the lives of many, for an educated person has the capacity and ability to change others.

    Global efforts to improve access to education and quality learning should continue relentlessly.

  2. Yes I completely agree with everything on this page but my question is how do this poor people afford good education for their children,paying their fees, buying of books, lockers, uniforms, textbooks,etc even feeding them. Alot has to be done. To completely raise the poor from poverty.

  3. But how much education do students get in low-income countries? We read various accounts that many remain illiterate for years.

    How wise is it to take good taxpayer money from OECD countries and spend it on corrupt school systems that don’t teach basic skills?

  4. I am a teacher at Hong Kong International School and I have been doing research on social conscience curriculum. Through the courses we teach students truly are offered a transformative opportunity to leave behind the self-focus of modern society and embrace a community-centered approach to life. Fortunately, I teach at a school that gives me tremendous curriculum freedom to explore what best resonates with students in this time and with their cultural background to reach this goal. We combine explorations of the big questions of life with out-of-the-classroom service experiences to help students determine what they really believe about the world and their role in it. If you would like to know more, see my blog:


Leave a Reply