Let’s keep our promise to the world’s children

Every child knows that you shouldn’t break a promise. Yet governments are on the brink of breaking a Millennium Development Goal promise made to the world’s children – the promise of a decent quality basic education for all by 2015.

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

As political leaders prepare for the MDG summit in New York next week, they have an opportunity to act on the education pledge. It is vital that they seize that opportunity, not just because education is a basic human right denied to millions of kids, but also because education is one of the most powerful catalysts for accelerated progress in other areas. Give a kid a decent education today, and you are making an investment in economic growth, poverty reduction, child survival and democracy for tomorrow.

The good news is that we know the MDG target is achievable. Over the last decade there has been some extraordinary progress. The number of children not in school has fallen by about 37 million. Some of the world’s poorest countries, like Ethiopia, Tanzania, Mozambique and Kenya, are edging towards universal primary education. Gender gaps in enrolment are shrinking and in some countries, like Bangladesh, they are disappearing. While every developing country faces problems, some of the poorest have demonstrated that political leadership backed by effective policies and support from aid donors can break down the barriers to school.

So here’s a question. Why, in the midst of an increasingly knowledge-based global economy, do we still have around 69 million children out of school? And here’s another question. Why is progress towards the goal of universal primary education slowing down to the point of stalling? Our most recent projections indicate that in 2015 there may well be more children out of school than there are today.

Headline numbers on how many children are not in school capture just one part of the problem. That’s because many kids who are in school are getting an education of abysmal quality. They are being taught in over-crowded classrooms by over-stretched, under-qualified and poorly supported teachers, often lacking books and pencils. Unsurprisingly, many come out of school lacking literacy and numeracy skills.

Governments around the world have been slow to grasp the fact that faltering progress in education has wider consequences. Education for all is one of the MDG foundation stones. It’s what equips and empowers vulnerable people with the skills they need to escape poverty, improve their health and participate in economic and political life.

Consider the links between education and the first millennium goal, poverty reduction. We estimate that if every child in a low-income country had left school with basic reading skills, there would be 171 million fewer people in poverty. That’s because education can enable small-farmers, slum dwellers and other groups to raise productivity and find more remunerative employment.

It’s the same story on child survival. We know from the evidence in one country after another that children born to educated mothers are far less likely to die before their fifth birthday. Universal secondary education for women in Sub-Saharan Africa would reduce the number of child deaths by 1.8 million. That is why, alongside policies in nutrition and health, education should be seen as a key part of the world’s strategy for achieving a two-thirds cut in child deaths – the fourth millennium development goal.

The bottom line is that slow progress on education will act as a brake to progress across all of the millennium goals. The bad news is that we are just one primary school generation from failure to deliver on the pledge to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Delayed action is not an option for a very obvious reason. You have to invest now in building the classrooms and recruiting the teachers needed to deliver education in the years ahead.

So what needs to happen – and how can the MDG summit make a difference?

Of course, every country has to address its own problems and there are no blueprints. Many developing country governments – especially those in South Asia – spend far too little on their education systems, and pay insufficient attention to raising learning standards. Others have made remarkable advances. Tanzania has managed to get another 3 million kids into school over the last seven years and raise learning achievement levels, through increased spending and a strengthened commitment to early grade learning.

The bigger problem is the ‘I’ word. Inequality remains the most potent destroyer of opportunities for education. In Nigeria, the average male from a wealthy, urban home can expect on average about 10 years of education. Meanwhile, poor girls in rural northern Nigeria average less than six months in school. Kenya is making sterling progress towards universal primary education – but its slum dwellers and pastoralists are being left far behind.

UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report has documented the shocking scale of national disparities in education. It has also developed a data tool – the Deprivation and Marginalisation in Education measure – that enables people in developing countries see exactly who is getting left behind. That tool is helping to drag social disparities into the political spotlight, even though, as Madeleine Bunting rightly notes, it has not proven universally popular with governments.

Inequalities in education can be narrowed through practical policies. Gearing public spending towards the most deprived regions, building decent classrooms in deprived areas, and – crucially – creating incentives that link the best teachers to the most marginalised kids can all make a difference. So can cash transfer programmes and safety nets that enable poor parents to withstand the effects of drought, a sickness episode or a bout of unemployment without dragging their kids out of school.

But while national governments need to live up to their responsibilities, donors also have a role to play. Even with a scaled-up financial effort in developing countries, achieving the millennium education goals will require another $13 billion in aid annually. Yet having promised to back strong national policies with the support needed for delivery, aid to basic education is stagnating.

So here are two simple prescriptions for the New York summit. First, let’s put equal opportunity in education where it deserves to be – at the heart of the MDG agenda. Setting a target to halve school attendance gaps between rich and poor and the best and worst performing parts of a country would be a step in the right direction. Second, aid donors need to act on their part of the bargain, either by increasing aid or by putting in place some innovative financing solutions such as an MDG tax on financial transactions.

Nobody is saying that a renewed global commitment on education will be easy to achieve. The MDG summit agenda is crowded. Governments will doubtless be able to find a thousand reasons for fudging commitments and delaying action. But there’s a very good reason to act now with urgency: you don’t break a promise made to the world’s children.




  1. Education is one of the most important things in our lives. Education is fundamental. I respect it. But please tell me, what about a higher education?
    Can children receive it with a little help from such organisations as UNESCO and the UN?

  2. El desafío ahora, en países de ingreso medio como México, es el del fracaso escolar sobre todo entre los adolescentes. Necesitamos con urgencia que se difundan y haya mayor intercambio sobre alternativas de “segunda oportunidad” para niñas, niños y jóvenes a quienes la escuela ha excluido.

  3. I think it is possible to reduce the number of children out of school and in the street if governments, parents and all stakeholder come together. Some governments have tried to reduce the cost of primary education to the barest minimum, but some parents never make the least effort to send their children to school because they themselves have not been educated to know the importance of education – creating a vicious circle. To achieve maximum impact, governments need to educate parents while doing their best to build schools, employ and motivate teachers and reduce cost.

  4. This is great. Education is the key to success. By raising awareness of global issues regarding education, the quality and quantity of education will hopefully be influenced worldwide.

    1. In an article in The Atlantic Monthly some years ago, Wendell Berry responded to someone who urged him to “think globally” that he found it necessary to “Think Globally but to Act Locally”

      It is one thing to raise global awareness but yet another to discover how to encourage action!

      I would be interested to hear the ideas “out there” that would allow the conversation on “The Promise to the world’s children” to move from research and talk to action.

  5. As Brandon said, education is fundamental to success. Therefore, I believe education shouldn’t be subject to gender, lack of funding, and especially lack of educators. I think we should choose a foundation, or a group of educators, that travels to towns providing education for all. The human mind is truly remarkable, and should not be ignored due to cultural values (however tricky that argument may be).
    This is the way I look at it: my grandpa taught me when I was little that we “never stop learning.” By implementing something small and special, such as a donation, we can help change the minds of those who don’t recognize education as crucial.
    Whether it’s learning how to read, or acquiring a specific life skill such as responsibility, I would love to be able to educate those who may not necessarily be exposed to the abundance of educational institutes that we’re exposed to. We are very lucky, let’s make some other people lucky too.

  6. I believe that education is the foundation of any country. With education comes growth in areas such as culture, economics, and medicine among many others. Though the education of both genders are important, the education of women should be at the forefront. In many countries there is a clear clash between the education of women and culture. The solution to this situation is presently unclear to me. What is also unclear to me is how progress in education seems to be slowing almost to a standstill. How could this be?

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