Achieving Education for All: The Path Forward

Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam at RESULTS International Conference, Washington, DC, 21 July 2013

I am delighted to join my former boss at UNICEF, Carol Bellamy, who is leading a great world-wide effort to promote education for all as the Chair of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

During our time together at UNICEF, Carol provided tremendous leadership for girls’ education.

Before Carol’s arrival, UNICEF’s name to fame had been its great work on child survival under the visionary leadership of her predecessor Jim Grant. He had cultivated a great partnership with Sam Daley Harris and the RESULTS network to promote the child survival agenda.

Carol wanted to build on that, and had the wisdom to put girls’ education at centre-stage. She recognized how education was essential to sustain the gains of child survival, and to accelerate progress in many other human development goals.

Focus on girls’ education

Indeed, if poverty eradication is the paramount challenge of our times, basic education, particularly of girls, is unquestionably the surest and fastest way to reach that objective.

Why? Because an educated girl is smart. She tends to marry later. She has fewer children. She seeks medical care for herself and her kids. She provides better child care and nutrition; and ensures that her children go to school.

These are all important determinants for preventing the inter-general transmission of poverty, illiteracy, illness, malnutrition and death. An educated mom ensures that children not only survive but thrive.

Indeed, it is wisely said that girls’ education is perhaps the best contraceptive and the best immunization in the world.

We know that basic education also enhances a woman’s income-earning capacity and emboldens her to claim her rights and those of her children. It gives a young woman a sense of personal empowerment and self-confidence to make decisions that affect her life and that of her society.

Learn from Malala

If you have any doubt about that, please listen to the stirring speech by 16 year-old Malala Yousafzai delivered at the United Nations last week.

“Let us pick up our books and pens,” Malala exhorted, “They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world”.

“The extremists are afraid of books and pens,” she said wisely, “I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists.”

The wisdom of this message became dramatically clear to many of us soon after the shocking 9/11 attacks, and the fall of the Taliban regime afterwards.

It was clear to us that the worst thing that the Taliban had done to the people of Afghanistan was denying opportunity for girls to go to school. So, when the Taliban were overthrown, the first thing the people demanded was girls’ education.

So strong was the outpouring of demand for education that we were all hard-pressed to respond.

There simply were not enough schools, not enough teachers, not enough textbooks – not just for girls, but even for boys, because all children had suffered from the neglect of education by the Taliban.

It would have taken years to build conventional schools, to train teachers, and to prepare text books. But the children and parents of Afghanistan could not wait.

They were so hungry for education, that they did not even have the patience to wait till the end of the bitter cold winter after their liberation from Taliban rule.

School in a box

So we had to improvise something quickly. That is when UNICEF first devised on a large scale what we called “school in a box”.

We also devised a rapid teacher training programme – and completed it  in weeks rather than months or years. Within just a few weeks, we saw:

–       3 million children going back to school – one-third of them girls;

–       77,000 teachers trained – one-third of them women, who were denied the right to teach under Taliban;

–       7,000 plus “schools” or “learning spaces” supplied with “schools in a box”.

The human face of Afghanistan started changing quickly and visibly.

“School in a box” has become a common UNICEF response in many emergency situations since then.


Now, such short-term measures as “school in a box” can be a valuable stop-gap solution in an emergency. But we certainly want more than that for a durable, robust quality basic education which all our children need and deserve.

Providing such education is the promise of the Millennium Development Goals, and so many other global commitments we have made to ensure “Education for All” our children.

That is what the Fast Track Initiative, now called Global Partnership for Education, was set up to do.

So, after all these commitments, how are we actually doing in promoting EFA?

I’d say, we are doing well, but not  enough.

Good progress is being made worldwide in improving access to primary education. More children go to school today than ever before, and more of them finish basic education.

There were 108 million primary age children out of school in 1999. By 2011 that number fell to 57 million, or a 61 percent reduction in 11 years.

However, we have started to notice that the pace of progress has begun to stagnate in recent years. It appears that we have now reached a stage where further progress will be increasingly difficult and more expensive.

And that is why we need all of our collective activism to secure more international support for education.

Experience shows that in providing basic services, it is easier to reach the first 50 percent than to reach the last 10 percent – the hard-core of the hardest to reach population.

Of the 57 million children who are currently out of primary school, one-third are children with disabilities; about one-third live in conflict-affected, fragile states; and the rest are from the most marginalized and deprived communities.

I am sure Carol Bellamy will give us some more highlights of challenges in providing quality education to these hard-core poor and marginalized children.

Let me share with you a couple of examples from my home country of Nepal to illustrate the kind of advocacy we need to mount globally.

Nepal and basic education

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world and faces multiple challenges in education. But today I will focus on three key issues: 1) the challenge of equity, 2) the challenge of quality, and 3) the challenge of fostering public-private partnership.

Challenge of equity

Quantitatively, Nepal has made impressive progress in basic education in recent decades. Today over 90 percent of children enroll in primary schools, and there is virtual gender parity.

On a personal reflection, when I grew up as a child there was no school in my village. So, I had to trek to a town that was three days walk for my schooling.

The illiteracy rate among adults in my village was 95% among men and 100 % among women. My own mother was illiterate and my father was semi-literate, although he too never went to a school.

Today, there are five primary schools and one secondary school in my small village of 4,000 people. Nearly 90 percent of children in the village attend primary schools, and there is little gender disparity.

While the overall enrolment of over 90 percent in primary school in Nepal is quite impressive, the 10 percent who are out of school come from the most deprived and marginalized communities.

Only 38 % of children from the indigenous communities, 20 % of the so-called low-caste Dalits, and less than 2% of disabled children are enrolled in primary schools.

We need an aggressive affirmative action plan to ensure that these children get extra support for access to basic education. Targeted scholarships, free textbooks, school meals and other incentives are needed for these children.

Providing such children with quality education will not be cheap. That is why we need extra international support and solidarity.

Focus on quality

The quality of public basic education is the 2nd big challenge for Nepal and many other countries.

In Nepal, 8 percent of children drop out, and 20 percent repeat the 1st grade. The majority do not make it to high school.

Teacher shortage and over-crowding in classrooms is another huge problem. Teaching and learning are not child-centered or child-friendly.

For example, the lack of basic sanitary facilities in public schools discourages girls from regularly attending classes. Many girls stay away or drop-out of class especially during their monthly periods as many schools have no separate toilets for girls.

A strategy for making schools more child-friendly, especially girl-friendly, is to vastly increase the number and proportion of female teachers.

Improving quality of education through better teacher training, more female teachers, making classrooms and school premises more child-friendly requires more resources and better school governance.

Public-Private Partnership

We would all agree that basic education must be a constitutional right of all children, and governments must invest adequate resources to provide all children with quality public education.

However, in a democracy, parents have the choice to send their children to private or parochial schools, if they so choose.

In Nepal, nearly one-third of children attend private schools. In Kathmandu valley, there are 1200 private schools but only 300 public schools.

Parents make great sacrifice and vote with their wallets to send their children to private schools because the quality of education in most public schools is appallingly poor.

This was illustrated dramatically in our latest national high school exams. Only 30 % of students from public schools passed the exam, compared to 80 % from private schools.

We see in Nepal, and many other countries, a dual education system emerging, with relatively better private schools for the rich and lousy public schools for the poor.

So far, very few attempts have been made to bridge this gap.

This is an era of public-private partnership. We must learn from the experience of many countries, rich as well as poor, that have forged mutually beneficial public-private partnership in education.

For example, basic education is publicly-funded but privately operated in some wealthy countries like the Netherlands and Belgium.

Some countries like Colombia contract private or semi-private institutions, like the Escuela Nueva to operate public schools, or manage their teacher training, update curricula, and provide technical assistance for multi-grade teaching.

School voucher systems are much talked about here in America. While there has been more heat than light here in the US, Chile actually has demonstrated greater practical success in creatively using school voucher system.

There is much rich literature on the subject of PPP for basic education conducted by the World Bank, showing how publicly-funded and privately managed, or community managed public education can be quite effective.

Most of us are strong believers in the public school system, but we must be pragmatic in seeking innovative partnerships in the best interest of children.

I just shared with you some examples from Nepal. But these are common challenges we must overcome in many developing countries to promote education for all.

Now, let me conclude with the most critical challenge that we at this RESULTS conference must collectively confront – how to mobilize a strong movement of international solidarity to fill the huge funding gap if our dream of quality basic education for all the world’s children is to be realized in our life time.

Funding gap

UNESCO estimates that there is currently an annual funding gap of some $26 billion to attain universal primary education by 2015.

But precisely at this time when we need more resources, and when developing countries themselves are investing more on basic education, support of the donor community seems to be declining.

Donor aid to basic education fell from $6.2 billion to $5.8 billion between 2010 and 2011. Of the 10 biggest bilateral donors, six of them reduced their aid to education during this period, including, regrettably, the United States of America.

What is worse, even this modest aid fails to go to the countries that need it the most, with the poorest and neediest countries getting less than $2 billion last year. Aid to education in sub-Saharan Africa, where half the world’s out-of-school children live, actually declined by 7 percent last year.

In contrast to education, we have seen much greater generosity of donors and that of many large private foundations in support of global public health, and recently, nutrition, thanks in part to the vigorous advocacy of groups like RESULTS.

The time has come for us to mount a more compelling advocacy campaign in support of universal quality basic education, similar to the ones we have done for health, nutrition, AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, micro-credit and environment.

My mother who was illiterate most of her life learned to read and write in her 60s, when all her children had left the village and nobody could read to her the letters we sent her.

She used to cry with joy when finally she was able to read our letters. She said, all her life she had been effectively blind, and literacy had finally opened her eyes.

The great work we are doing to mobilize funding for health, nutrition, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, etc helps poor people to build stronger bodies and healthier lives. But education is needed to open the eyes.

Let us now make education the greatest campaign RESULTS will have mobilized in its history. After all, education alone can help open the eyes and sustain the gains we have made so far through all our previous and ongoing campaigns.

Thank you.