Quality Basic Education for All
Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam at a Panel on The Future for the World’s Children RESULTS Canada National Conference Ottawa, 30 November 2013
It is such a joy to be part of this cheerful panel on the “Future of the World’s Children”,
a subject that has always been close to my heart, and indeed, the very mission of my professional career.
I have had deep personal and professional involvement in each of the areas we are going to discuss in our panel today – the Micronutrient Initiative, of which I was the founding Chair; the Global Alliance for Vaccine and Immunization (GAVI), where I served as a Board member; and the Right to Play which grew out of the Olympic Aid movement for which we had enlisted the support of our wonderful UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and my good friend, Johann Olav Koss – the four times Olympics Gold medalist from Norway.
Nutrition, immunization and the right to play
All the themes we are discussing today are closely inter-related and mutually complementary.
Nutrition and immunization are vital for child survival. And if you don’t survive, nothing else counts.
But we want our children not only to survive but to thrive. And there is no better expression of thriving children than to see them play.
Right to play, just like the right to survive, is not a luxury, but a very basic necessity, without which childhood would be a cruel punishment, not the joyful experience we all cherish.
Fully recognizing the importance of all these themes, I want to discuss today another vital component of development that actually is a measure and a marker of the effectiveness of our investment in health, nutrition, and child protection – Quality Basic Education for all our children.
Universal aspiration for basic education
Ask any parent here at this conference in Canada, or in the towns and villages of any country in the world: “what are your hopes and dreams for your children?” – and the answer is likely to be surprisingly similar.
All parents want to see their children live a long and healthy life, have the opportunity to learn and earn, and grow up to their full potential.
Investment in health and nutrition – including immunization and micronutrients – help build strong bodies and minds of children – so very essential for their growth and development. But if they do not get an opportunity to learn – to have quality basic education – they will not be able to grow to their full potential; they will not be able to earn a decent income; they will not be able to become productive citizens; they will not be able to contribute to national development or international solidarity.
Human life in today’s world is incomplete, inadequate and inconsequential without basic education. Yet we know, 57 million children today do not see the inside of a primary school. About 71 million adolescents are not in lower-secondary school. And some 250 million children do go to school, but do not even learn the basics of reading and writing.
What a tragic shame, and what a waste of human potential.
But let us not get discouraged by these statistics, and let us look at the progress being made in education in a historical context.
Progress in basic education
I was born and grew up in a small village in the mountains of Nepal. When I was a child there was no school at all in my village. The nearest school was three days walk away. Nobody in my village had any formal education. The illiteracy rate among men was over 95 percent, and among women -100 percent.
Although Nepal is still one of the poorest countries in the world today, over 90 percent of primary school age children are enrolled in school, and there now is virtual gender parity. In my own little village, there are now 5 primary and a secondary school.
Globally too, good progress is being made 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. That certainly is good progress.
The priority given to education and gender equality in the Millennium Development Goals has helped us focus on education. So has the commitment made by world leaders at the historic 1990 World Summit for Children co-chaired by Canada; by the global conferences on Education for All in Jomtien and Dakar; by the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children in 2002; and increased priority accorded to education by most national governments, donors and international organizations like UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Bank and others.
In recent years, new donors have come forth and new initiatives have been launched to accelerate progress in education. These include the UN Girls’ Education Initiative; the UN Secretary General’s Global Education First Initiative; the Education Cannot Wait Initiative; the Unite for Education Campaign; and perhaps the most effective of them all – the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), about which I will say little more later.
However, despite all these efforts and progress, we have started to notice that the pace of progress in education 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.
Accelerating progress in 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.
And so it is with the 57 million children who are currently out of primary school – one-third of them are children with disabilities; about one-third live in conflict-affected, fragile states; and the rest are from the most marginalized and deprived communities.
How do we reach these marginalized out of school children, and how do we improve the quality of education for millions of other children who are already in school but are not getting useful and relevant education?
Let me share with you a couple of examples from my home country of Nepal to illustrate the kind of advocacy and support for education that we need to mount globally.
Like many other low-income countries, Nepal faces multiple challenges in education. But today I will focus on four key issues: 1) the challenge of equity, 2) the challenge of quality, 3) the challenge of fostering public-private partnership, and 4) the challenge of effective international support for quality basic education.
Challenge of equity
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 children with disabilities, are currently enrolled in primary schools.
Statistically, Nepal has made good progress in gender equality at primary level, but many parents send their sons to better private schools while sending their daughters to inferior public schools, thus perpetuating real inequality.
We find a similar situation of disparity and discrimination based on income, gender, caste, ethnicity, disability and urban versus rural areas in many countries. The potential of education as the great equalizer is far from realization in most developing countries.
What we need is a progressive affirmative action policy to ensure that children from such disadvantaged communities get extra support in the forms of targeted scholarships, free textbooks, school meals and other appropriate incentives.
Focus on girls’ education
Although globally, great progress has been made in achieving MDG-3, thus ensuring gender parity in primary education, a disproportionate number of girls still remain out of school in most of the poorest countries and communities in Asia and Africa. There is thus a continuing need to focus on girls’ education.
Besides its intrinsic value, we must focus on girls education for its many multiplier effects on human development and poverty reduction.
Indeed, if poverty eradication is the paramount challenge of sustainable development, basic education, particularly of girls, is unquestionably the surest and fastest way to reach that objective.
Why? Because an educated girl tends to marry later; she has fewer children; seeks medical care for herself and her children; 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, and therefore, to ensure 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.
Learn from Malala
Recently, we have all been inspired by the courage and charisma of 16 year-old Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, who survived brutal attack by the Talebans, and has become a passionate advocate for girls’ education.
“Let us pick up our books and pens,” Malala exhorted at the United Nations recently, “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.”
I understand that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was deeply moved when he met with Malala, and recommitted to increase Canada’s support for girls’ education. We certainly look to Canada’s leadership in promoting girls’ education, particularly in the world’s most fragile and conflict-affected countries where many girls still remain out of school.
Challenge of quality
Even where there is equitable access to basic education, the quality of public basic education leaves much to be desired.
In Nepal, 8 percent of children drop out, and 20 percent repeat the 1st grade. The majority of children who enter grade one, 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, and making classrooms and school premises more child-friendly, requires more resources and better school governance, which is a chronic problem in most low-income countries.
Challenge of Public-Private Partnership
We would all agree that basic education is a fundamental human right, so 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 our capital city in the 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 Nepal’s 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.
As 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.
Serious consideration should be given to public financing of some low-cost private or parochial schools that provide quality education in a non-discriminatory manner to children of low-income families.
There are many innovative examples of publicly-funded but privately operated schools, as well as some high quality NGO or private-sector operated schools being contracted to provide certain services, e.g. specialized teacher training, for the benefit of public schools in some industrialized as well as developing countries that may be worth emulating or replicating.
Most of us are strong believers in the public school system, but we must be pragmatic in seeking innovative public-private partnerships whenever it is in the best interest of children.
Challenge of resource mobilization
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 in basic education, support of the donor community seems to be declining.
Donor aid to basic education fell from $6.2 billion to $5.6 billion between 2010 and 2011. Of the 10 biggest bilateral donors, six reduced their aid to education during this period. Even the share of multilateral aid going to basic education has decreased.
Regrettably, 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.  Despite the high proportion of out-of-school children in the fragile and conflict-affected countries, the proportion of humanitarian aid allocated for education slipped last year from a meager 2% to 1.4%.
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.
The generosity of donors to health and nutrition is most welcome and fully justified – and even more support is needed, as I am sure we will hear from our fellow panelists. But the de-prioritization of basic education by donors is a cause of great concern, and needs to be urgently reversed.
Canadian aid to education
Canada has been a modest but important donor to education, providing around $300 million per annum in recent years.
Although the total amount of Canadian aid to education is rather modest in comparison to other G-7 and OECD countries, Canada is to be commended for the high and growing share of its education aid being allocated to basic education in recent years.
Canada’s ODA policy gives high priority to its Children and Youth Strategy, and emphasizes the importance of girls’education, skill training of youth, and young human resource development.
Yet, between 2010 to 2011 Canada’s ODA disbursement to education dropped by 34 percent, the single largest drop among all OECD-DAC countries. Such a drop risks undermining the significant investment that Canada has made previously in this sector.
It is regrettable that according to the Pledge Monitoring Report (2011-2014), Canada plans to withdraw aid to education from Cambodia, Malawi, Nepal, Rwanda, Zambia and Zimbabwe in coming years.
I do not fully understand it, but I am sure there is a good rationale for Canada’s readjustment of aid priorities within the social sectors. I really hope that perhaps the reduction of Canadian aid to education through bilateral channels will be compensated by a significant increase in aid to education through multilateral channels, such as UNICEF, UNESCO, WFP, etc.
Canadian support for GPE
One such channel would be the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). Since it was established in 2002 as the Education for All Fast Track Initiative, GPE has become a major player in funding basic education in 59 low-income countries, half of them fragile and conflict-affected nations facing the biggest challenges in providing basic education.
GPE helps these countries to develop high-quality national education plans; strengthen teacher training; build more schools and better classrooms; provide textbooks, teaching materials and school supplies; promote of girls education; and offer special incentives such as scholarships and subsidies to improve school attendance by students from disadvantaged communities; and public-private partnerships to improve and universalize quality basic education.
Since 2002 GPE has allocated nearly $3.8 billion to 59 countries in support of basic education, making it now the 5th largest donor in the sector. Most of the high priority countries for Canadian aid, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, Haiti, etc also happen to be priority for GPE. Hence there is a real convergence of mutual interest.
Canada has been playing an important leadership role in GPE since its inception in 2002. It is an active member of GPE’s Board of Directors and its various committees. So far Canada has contributed over $100 million through GPE for basic education in some of the poorest countries.
GPE has recently launched its second replenishment campaign and its pledging event is scheduled for June 2014 in Brussels. That would be a fitting opportunity for Canada to join many other donors and partners to reaffirm its commitment to quality basic education for all in developing countries.
While no indicative funding target has been formally proposed yet, given the great need and opportunity, it would seem reasonable that GPE should aim to channel around $1 billion a year, or $4 billion over the period of 2015-2018. One would expect, and I would urge, that Canada consider making a significant contribution to GPE, commensurate with its status as a major global leader, a G-7 country and a Board member of GPE.
It would be fitting that Canada’s support for basic education should be comparable to its support for health and nutrition, as education is essential for sustaining the gains made in all areas of human development and poverty reduction in which Canada has provided strong global leadership.
Call to action for RESULTS Canada
Let me conclude with an appeal to all of our dedicated RESULTS volunteers to help mobilize a strong movement of Canadian and international solidarity to fill the huge funding gap for quality basic education and for GPE, as you have done and will continue to do for immunization and micronutrients through GAVI and MI.
The kind of progress we seek for a world that is fit for children requires this three-legged approach of health, nutrition and education.
On a personal note, 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 that RESULTS volunteers have been doing to mobilize funding for health, nutrition, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, micro-credit and other interventions helps poor people build stronger bodies and healthier lives. But education is needed to open the eyes.
So, I ask you to now make education a new priority campaign for RESULTS. Let our advocacy for quality basic education help open the eyes, sustain the gains made so far in health and nutrition, as we empower all our children to survive, thrive, play, learn and earn, and be good citizens of the world.
Thank you.