As we enter the Valentine season of giving and exchanging chocolates and messages of love, I am reminded of the most important gift that I have received in my life... the gift of an education. It was something I did not ask for, did not have to pay for and probably didn't fully appreciate the value of until years after it started. It was truly a gift from my parents and a society that realized that it was in everyone's interests to have one more educated citizen.
Access to a free and quality education is a human right that all of our governments have approved. And millions of young people are daily receiving this gift. But, as we enter the last year of the current Millennium Development Goals that expire in December 2015, there are over 130 million other young people for whom this gift is denied by social traditions, geography and disability and/or whose financial cost is too high (I thought it was supposed to be free and a gift!).
Increasingly, in some countries education is a gift that is packaged and sold by companies for profit, often to those who can least afford it. In Haiti, for example, the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, over 80 percent of young people have no option other than to pay a fee to attend school. The human toll of this system is highlighted in the Haiti segment of the documentary "Girl Rising." In a recent CNBC article the reporter showcased a "low-cost" private school option in Kenya that required poor families to pay "only" 15 percent of their family's income for what is, by international convention, to be a free provided service. Fortunately, individuals like the UN's Special Rapporteur UNESCO have started to speak out, advocating for a free, accessible and quality education to be provided by governments.
Another meaning of "gift" is a talent or an ability to perform an activity well and with ease. This reminds me of many of the teachers I've had over the years. They had a gift for not only imparting information on literature, math and chemistry, but also had a knack for motivating and stimulating an ongoing thirst for learning. This too was a gift to me from which I benefitted on many occasions.
And speaking of gifts, Author Neil Gaiman notes, "Books make great gifts because they have whole worlds inside of them. And it's much cheaper to buy somebody a book than it is to buy them the whole world!" A number of years ago, I recall clearly being shown the "library" of a school in South Africa. In fact, it was a mere 6 feet by 4 feet closet, but the school principal was duly proud of it. What stood out and is etched in my mind still today was not the small size of the library, but that it held a total of five books.
Learning to read and gaining the world's knowledge and wonder that books hold require that there actually be books available to read. Putting gift books into the hands of young learners is the mission of a number of the organizational members of the Global Campaign for Education-US. For example, Books for Africa works with communities across the US to transport tens of thousands of books to address what they describe as a "famine of books," and Library for All seeks to harness technology to put books in the cloud for free downloading by persons in developing countries.
A new initiative by USAID, in partnership with African Story Book and Book Dash, seeks to create a "Global Book Fund" and use crowdsourcing and new technologies to put books in the hands of young people worldwide in local languages to enhance learning and literacy. It is my hope that these books will be provided free as a gift.
On Valentine's Day this year, I'll undoubtedly pass along a few gifts, perhaps some chocolate and a home-made card -- something that will remind me that I can only read and sign it because someone gave me the gift of a free education.