Averting a recipe for disaster

Daily headlines rarely wander too far from the topics of security, migration, inequality, unemployment or extremism. As politicians scramble to address these pressing issues, they frequently find comfort in short-term, piecemeal solutions. The reality is clear enough - these measures are inadequate if we are sincere in our desire to create a more peaceful, secure and prosperous world.

The root cause of this systemic failing may be a global deficit of opportunity. The answer to this deficit may be found by investing more significantly and meaningfully in one area - education.

Today we witness the largest refugee crisis since WWII. Millions are fleeing all that they have ever known as they travel from country-to-country in search of an education - and the hope that comes with schooling - for their children. 'Giving us hope for the future of our children', is often the first answer given by parents when asked to explain the desperate and dangerous trip to European shores.

Looking to the African continent and other developing economies, by 2020 there will be an estimated 45 million people lacking the medium-level skills demanded by the labor market - and a surplus of 58 million low-skilled workers in India and other younger countries. At the same time, Africa as a region is on track to have less than 10 per cent of young people progressing beyond a secondary education by 2050.

Confronted by these challenges, passivity has prevailed. In turn, a cohort of hundreds of millions of people with no viable prospects by the age 18, often in some of the most marginalized and volatile countries of our world, has emerged. At present, 124 million young people are out of school and quarter of a million will leave fourth grade without learning basic skills. This is a recipe for disaster.

But last week marked a potential turning point.

A group of more than 20 Commissioners - composed of CEOs, former heads of government and ministers of finance, defense and education, civil society leaders and Nobel Laureates -convened to make crucial decisions about the future of education financing. Their aim is to rise to the challenge of the moment and develop a credible strategy to attract billions of dollars in investment from domestic, international and innovative financing to fulfill the promise made by the new Sustainable Development Goals. These members of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity met during the IMF/World Bank Spring meetings to review the latest research from experts and formulate a case for education's centrality to any social or economic reform in the 21st century.

Across the street, a group of ministers put the finishing touches on an agreement to establish a new international platform to fund education in emergencies. The shocks are widespread and well known. From a massive surge in migration associated with the Syria conflict, to the Ebola outbreak which shut down schools for five million children and the Nepal earthquake which left one million out-of-school, the challenges posed by education in emergencies are clear. It is in recognition of this reality that this group will launch the new initiative next month at the World Humanitarian Summit with a blueprint outlining how best to ensure a child's education goes uninterrupted during the waking moments of a crisis through the immediate financing, delivery and coordination of aid.

In the World Bank's main boardroom, Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende and UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown convened ministers of finance and development to put forward proposals for how domestic financing can be increased, and how innovative and improved international finance can be leveraged, to secure trillions of dollars of investment in education systems over the next 15 years.

Some may argue we have been here before. They may say that once again the gap between rhetoric and reality is such that the goals are unachievable. These critics will see past conditions as an image of the future. But this time may be different, for these efforts and initiatives have momentum. Gravity is on our side.

Several months ago, Norway pledged not only to maintain support for global heath, but also to double its support for global education. More recently, the business community came forward with an initial $75 million commitment through the Global Business Coalition for Education to support education for Syrian refugees - and a promise to increase this pledge by the time of the World Humanitarian Summit in May. And just a few days ago, European Commissioner Christos Stylianides announced a quadrupling of the European Commission's humanitarian support directed to education this year to 52 million Euros.

But it will take more than a few brave leaders to radically transform the prospects of opportunity for young people.

In 2000, with the start of the Millennium Development Goals, a clear case was made that health underpinned human development. The WHO Commission on Macroeconomics and Health is credited as a pivotal player in the creation of the Global Fund, the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the President's Malaria Initiative (PMI). But the evidence was supported by a radical set of protestors and activists.

In 2016, with the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals, the case for education is being made as the single most important investment to address our social, economic and development challenges. But we need a movement of fearless, relentless campaigners who rival the health activists at the turn of the millennium, individuals who are not only engaged - but also outraged - by inequalities stemming from education shortfalls.

Coming off of the meetings in Washington DC, politicians can, and should, take action as an investment case is being prepared for a readily-available education solution. But our success hinges on a rallying call of support superseding the interests of individual NGOs, beltway bandits and business-as-usual.

When young people and their families see opportunities for a better future, the allures of extremism, risks of unemployment or fears of inequality quickly evaporate. When confronted by global challenges, we must be the champions of solutions. All of this is nothing without a cohort of campaigners unafraid to rock the boat until education becomes the bridge to prosperity for every child. The window of opportunity for action is open. We must seize it.

Justin W. van Fleet, Ph.D. is the Director of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity and Chief of Staff to the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education.