Global Education is a Humanitarian Emergency

09/18/2017 10:07 am ET Updated Oct 09, 2017

As the United Nations convenes its 72nd General Assembly in New York City, most American children are bringing home first assignments and exhilarated accounts of colorful teachers, classmates and schoolyard incidents.

Worldwide, though, some 264 million children and youth are missing that adventure, as they are all out of school -- leaving us 264 million lives shy of achieving the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG4), quality education for all.

Those in, and in flight from chronic conflict zones – think Syria, Yemen, Sudan – are factored into this number. Add to that the tens of thousands of Rohingya children driven from their homes and country by the Myanmar government, plus the thousands displaced by recent extreme climate-related events, enlarging the number of those losing out.

Indeed, children in conflict-afflicted and fragile countries are more than twice as likely to be out of school, their adolescent siblings, more than two-thirds as likely, refugee children, five times so. For girls, the numbers are even worse.

And at what cost! Separate from each child’s trauma, lost years, dreams and possibly diminished potential, schooling also lowers the chance of war. The World Bank estimates that each additional year of education reduces the risk of conflict by roughly 20%.

So goes the vicious circle: by robbing children of their right to an education, parties engaged in chronic conflict are killing the hope of building peace in their countries and communities.

Reality bears this out: grinding conflicts and their aftermaths rarely resolve themselves, and their impacts on children and youth are profound. Yet despite a 21% increase in need for emergency education assistance over the last five years, the amount of humanitarian assistance currently devoted to education is woefully low, leaving millions of children, often for years, without the safe spaces, teachers or educational materials so critical to learning and to growing up whole.

Even in areas free of the impacts of conflict and climate change, across the world’s poorest regions, progress toward ensuring quality education is dangerously off-track. Together, Sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia account for more than 70% of primary and secondary students out of school worldwide, leaving more than half of all sub-Saharan students (in the limited number of countries providing hard data) only minimally proficient in reading and math. Schools, poorly built, equipped and staffed, lacking safe water, electricity and trained teachers, continue to jeopardize learning outcomes across the continent. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s latest report shows that 23 sub-Saharan countries are very far behind in efforts to achieve SDG4 – in stark contrast to only three countries across the Middle East and North Africa, three in East and South Asia, two in Latin America and the Caribbean, and only one among OECD countries.

There are bright spots, however, even in the region facing the most severe challenges. Ghana, a peaceful Sub-Saharan nation with a government actively investing in its future, is fully on board with SDG4, pursuing innovative strategies for ensuring that girls in particular continue their education. Our 36 Girls’ Clubs in the Ashanti region, created by WomenStrong Consortium member Women’s Health to Wealth, offer supportive curricula to more than 1,000 low-income adolescent girls, giving them the skills and the strength to stay in school and to navigate the challenges in their already complex lives. With designated coordinators in all school districts nationwide, the Ministry of Education is positioned to scale the Girls’ Clubs programs to reach hundreds of thousands of girls, teachers and administrators with an array of essential life skills, health information and full awareness of their own rights and potential.

One remarkable shift accompanying United Nations Member States’ adoption last year of the Sustainable Development Goals has been the recognition that eradicating poverty, protecting the planet and achieving human fulfillment cannot be accomplished through rich-country financing alone, that every nation has skin in this game and must do its part. Some countries are already doing so through a winning combination of civil society, government and donor financing. In Malawi, the Civil Society Education Coalition pressed leaders to increase both budget support and the share of GDP earmarked for education by 4% and 2.5%, respectively, between 2010-2014. The Global Partnership for Education then awarded additional donor funds, to amplify the government’s success in mobilizing domestic resources.

To celebrate and augment such financing breakthroughs, on September 20, Malawi President Peter Mutharika, together with the presidents of France, Norway and Senegal, the Education Commission, the Global Partnership for Education, UNESCO, UNICEF and others convened a high-level meeting, “Financing the Future: Education 2030,” to galvanize nations rich and poor to do their part. 

The exciting thing is, this is doable! The Overseas Development Institute estimates that $32 billion more per year in global financing – less than a week’s military spending worldwide – will deliver free primary and secondary education in every poor country on the planet.

The moment is past due. The state of global education is indeed a humanitarian emergency. The UN estimates that without a $1.8 billion increase by 2030 in educational investment worldwide – to 150% of current levels -- 825 million children and youth – more than half the globe’s projected 1.6 billion young people – will be left behind. And we who could have done something, who know the value of the education we received and of our children’s sunlit back-to-school days, will be left to mourn the tragic and thoroughly avoidable loss of lives, of peace and of hope.

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