Settle the Social Debt Owed to People

By Pamela Martínez Achecar

Millions of children around the world face the uncertainty of accessing quality education and consequently are left without a choice in what they wish to do with their lives. The goal of making education universal provides a way for governments to begin to settle the social debt owed to populations worldwide.

Education is a human right, which is why world leaders have committed to guarantee primary education for all as a first step towards making education universal at all levels. This goal, along with seven others, make up the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed to by 189 nations in September 2000. The objective is to drastically reduce extreme poverty, while promoting gender equality, health, and environmental sustainability, by 2015.

In 2000, it was estimated that approximately 103 million school-age children were not attending classes, nor did they have the possibility of doing so. Since then, significant progress has been made. By 2007, the number was cut to an estimated 72 million. According to projections by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) there might still be 56 million illiterate children in 2015.

Enrolling and consequently remaining in school are often conditioned by gender, family income, residence, language, ethnicity, and disability. However, since universal education implies guaranteeing the right to all children -- including indigenous populations, ethnic and linguistic minorities, and children in conflict zones -- governments have a responsibility to provide alternative means of education in response to specific circumstances.

The main obstacles to this objective are the lack of economic resources and the added burden from the current financial crisis. Progress towards universal education will not be under way, simply because education budgets are not being designed to meet the needs. Moreover, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that approximately 18 million teachers would be needed in order to impart quality education to of the world's children by 2015.

Gender inequality is also an obstacle. The latest UNESCO report Education For All states that girls were still less likely to be schooled than boys.

One does not have to be an expert to infer that the four years until the 2015 deadline is not enough to transform and expand the world's education systems, satisfy the demand for teachers, or multiply the resources assigned to education in the poorest countries.

The necessity to invest in education is incontestable, but efforts are often botched by the need for sustainable financing, considering the long gestation periods before tangible results emerge. Moreover, the success of said investments depends on the availability of dependable information in order to prepare diagnostics and identify exclusion mechanisms so as to formulate best practices and achieve key projects such as the completion of schooling.

SCHOOL MEALS

Hunger and poverty conspire against children's academic integration. In light of this, the World Food Programme (WFP), along with numerous organizations and teachers unions, have focused their resources to combat it. WFP's initiatives such as school meals and take-home rations can double primary school enrolment within one year. The first offers vital nourishment to poor children who attend school, while the second provides basic food items to families who send their daughters to school.

Schooling has improved substantially, but at a slow pace which is not compatible with the timeframe of the MDGs, which were overwhelmingly ambitious from the very moment they were contrived. Also, many unforeseeable obstacles have emerged along the way. It is thus evident that policy makers should outline their plans of action in realistic and achievable short- and intermediate-term goals in order to create more favourable conditions to optimize teaching and learning processes.

Unfortunately, results from investigations do not paint a promising scenario. The list of pending issues far overreaches the resources destined for them. If we engage in a careful analysis in the current globalized context, we might conclude that universal primary education is further away than we had foreseen, and it threatens to slow down if decisive action is not taken now.

Resources

UNESCO-UIS. 2008. A View Inside Primary Schools. A World Education Indicators (WEI), Cross-national Study. Montreal, UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

UN Millennium Project 2005. Toward Universal Primary Education: Investments, Incentives, and Institutions. Task Force on Education and Gender Equality.

Working with The Media on Gender and Education, A guide for, A Guide for Training and Planning. Institute of education, University of London and Oxfam.

UNESCO EFA Project 2010. Education For All Monitoring Report: Reaching the marginalized.

UNICEF. 2005. The State of the World's Children: Childhood under Threat. New York, United Nation's International Children's Emergency Fund.