It is very encouraging news that people around the world have so far ranked “a good education” as their top choice in the UN’s My World poll on post-2015 priorities. It’s too early to celebrate yet, however. There are recent signs that advocates have to work even harder to demonstrate that education is not only a fundamental goal in its own right but also a crucial route to achieving other development goals.
For one thing, education was not even mentioned in the communiqué of the recent Bali high-level panel the post-2015 agenda on ‘developing a global partnership for development’. The communiqué made progress in aligning two competing visions for the post-2015 development agenda – one centred on eradicating poverty and the other on sustainable development. But it is worrying that the communiqué failed to mention education, which underpins all other development efforts and transforms them into long-term change. While the high-level panel failed to recognize education’s importance, 200,000 people voting on their post-2015 priorities – whose views were passed on to the meeting in Bali – have placed education at the top.
Better healthcare, improving governance and protecting the environment are certainly key issues. So are food security, gender equality, job creation, clean water and the other priorities listed in the My World poll. What they all have in common is that education makes them happen. Education should be front and centre in the post-2015 development framework not just because it is essential in itself and a human right but also because it empowers people to look after themselves, their families, their communities and their environment.
Here are just a few examples of how education builds a foundation for reaching other development goals:
- Education reduces poverty: If all children in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty – equivalent to a 12% cut in world poverty.
- Education reduces child mortality: If the average child mortality rate in sub-Saharan Africa were to fall to the level for children born to mothers with some secondary education, there would be 1.8 million fewer child deaths.
- Education promotes health: Women with secondary education are far more likely to be aware of measures for preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. In Malawi, 27% of women with no education are aware that the risk of mother-to-child transmission can be reduced if the mother takes drugs during pregnancy; for women with secondary education or higher the share rises to 60%.
Education should not only be central in the post-2015 process; it is also vital that we reach a consensus on what a “good education” entails, and set measurable targets to achieve it. Here is our proposed goal for education:
Every child, young person and adult, whatever their circumstances, should have an equal opportunity to learn to read and write with understanding, and do basic mathematics.
This means that all children, regardless of their circumstances, should complete pre-primary, primary and lower secondary education of good quality. Youth and adults need the opportunity to acquire skills to obtain decent jobs and lead fulfilling lives. Achieving this goal will not only be beneficial for individuals (including for the 250 million children who are currently not even achieving the basics), but also for the societies in which they live.
The Millennium Development Goals have often been criticised for being designed with a “top-down” approach. The UN and high-level panel are doing their utmost to ensure that this time around, the process is more consultative. For this very reason, it would be wrong to ignore the clear message coming through the My World poll that a good education is the top priority for a world after 2015. The high-level panel also has the task of reflecting the mutual benefits and interconnections between all sectors when drafting a new set of goals – and education’s role in enabling the rest of the development agenda is undeniable.