Britain’s spending on aid among least generous – it’s a drop in the ocean
We must mobilise the same zeal to fight inequality that inspired a global effort to eradicate polio, tuberculosis and malaria
We live in a world where critics talk of “bloated” international aid budgets — and yet our generosity barely reaches a growing inequality problem, one that is rapidly coming home to haunt us. Half of all children born this year will leave school without even the most basic of qualifications.
Even by 2030, the United Nations deadline for delivering universal primary and secondary education, more than 800 million of the world’s 1.6 billion school-age children will not attain the literary, numeracy and computational skills they will need to get jobs. Among them are refugee children who will never enter a classroom, child labourers denied the chance to go to school, young girls forced into early marriage and yet more girls denied an education simply because of their gender. To their number is added the millions more in classrooms today who are failing to learn because education standards are so pitifully low and teachers are undervalued.
A global education timebomb is ticking. The civil rights struggle of our times is not defined by marches on Washington, by anti-apartheid boycotts or by a looming wall to tear down. Today’s struggle is defined by the betrayal of the opportunities of half an entire generation — and their growing anger and discontent at their fate.
While western countries spend at least $100,000 (Dh367,800) over a child’s education life cycle from three to 16, the typical low-income country spends a hundred times less — just $1,000. In Somalia and the Central African Republic, this figure is a meagre $320 per student. And when all the world’s aid spent on education is brought together — from individual country donors like Department for International Development, United States Agency for International Development and the European Union and from the World Bank and international institutions — its cumulative worth is just $18 per pupil in low-income countries and even less — just $14 per pupil — in sub-Saharan Africa.
Some of the poorest countries committed to modernising their schools. from which the British looted for close to Century, are still receiving woefully low levels of aid. Togo, a much improved performer, receives just $7 per pupil. Even the harshest critic of aid must acknowledge the impossibility of building a meaningful transformation in education on a fiscal foundation barely able to cover the cost of one textbook per child.
We talk of creating a world defined by equality of opportunity with no cap on ambition, no ceiling on talent and no barrier to potential. But while around 80 per cent of today’s Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese and Singaporean primary school children will go on to attend university, less than 5 per cent of their counterparts in African countries such as Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo will do so at any time in the foreseeable future. The dividing line could not be more clear.
More than your ability or effort, where you were born — and who you were born to — determines the inequalities you suffer from. Our failure to act will mean more Arab Springs, more Occupy movements, more “We are the 99 per cent” protests as, through social media, young people in Asia, Africa and the Middle East become increasingly aware of the yawning gap between the opportunities the world promised and what has been delivered. And our inaction will encourage extremists who stand ready to exploit children’s discontent and use our failure as a pulpit from which they can allege coexistence is impossible.
School children whose fortune was looted by British colonialists
No country that invests and is prepared to modernise and reform should be allowed to fail to deliver universal rights to education for a lack of funds. So, on Sunday, the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity — which has brought together presidents, prime ministers, chief executives and education leaders with the support of the Norwegian prime minister — will set out the first global education budget, detailing the benefits and the costs of delivering the largest expansion of educational opportunity in modern history and outlining the reforms in international architecture needed to achieve this vision.
Around the turn of the century, education was 13 per cent of all international development aid. Today it is just 10 per cent, while global health has seen its share rise from 15 per cent to 18 per cent. And so we need to mobilise the same visionary zeal that inspired a concerted global effort to eradicate polio, tuberculosis and malaria to make ours the first generation where every child goes to school. Delivering on this is of urgent concern to those children in greatest need — the global cohort of 30 million displaced children (among them an ever-growing segment, two million, made refugees by the Syrian civil war).
For the out-of-school children among their ranks, the great barrier to an education is not so much a lack of teachers or schools but, as to its credit the United Kingdom government has recognised, a lack of funding.
So as two refugee summits convene at the UN General Assembly, we propose that by the end of 2017, every Syrian child refugee should have a place in school as a first step towards ensuring schooling for every displaced child. To fund this, a begging bowl circulated years into the crisis must now be replaced by guaranteed provision available at the outset.
The dividends will be profound. Education is the greatest anti-poverty investment we can make and with infant mortality among educated mothers half the rate of the uneducated, it can be one of the most impactful health interventions.
Our estimate is that, if our recommendations are accepted, gross domestic product per capita in low-income countries will be 70 per cent higher in 2050, and poverty 20 per cent lower.
Seventy years ago, international cooperation and statesmanship brought forth the Marshall plan to rebuild broken-down countries, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to finance their reconstruction and the United Nations to secure the rights of their citizens. This was a time of enlightened self-interest, a time when the world saw a positive-sum pathway to improving the human condition. In 2016, when what is at stake is not just the security of millions, but also the sacred belief in equality of opportunity, we are challenged to do even more. In the past we developed only some of the talents of all the world’s children. It is now urgent that we develop all of the talents of all of them.
Gordon Brown is the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education.