Ten Years Later: Education, Literacy, and Global Discontent
If any industry needs a stimulus package, it is education. Education and literacy underpin the acquisition of wealth around the world as well as the management of individual and public health. Failing to invest in formal education is quite possibly one of the most self-sabotaging and unsustainable oversights a society can make. As history has shown us, underdevelopment of human capital, compromising of national leadership pipeline, and brain drains take generations to repair.
September marked the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Millennium Declaration by the 192 countries that comprise the US General Assembly. The Declaration aims to improve social and economic conditions in the world’s poorest countries by 2015 by way of eight distinct, but intersecting goals. Millennium Development Goal 2 (MDG 2): Universal Education is committed to universal enrollment at the primary school level and universal literacy of 15-24 year olds.
Unfortunately, the General Assembly reported that despite remarkable gains by some of the world’s poorest nations, the education goals will not be attained by 2015 given the slow average rate of progress and “inequality” which has proven to be the most formidable obstacle.
With few exceptions, developed nations lead developing nations in rates of education and literacy but just what does “under-education” look like around the world? How do barriers to basic formal education and its windfall manifest differently across various cultural contexts and how are these issues being addressed in a culturally competent manner?
It may make sense to distill this further—when are our children failing school and when are the schools failing our children? It seems that more often than not we, specifically the political state and our elected leadership, are failing our children. The alarming proliferation of non-governmental organizations internationally in the last two decades indicates a growing and fundamental distrust in the adequacy of central government to provide basic needs and support basic freedoms.
The most recent figures show that 30% of children in sub-Saharan Africa drop out before competing primary school. The majority of these dropouts are girls for whom the imperative of education has been devalued and children who withdraw for financial reasons. This isn’t surprising considering that the average family is expected to contribute up to one-quarter of their household income towards school fees. Even without this troubling dropout rate, the UN estimated that sub-Saharan Africa would need to double the current number of teachers to attain universal enrollment by 2015..
Governments that have taken substantial steps toward the fulfillment of MDG 2 should be lauded for their successes and for applying solutions that are sensitive to their people’s unique needs. For example, Burundi, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Malawi, Nepal and Tanzania have abolished school fees in an attempt to reach MDG 2. Both Tanzania and Ethiopia have seen enrollment increase by 100% and 95% respectively since 2000 on account of these measures. Moreover Ghana is recruiting volunteers and retirees to meet teacher demand while Tanzania has an impressive goal of hiring 18,000 additional teachers. Tackling Central Asia’s major issues of geographic accessibility, wise investment on the part of Nepal’s government now ensures that 90% of students live within 30 minutes of their local school and Mongolia’s government has created 100 mobile “tent” schools to serve children in remote villages. Egypt now incentivizes female enrollment by offering girls free tuition and constructing “girl-friendly schools” while in Ethiopia, Berhane Hewan, a program supported by the UN Population Fund is working to eradicate child marriage and awards a sheep to the families of girls who finish primary school.
In developed countries, high dropout rates are also correlated with resource poor settings, but seem to be more tied to social factors and harder for governments to address. The federal government continues to make teaching profession more appealing to college graduates by eliminating the Federal Student Loan debt and cities with high drop out rates, such as San Francisco have criminalized truancy—dropping out’s “gateway drug– and will arrest parents if the children skip school excessively. Non-governmental organization have impacted national education tremendously with teacher training corps such as City Year and Teach For America which transplant hundreds of graduates of elite universities into schools to teach at-risk students in resource poor school districts.
As we examine the limitations to the attainment of formal education, we must also pay attention to the promises of various and diverse genres of informal education that this internet and technology age bolsters tremendously. With regard to informal avenues of education, literacy is possibly the most paramount of democratizing agents and drivers of economic and social self-determination that modern history has ever witnessed.
Harvard College Class of 2011
Bachelor’s Degree Candidate in Biomedical Engineering