UNITED NATIONS--This year’s United Nations report on education warned that the financial crisis could keep millions of children out of school if parents stop sending them to save money and governments cut spending on education.
Presently, about 72 million primary school age children and another 71 million adolescents are not in school. If current trends persist, 56 million children will still be out of school in 2015. There are also 700 million adult illiterates in the world and two-thirds of them are women.
“We’re beginning to see the after effect of the financial crisis playing out in education systems in low income countries. Per pupil financing will be less than 10 percent lower than pre-crisis projections,” said Kevin Watkins, director of the report called the 2010 Education for All Global Monitoring Report that been written by independent researchers in Paris.
The report concluded that the world is not on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal on education, which is to achieve universal primary education by 2015. The two main reasons for this is the inability of donors to deliver on their aid pledges and the failure of governments to address inequalities in their countries.
“The international donor community has collectively failed to deliver on the commitments that it made to support education back in 2000. We've seen aid for education stagnating in recent years and last year the commitments for education were cut by something like 20 percent,” Watkins said.
In 2000, the international community at the World Education Forum in Dakar pledged that “by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to and complete free and compulsory primary education of good quality.”
The adopted text also stated, “Achieving Education for All will require additional financial support by countries and increased development assistance and debt relief for education by bilateral and multilateral donors.”
“The clear understanding was that the financial taps would be turned on,” Watkins said.
The report estimated that there is a financing gap for achieving the education goals of about 16 billion dollars annually. While three major donors – France, Germany and Japan- continue to register a downward trend for basic education, Spain has increased its aid by 78 percent since 1999.
At the launch of the report in January, UN Chief Ban Ki-moon called on international donors to meet their commitments despite the financial crisis. The authors of the report have urged Ban to organize a pledging conference, this year, to address the financial crunch.
“This crisis was developed entirely in the financial markets of the developed world. It cannot be right that the money earmarked for aid to the world’s poorest people should be reduced as a result of it,” he said.
The primary responsibility of providing education, however, remains with domestic governments since the main cause for high levels of illiteracy is marginalization of communities in developing countries on the basis of caste, ethnicity, language, income and gender.
“As one parent from a pastoralist community starkly put it ‘we have to choose between wealth and knowledge’…..This should never be a choice,” said Irina Bokova, head of the UNESCO, the UN body on education.
In India, for instance, children from low-caste households score at far lower levels when their caste is publicly announced than when it is unannounced – an outcome that underlines the debilitating effects of stigma on self-confidence, according to the report.
While Turkey has made rapid progress in education, Kurdish-speaking females from poor households average around three years in school, which is on a par with the national average for Chad, the study found.
“Countries need to strengthen their efforts to reach those who are being left behind. Governments are delivering good quality education for some while failing to provide for poor, socially marginalized children,” Ban said.
The authors of the report recommended for education strategies to be integrated into wider anti-marginalization policies. This included governments creating incentives for highly skilled teachers to go to remote rural areas for teaching children as well recruiting teachers from ethnic minorities.
Another problem, highlighted by the report, is that poor quality of education in several countries defeats the purpose of sending children to school. In some countries of sub-Saharan Africa, young adults with five years of primary schooling have a 40 percent chance of being illiterate and in rural India, just 28 percent of grade three students could subtract two-digit numbers.
The report also drew attention to the progress made in the first decade of the new century. Most notably, since 1999, the number of children not attending school has fallen by 33 million and the gender gap is closing in several countries.
"There are no immovable barriers to education. Some countries that were lagging behind like Benin, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Senegal, Vietnam to name just a few have made impressive progress,” said Bokova.
"The reports show that where government abolish school fees- enrollment surged. Where governments build schools close to villages and hire female teachers- girls benefit,” she added.
According to the report, Sub-Saharan Africa has increased enrolment at five times the rate achieved in the 1990s, in India, the number of children not in school fell by almost 15 million in just two years, from 2001 to 2003, and Senegal now has an equal number of girls and boys in schools.
“Education is a fundamental human right. It should never be an accident of circumstance nor is it a privilege to be distributed on the basis of wealth, gender, race, ethnicity or language,” Ban said. “We’re still very far from education for all in many parts of the world.”