UNESCO: Financial crisis threatens education

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The financial crisis threatens to cut education levels worldwide, a UNESCO report says. As impoverished nations try to balance budgets in the face of sagging economies, any hope of reaching the Millennium Development Goals for education could be dashed.

by Jan Huisman

The fundamental goal is to get all the world’s children into primary education by 2015, says Kevin Watkins, Director of the 2010 Education for All Global Monitoring Report released on Tuesday. Real progress was made during the first decade of the 2000s and this was the only Millennium goal with even a chance of being realised. But the aftershocks of the West’s financial crisis rippling through developing nations are now threatening that progress.

Some 71 million children around the world are not in school today, according to the report. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, this presents a significant handicap for future job opportunities. And as governments in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, come to terms with declining revenues because of the economic downturn, Mr Watkins says spending per primary school pupil could fall by 10 percent.

“Now when you bear in mind you’re talking about a context in which many kids are sitting in classrooms with no books, no blackboard, no pencils, no chairs, no tables: that has really serious consequences. And the point that we make in the report is that these kids did not create that crisis, and they shouldn’t have to pay for it with their one-off chance for an education.”

Not rocket science
Mr Watkins points to the progress made in a country such as Tanzania which has sent an extra three million children to school since 2001. Bangladesh eliminated gender disparity in education, he says, while India brought down the number of children not in school by 15 million in just two years earlier this decade. These successes all demonstrate that it’s not a lack of effective policy limiting the advancement of education – but a lack of finances.

“What the government of India has shown is that if you scale up investments in the areas where it’s most needed – you build the schools, you train the teachers, you equip the schools – you can actually achieve breakthroughs pretty quickly. None of this is rocket science, but unfortunately it’s a systematic neglect of policies that we know can work, that has left us where we are today.”

Paradox in Latin America
“Extraordinary progress” was also made in recent years in Latin America, Mr Watkins said, citing Mexico, Brazil and Bolivia as examples where cash incentives have led many poor families to keep their children in school. But Latin America is a paradox, he added, as education levels also reflect an enormous regional and social inequality.

“If you look at a country like Mexico, there’s a very big gap between the best-performing parts of the country in the North and in Mexico city – where on average young kids can expect around 8 or 9 years in education – and the southern poverty belt states like Oaxaca and Chiapas, where over 40 percent of indigenous girls from the poorest rural households are getting less than 4 years in school.”

Latin American nations must specifically target impoverished areas far more quickly than is happening today, Mr Watkins said.

Financing gap
While some Western nations have increased aid commitments despite the downturn, others are cutting back on donations. But even if overall aid rose, it still wouldn’t cover the effects of the downturn for poor governments, Mr Watkins says.

“We’re calling on rich countries and international financial institutions to increase the scale of concessional aid financing, in order that governments in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have to make choices between financial stability on the one side, and the education of children on the other.”

The UN estimates losses for sub-Saharan Africa will exceed 40 billion dollars in the coming fiscal year. And at current rates, 50 million children will still be out of school in five years from now, a scenario Mr Watkins calls “a full-scale human development crisis.”

Photo: School in India -  UNESCO/GMR Akash