Education International
Education International

Unions organise for economic justice

published 13 May 2009 updated 13 May 2009

“Invest in people!” This is the message that EI will put to governments and key international agencies in coming months as the world searches for a path to recovery from the global economic crisis.

This first major upheaval in the globalized economy began as a financial crisis, as banks and other financial institutions collapsed or were bailed out by governments, and credit froze. Very quickly production and trade slumped dramatically, so it became an economic crisis. Now with unemployment figures increasing by millions, many countries will be confronted in the months ahead by serious social crises. Projections paint a gloomy picture. Between November 2008 and April 2009, official agencies and most governments revised their estimates negatively. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) reports 50 million more people will be unemployed worldwide this year. The latest figures from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) project that the global economy will actually contract in 2009 for the first time since the Second World War – by 1.3% globally. The European Union will lose 4% of GDP this year, Russia will lose 6% and the Ukraine and Ireland 8%, while Singapore and the Baltic States will lose a massive 10%. The United States will lose 2.8% of GDP, a lower loss than many other countries, due to the federal government’s massive and rapid stimulus programme. China’s growth will be cut by half, to 6%. The IMF points out that these figures would have been far worse if many governments had not introduced emergency stimulus packages. Experts are also changing their estimates of the timing of recovery. The IMF now says recovery will not begin before late 2010, at the earliest. Even this estimate is considered by some economists to be optimistic. The impact on education, teachers and other staff varies considerably among countries. The Obama stimulus package in the US is estimated to have saved 500,000 jobs in education, but only in the short term – for the years 2009 and 2010. In the Baltic States, schools have already been closed. Several countries, including a number in Eastern Europe, lack reserves or the capacity to run deficits to finance stimulus packages, and have turned to the IMF for emergency assistance. Unfortunately, despite the IMF’s advocacy for worldwide stimulus, IMF conditions for emergency loans usually require cuts in public sector budgets, thus creating the opposite effect. A major concern is the looming impact on developing countries, which will soon be faced with dramatic cuts in financial flows from other countries. Official development assistance, aid through NGOs and foundations, and private investment are all drying up. The ILO and the World Bank warn that over 200 million people could be thrown back into poverty. The achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including Education for All, by the target date of 2015 is looking problematic. Even in countries where public sector budgets have not yet been cut, pressures will increase in the months ahead. Public revenues will decrease because of the worldwide slow-down, and demands for funding of unemployment benefits and other social services will increase. So far, agencies like the World Bank, the IMF, UNESCO, the OECD and many governments have called for education spending to be protected. But merely saying “Defend public education” is not enough! This is why the EI Executive Board has resolved to pursue a pro-active strategy. EI is urging all its member unions to mobilize together around the message “Invest in People,” and the idea that education and training are critical to recovery. This approach is supported by UNESCO and the OECD. Investment in people through education and training is the key to sustainable recovery, to a future economy that will be stronger, cleaner and fairer. The EI Action Plan on Education and the Economy is based upon:

  • A clear vision of the role of education in society;
  • Powerful arguments for investment in people;
  • A capacity to mobilize globally, nationally and locally, winning public and political support; and
  • A strategy of proposition.

EI is advocating these positions with force at all the key global institutions and meetings. Our positions on defence of education and the need to achieve the MDGs were reflected in the Leaders’ Statement from the G20 Summit in London in April. But that is only the beginning. We must ensure that governments keep their promises. The key to that is mobilization – joining our global advocacy with national and local action. The driver is the conviction that education unions can make a difference. A new global economy must be built on a stronger foundation – based on the education, the skills and the capacities of citizens, based on equity and justice, and based on quality public services. The stakes are high because the financial and economic crisis comes on top of other crises – the food crisis in many developing countries, movements of refugees, migrants and guest workers, conflicts between cultures and, last but certainly not least, climate change. That is the great challenge before EI globally and each member union nationally. By Bob Harris. Bob Harris, one of the founders of EI, is senior consultant to the General Secretary, and chairs the Trade Union Advisory Committee on Education, Training and Employment Policy at the OECD.

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 30, May 2009.