The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is very clear: for 60 years, children throughout the world, regardless of race, class, gender, abilities, or disabilities, should have enjoyed the right to education. However the truth is: 72 million children are out of school and one in five adults (one in four women) in the world, 774 million individuals, have no basic literacy skills. According to the 2008 UNESCO Global Monitoring Report, 101 countries are still far from achieving universal literacy.
Education is the key to social development and enhances the opportunities open to each individual. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of these unschooled youngsters and illiterate adults can be found in the poorest countries on earth. The direct link between poverty and lack of educational opportunities has been demonstrated many times over. In 2000, 164 governments committed to dramatically expand educational opportunities for children, youth and adults by 2015. At the half-way mark, few developing countries are even remotely close to the Education For All target. Since 2000, 33 countries including Bhutan, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Nepal, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore have established legal provisions for compulsory education. However, 38 countries still have no provisions in their constitutions mandating free and compulsory primary schooling. Basic education is a fundamental right, and it is the responsibility of governments to provide it. The huge gaps in opportunity that we witness in our world are just one form of injustice, and states are bound by duty and by law to strive for justice. Quite simply, governments are not investing enough in education, thereby condemning millions of children to be poor labourers, just as their parents were. According to UNESCO, governments should increase to 6% the share of their gross domestic product each year on public education. In 2008, the UNESCO Global Monitoring Report noted that 34 countries in fact decreased their share of GNP to education since 1999, including some of those countries furthest from the Education For All goals. In addition, 24 countries allocated less than 3% of GNP to education. On the positive side, 14 countries completely abolished the tuition fees, thus providing learning opportunities for the most disadvantaged in countries such as Cambodia, Timor Leste, Vietnam, Yemen, Benin, Kenya, Lesotho and Zambia. Many leaders of poor countries argue that the cost of providing decent educational opportunities is prohibitive. However, this is not really a problem of lack of resources, but rather a problem of resource allocation, both within developing countries and on the part of the wealthier countries. The resources necessary to provide quality educational services exist; it is just a matter of changing the priorities and redirecting them so that they benefit the needy of the world.
This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 28, December 2008.