We live in a world where every seventh person is illiterate. Six crore kids have never been to school, and almost 12 crore left within two to three years. Even those who are in school have shameful standards of education. Twenty-five crore of them cannot read simple sentences and fail at basic arithmetic. It is with this upsetting knowledge that world leaders, education ministers and NGOs are meeting in Incheon, South Korea, at the World Education Forum (WEF), which ends on May 22. At the last such forum held in Dakar in 2000, six goals were agreed upon, the most significant being that by 2015, each child would get access to primary education and no child would be out of school.
Fifteen years later, we’re still miles away from achieving those goals. Those who recognise the power of education are not advancing with the same urgency as the negative forces that want to muzzle education. Anarchists and anti-development agents are so threatened by the power of education that they are willing to kill and get killed to crush it. Almost half of the 200 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria last year are still missing. A few months ago, 132 children were gunned down in their classrooms in Peshawar. Last month, terrorists attacked a college in Kenya, killing more than 150 students. That negative forces have taken to unmitigated violence is proof that they are petrified of an educated world.
There is no tool as powerful as education to break the shackles of human slavery. When a child picks up a pen, the power of a gun in the hands of a soldier weakens. When one wall of a classroom is built, millions of walls that divide humanity collapse. Where even one child is bereft of the right to education, no society can prosper. To attain sustainable and inclusive growth, quality education for each citizen is paramount.
Evaluation of practices that have been successful in furthering education is the first step. There are countries where more children are going to school because governments have made education free and abolished hidden costs. There are societies that are closer to achieving literacy for all as they have allocated more funds to raise the quality and utility of education. There are villages where children are brimming with ideas and knowledge because their schools have enough trained teachers and a conducive learning environment.
Apart from this, regular and adequate aid from developed nations to poorer countries has also ensured education for crores. However, providing education to all is still riddled with challenges — the biggest being the unwillingness of nations to contribute funds to the cause of education. Today, less than 4 per cent of global aid goes to education. We need $22 billion to send every child to school. This is only 4.5 days of annual military expenditure. The world needs almost 1.45 crore qualified teachers, but we are investing in fortifying our armies instead of enriching our schools. Syria has 2.5 times more soldiers than primary teachers, Israel almost three times more, and Uganda four times more. Is it too much to ask that all children have a teacher, or for the number of teachers to exceed the number of soldiers?
Another challenge is to make the education we provide inclusive and egalitarian. Our current standards have made education a business and a privilege of the rich. It is no more a human right, but a thing to be sold and bought. A knowledge apartheid will only exclude the marginalised further, leading to social unrest. Bringing education to the hardest to reach children is another challenge. There are almost 17 crore child labourers in the world. Around 23 crore are caught in armed conflicts and are victims of terrorism and insurgencies. Nine to 15 crore are physically or mentally challenged. As long as our political and social systems do not include them, achieving education for all is impossible.
No country can progress without equal opportunity for education and social justice. Education is not just a human right, but also a key to other rights. To devote a larger share of funds to education, then, is not asking for the moon. It is evident that what is truly compromising delivery of education is not poverty, but lack of political will. This is why the WEF is a landmark meet. The decisions there will determine not just the next 15 years, but the collective future of coming generations.
The writer is a Nobel Peace Laureate for 2014.