Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Back to School An Urgent Need in Developing World

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday,  September 4 / 10

Zack Gross

Summer vacation is drawing to a close in our part of the world, and students and their parents or guardians are engaged in the “Back to School” frenzy of buying supplies and clothes, finalizing school, classroom and course selections, and getting back in touch with friends who’ve been away over the summer. 

Coincidentally, Wednesday, September 8th is International Literacy Day, which focuses on the right of all to an education, and to the improved prosperity, health and security that an education offers.

One of the targets of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals is that by 2015 boys and girls everywhere will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling. 

While progress is being made in that direction, hope is dimming for sustainable, universal education to be reached by the date chosen.  Enrolment in primary education has now risen to 89% in the developing world, but to reach 100% graduating in the next five years is mathematically impossible.  However, the good news is that, in statistics relating to the global situation, the number of children outside the school system has decreased (from 1999 to 2008) from 106 million to 69 million.

The greatest challenge lies in Sub-Saharan Africa.  There are not enough teachers and classrooms to accommodate half the students wanting an education.  School fees have prevented many children from attending classes, but some countries, such as Burkina Faso and Tanzania, are abolishing these. 

Another difficulty has been keeping children in school on a consistent, long-term basis so that they actually do learn, and retain their knowledge or skills.

Gender is also an issue in Africa and in other parts of the developing world, with well over half and sometimes as many as two-thirds of girls per country being out of school. 

UN research shows that the education of women and girls impacts on the health and prosperity of their community.  The more education they have, the healthier they are and their children are, and the more able they are to generate revenue. 

As an example, women with five years primary education are much more likely to have their children immunized.

Girls in general receive less education, the poorer their families are. 

The bias is to educate boys first and girls if possible, but cultural and social considerations also militate against female education. 

Rural children have a reduced chance of getting a primary education compared to their urban counterparts.  

Children with disabilities face the most limited possibilities for formal education.  While 90% of children might get to attend school, only 60% of children with disabilities will have the same opportunity. 

Millions of children live in refugee camps in our world today and only 5% of these will get a primary education.

International Literacy Day sees education as a right, not a privilege for the wealthy only.  Education is certainly a necessity if people are to live healthy, secure, productive and satisfying lives. 

While UN Reports might see the glass a half-full, the literacy movement sees it as half-empty. They point out that literacy rates in some areas of the world, in particular East and Central Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union and the genocides in Bosnia and environs, have actually fallen. 

They call for a greater reduction in out-of-school children and point out strongly that 35 million primary school teachers are needed to fill that shortage in working with our youngest students around the world.

Also on the list of the literacy advocates is the need for life-skills programs for many youth who are not ready to sit through classes and learn, and who need street-smart skills for outside the classroom. 

Adult literacy is also necessary as a means of creating wealth, as well as greater economic and social equality, in poor and remote communities. 

Finally, technical training is also needed where a significant skills deficit exists in the trades in developing countries. 

While university education is to be valued for creating leadership in any country, productive trades people, from low to high tech, are also much needed.  Thus, more technical colleges and apprenticeship positions need to be created.

As our kids go back to school, we can be grateful that our system enforces universal education and helps to fund higher studies.

At the same time, we need to be aware that rural, northern and remote youth face challenges in accessing the same opportunities – of a similar scale in some cases to youth overseas 
as their urban and southern counterparts.  For the sake of our own society’s health and security, we need to ensure that literacy is a reality for all.


Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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