Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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World Struggles to Meet “Education for All” Goal

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday,  June 26 / 11

Zack Gross

The school year is coming to an end.  No more lessons, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks! 

But, what if we lived in a country where very few children were able to access an education, or a good quality education, or where education was ultimately more accessible to boys than girls?  How would we train our next generation to read, our tradespeople to build and fix, our professionals to write laws, keep accounts and heal the sick?

The United Nations Millennium Development Goals (UN MDGs) were established in 2000 with a fifteen year timeline to address eight pressing issues in today’s world.  Without meeting set targets related to health, education, the environment and gender issues, for instance, our planet, it was thought, would continue a downward slide into poverty, ecological degradation and conflict.  Goal number two was established as “achieve universal primary education.”

While progress has been made over the past decade, UN officials now fear that the goal will not be met.  In 1999, 106 million children were not in school in developing countries. 

By 2008, that figures had dropped to 69 million, of which about half lived in Sub-Saharan Africa and a quarter in Southern Asia (India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka).  In Pakistan, one child in three is not in school!  Registering at school is different from completing courses.  Fully thirty percent of primary students enrolled in African schools drop out before attaining a final grade.

It is not only an issue of recruiting and maintaining students, but also of there not being enough teachers, classrooms, books and other materials and equipment, latrines, transport and more. 

And, at the same time, school fees, compulsory uniforms, lunches and other “extras” put schools beyond the financial reach of many families.  As an example, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimated in 2007 that these extras can amount to one-quarter of the income of an African family, per child!

Two barriers to growing school attendance numbers are sanitation and disaster.  Girls often avoid schooling as there is no safe, clean place for them to use a washroom or deal with menstruation.  With no secure latrines or gender-specific private areas available, girls will fear assault, disease and, at the very least, embarrassment. 

Also, in a community with poor access to water, girls often spend their days hauling heavy buckets many kilometers to and from wells and rivers. 

With the growing incidence of disaster situations in recent years, countless schools have been damaged or destroyed, many children killed and countries in crisis have not been able to keep up their educational systems. 

Pakistan, India, China, Japan and the Philippines have faced very serious situations caused by weather, earthquakes, tsunamis and flooding recently, while Africa’s disasters have been more from the effects of conflict. 

The entire developing world has faced another crisis – the worldwide economic downturn that has taken funding and personal finances away from institutions and families.

It is not all bad news, although there is indeed much to be done.  A surge of enrolment has taken place in African countries since school fees were abolished in the late Nineties in Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania. 

However, this also has brought to the fore the new challenge of making available enough teachers and classrooms.  Tanzania has built tens of thousands of classrooms over the past decade, while Ghana has ambitiously recruited retirees and volunteers to bolster its number of teachers.

Countries such as Egypt, Botswana and Malawi have introduced female-friendly recruitment and re-enrolment programs, including providing school lunches and materials. 

Meanwhile, other countries have addressed issues such as education for remote communities, with tent and mobile schools, and cross-cultural and linguistic education strategies in dealing with indigenous communities. 

International organizations such as UNICEF, Save the Children and PLAN International (formerly Foster Parents Plan) are also active in developing countries with programs related to encouraging girls’ education and establishing child-friendly educational spaces in crises.

Educating children in the “Global South” accomplishes more than just teaching them to read and write.  Literacy also means being better able to provide oneself with a healthy lifestyle, to find employment and generate revenue for one’s family, or to know one’s rights in societies that don’t always have (or enforce) progressive laws and regulations. 

It is a right for our children to get an education, but they, and we, should treat as a privilege as well.  As our school year winds down, it is worth considering the value of education and the plight of those who can’t always get one.

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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