Making It Happen
issue 315 - August 1999
Every child’s right to schooling could be delivered if the world cared enough
to make it happen. Chris Brazier ends his report on education North and South
with a look at countries and campaigns that are making a difference.
Nothing is more striking about our local school than the extremes it contains. At the one end, we have more than our share of children who can read before they even come through the door, with parents who are financially comfortable and are deeply committed to education, both at home and in school. At the other extreme are those children whose home life is a morass of poverty and problems. It often seems as though these children have no chance at all, and that a life of disadvantage, low expectations and trouble with the law has been preordained for them. And yet at least they have been offered a place in school as of right, even if sometimes they only want to kick out against it.
The children in the report on Tanzania that you have just read have no such opportunity. Nor do any of the other 275 million children in the world who have either never been to school or have dropped out without completing four years. Numbers of this kind are difficult to take in; it may help if you try to imagine the number of children of primary-school age in Europe and North America – and then double it.1
BETTY PRESS / PANOS PICTURES
But do not assume for a moment that the scale of the problem makes it impossible to do anything about it. Every one of these children could be offered the schooling that is their fundamental right within a decade – and this issue of the New Internationalist forms part of a major campaign being mounted in both North and South to make sure that the world takes its responsibility more seriously than it has hitherto.
The liberation dream
On the eve of the millennium, we should not still be fighting this battle. Back in the 1960s and 1970s that same Tanzania by which the visiting child journalists were so shocked in Class wars was a beacon of hope for all those who believed in the liberation of the Third World, in a new international economic order. Tanzania under Julius Nyerere may have taken wrong turnings, built some of its new designs on sand, but what it embodied was the belief that ‘development’ meant first and foremost the development of human beings rather than of infrastructure or finance capital. A belief in education was at the heart of this, as Nyerere famously said in 1970: ‘Education is not a way of escaping the country’s poverty. It is a way of fighting it.’1
Education was no longer to be the province of an élite but was rather to reach out into the poorest home, the remotest rural area; it would be an engine driving economic development and allowing the independent nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America to claim their rightful status as equals in the global community.
A series of groundbreaking regional conferences organized by UNESCO set clear, bold targets. All eligible children were to be enrolled in primary school by 1980 – by 1970 in Latin America, where the existing provision was better. Nor was this mere rhetoric: primary enrolment more than doubled in Asia and Latin America over the two decades to 1980, while in Africa it tripled.2 It still didn’t deliver universal primary education, largely because no-one had foreseen the scale of the surge in population. So far so good, though.
But in the 1980s Tanzania and the Third World as a whole hit the rocks. Developing countries were crippled by debt repayments which ate up ever larger slices of their national income, not least because commodity prices plunged to an all-time low – by the middle of 1987 they were at their lowest level for 50 years.3 The optimistic vision of the 1960s of a healthy, well-educated population creating their own momentum for development faded beside the grim reality of the bailiffs at the door.
Chief bailiffs were the IMF and the World Bank, who insisted on a raft of economic belt-tightening measures – including swingeing cuts in education spending. The impact was dramatic. Between 1980 and 1987, in Latin America and the Caribbean real spending per inhabitant plummeted by around 40 per cent and in sub-Saharan Africa by a catastrophic 65 per cent.3 Teachers’ salaries were slashed and school fees introduced in countries that had previously seen free primary education as paramount – and Tanzania was among them.
The dawn of the 1990s was supposed to represent the turning of the page. The World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien, Thailand, in 1990 held out a new vision of education in the developing world that would boost the quality of schooling as well as the quantity. But it also set a new target date for universal primary education: the year 2000.
Yet despite all the action plans drawn up by more than 100 governments since Jomtien, despite the fact that education has been seen as central by every UN conference of the 1990s, we are still a dismally long way away from achieving ‘Education for All’.
More depressing still, if the world progresses at its current pace, we will still be far from achieving it in 2015, which – you guessed it – is the latest in the ever-extendable line of target dates. This far-distant date emerged out of the UN Social Summit in 1995, and we may perhaps be forgiven for the cynical thought that it was selected in the knowledge that no-one currently in power will still be around to be blamed when the chickens of failure come home to roost.
Toys and rockets
The problem, we are continually told, is one of resources. Education simply costs too much. Yet look at the graphic on the facing page (Barbarous priorities). The best estimate of a price tag for achieving ‘Education for All’ in the next decade is eight billion dollars a year. This may seem an enormous sum. Yet it is only around half what Americans spend each year on toys. Even more telling, it is equivalent to just four days of global military spending, or just nine minutes of international currency speculation.1
This is the Great Education Scandal which gives this issue its title: that so many millions of children, so many family futures and hopeful horizons, are being sacrificed for want of such a small amount of money. Microsoft’s Bill Gates could fund it out of his own pocket. More pertinently still, the Western governments that find their wallets mysteriously empty when it comes to the overseas aid budget (and who employ the IMF as loan shark to help fill them again), managed to find over $100 billion at the drop of a hat to be channelled through the IMF to the ailing economic giants of East Asia in the crisis of 1997-98.
Now is the time to raise our voices. Deep in the bowels of the UN system and the development lobby the machinery is chugging away in its review of what went wrong with the ‘Jomtien Decade’, as regional meetings from October onwards prepare for the World Education Forum in Senegal in April next year. Meanwhile the UN Social Summit will also be reconvening in June 2000.
So what, you might say? These behind-the-scenes high-level processes seem impossible for you and I to influence. But an international campaign is gathering momentum North and South in which we can participate and which could yet make a difference. The great strength of this coalition is that it stretches right the way up from villages in Africa and Asia to policy analysts working hard to influence the global movers and shakers in Washington and New York.
Oxfam International, which has just launched a major campaign called Education Now, has not historically been much involved in education, feeling that this was the responsibility of governments. But over the last decade it has found consistently at village level that one of the key issues people raised was the cost of schooling. As a result it is using its influence at the international lobbying level to bring big players like UNICEF and the World Bank on board with its proposed Global Action Plan to ensure universal primary education by 2015.
At the same time it aims to mobilize a campaign that takes ‘Education for All’ out of a caring ghetto rarely noticed by the general public.
So who should be prosecuted for the
world’s educational failures?
Majority World governments
Education is life
To that end it is joining forces with the Elimu campaign, which is represented in the North by ActionAid but whose driving force comes from the South. Elimu (a Swahili-derived rendering of ‘education is life’) is an attempt to reclaim education from the politicians and bureaucrats who have so mishandled it over the four decades of development so far. Coalitions including teachers’ unions, women’s organizations and religious groups have been formed in Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Benin, Togo, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Brazil and Peru to ensure that governments and aid donors fulfil their promises to the poor on the right to education.
In Ghana, for example, more than 20 organizations came together in March to launch a nationwide campaign, focusing primarily on the rising costs of schooling in a country which has been under the cosh of structural adjustment for two decades. ‘No-one should be excluded because they cannot pay, nor should the poor be condemned to poor-quality education,’ said keynote speaker Rev Dr Aboagye-Mensah.
Other African countries have already boldly proved that it does not have to be this way. When Malawi finally overthrew its dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda after three decades, one of the new democratic government’s first acts was to make primary schooling free for all children in 1994. The effect was dramatic. Whereas only 45 per cent of children made it into primary school in 1985, suddenly almost all children were given access. The problems attached to the policy were and still are huge, of course – from finding enough new teachers (over half the primary teachers in Malawi are untrained) to discovering cheaper ways of building schools with local materials (a new design was found that cost a quarter of the standard cement model recommended by the World Bank). And quality may have been to some extent sacrificed to quantity.
But Malawi’s example shows what is possible. It helped inspire Uganda to follow a similar path in guaranteeing free primary schooling to four children per family – and Uganda has since ploughed the first fruits of debt relief (it is one of the very few so far to have received any such relief) into funding its free education policy, charting another course that could be followed by highly indebted African countries if only they were given the chance to climb off the rack.
We are back inescapably to economics. As we look forward to the new century buoyed up by those inevitable images of bright-eyed children hungry to learn, it should not have to come down to money. Instead of struggling to make ends meet, of looking for new budget cuts or ways of picking parents’ pockets, as schools are having to do both North and South, we should be able to focus on improving the quality of teaching and learning – and on educating children to be critical thinkers rather than clones, active democrats rather than drones.
The last word on education should always go to a child. In January this year, as part of Elimu’s campaign in India, poor children from New Delhi and the surrounding areas turned the tables on bureaucrats and scholars as they talked about the barriers between them and high-quality education. Taking the microphone to address the national Education Secretary, one boy asked the question that none of us should ever become too weary or too sophisticated to ask: ‘If the Government has money to explode nuclear bombs, why doesn’t it have money to build schools?’4
1 The Internationalist, No 1, 1970.
2 Christopher Colclough with Keith Lewin, Educating All the Children, Clarendon Press 1993.
3 State of the World’s Children 1999, UNICEF.
4 Elimu Newsletter, Spring 1999.
Education for all