Helen Clark: Remarks on "Achieving the MDGs: Teaching for Action"

Jan 14, 2011

Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
On the occasion of the Committee on Teaching About the UN (CTAUN) Conference:  “Achieving the MDGs: Teaching for Action”
14 January 2011, 4:15pm

Thank you for the invitation to address this very important conference on “Achieving the MDGs: Teaching for Action”.

The commitment of the Committee on Teaching About the UN to ensuring that today’s children and young people understand the challenges and opportunities facing our world is laudable. Those challenges will require effective multilateralism, underpinned by an active global citizenry which supports it. That is because so many of today’s challenges are transnational – knowing no border of nation states, faith, or ethnicity. We will have to work together across borders, to resolve them.

Achieving the Millennium Development Goals requires exactly such action.

The good news is that the Goals have been backed by a global consensus since they were launched in 2000. I was one of the leaders who came to New York then for the UN’s Millennium Summit – at the dawn of the new millennium when everything seemed possible, and the desire was strong to build a 21st century which was more peaceful and just than its predecessor.

Not all has gone smoothly since then. Efforts to achieve the MDGs must contend with the impact of the global recession, food shortages and high prices, and catastrophic natural disasters, including those caused by climate change.

But these problems must never become an excuse for lowering our ambition to build a better, fairer world. Rather they should motivate us to redouble our efforts, and refuse to accept that in the 21st century people are left to live in extreme poverty, suffer chronic hunger, are unable to go to school or get health care, and die from preventable and treatable conditions. Nor can we accept the perpetuation of gender inequality and discrimination against women, or the loss of our planet’s precious biodiversity.

The MDGs encompass all these basic development benchmarks. They matter to all of us because, as the parable says, if my neighbour is poor, I am poor too. Our world will never be truly at peace with itself while gross inequities denying the basics of a decent life continue.

This conference brings together educators committed to education for all. To me, education is transformational – for individuals, their families, communities, and societies. Knowledge is power, and education empowers. It is an indispensable part of the development equation. It has intrinsic value extending far beyond the economic to empower people to determine their destiny. Thus, achieving the education MDG will help drive achievement on other MDGs and development objectives too.

For example:

  • reducing poverty. According to UNESCO, each extra year of schooling is associated with increased earnings of up to ten per cent.
  • reducing child mortality. A child born to a mother who can read is fifty per cent more likely to live  beyond the age of five.
  • improving maternal health. Girls who are able to stay longer in education are also likely to be able to delay the age of marriage and have more choice about the spacing of their children.
  • turning the tide on HIV/AIDS. Women with post primary education are five times more likely to be knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS than are illiterate women. In Malawi, research indicated that only 27 per cent of women with no education were aware that the risk of transmitting HIV during pregnancy could be reduced by taking drugs during pregnancy – while close to sixty per cent of women with a secondary education were aware of that.

These examples show how education can help save lives and extend opportunity. It expands people’s choices and capabilities – enabling them to live longer, healthier, and more creative lives.  That is why educational attainment is a core component of the Human Development Index published by UNDP each year in 1990.

Last year’s global Human Development Report was the twentieth anniversary edition, and it reflected on trends in human development since the first report.

On average today, people have two years more schooling than then they had in 1990. The proportion of people who have attended school has risen from 57 per cent in 1960 to 85 per cent in 2010.  

Considerable progress has also been made towards achieving MDG Two on universal primary education.

Enrolment in primary education reached 89 per cent in the developing world in 2008. The greatest progress was achieved in sub-Saharan Africa, where enrolment increased by eighteen percentage points between 1999 and 2008.

Some examples: Ethiopia, a least developed country, reduced the number of children not in school from 6.5 million in 1999 to 2.7 million in 2008. Benin in West Africa had one of the world’s lowest net enrolment ratios in 1999. Now, achieving universal primary education by 2015 is within its grasp.

The world is also moving towards MDG Three’s target of gender equity in primary and secondary school enrolment. The gender gap in school enrolment in developing countries has narrowed to 95 girls for every 100 boys in secondary education – a significant improvement on the 88 girls for every 100 boys in 1999.

But obviously there is still work to do. In 2008, 69 million children remained out of school.  Over the past five years the rate of progress towards universal primary education has slowed to half the rate of the previous five years. If schooling is to reach those children at the end of the road, we will have to try even harder.

Deep‐rooted inequalities linked to wealth, gender, ethnicity, language, and location are still preventing children from attending school. Household data from 42 countries suggests that rural children are twice as likely to be out of school as children in urban areas. Girls from the poorest households have the least chance of getting an education.

The global recession hasn’t helped. Facing falling incomes, families can be forced to cut back on education costs and even to take their children out of school. Yet the establishment of basic social safety nets can help keep food on the table and children in school. UNDP is a strong advocate for social protection because it locks in development gains in areas like school attendance and adequate nutrition

Another challenge is lifting the quality of education so that children attain at least basic literacy and numeracy skills. In some countries young adults with five years of education still have a forty per cent probability of being illiterate.

UNDP, is not a specialized education agency, but it can support the work of its sister agencies which are, and play an important role in helping governments design effective policies. In El Salvador, for example, UNDP complemented the work of UNICEF and UNESCO by helping the Education Ministry identify cost effective ways of lifting student retention rates, and to broaden support for its efforts among donors, civil society, and the private sector.
In Laos we helped the government with a strategy to achieve universal access to, and gender equality in education.  It built on evidence of what has worked elsewhere to bring education to remote rural areas; for example, by offering scholarships to local people to train as teachers.  

Student retention, particularly among girls, is critical to achieving universal primary education. Egypt has improved retention by making girl’s education free within newly inaugurated ‘girl-friendly schools,’ and by providing school meals to children in poor communities.

School fees are also an obstacle to school attendance. When Ghana, Malawi, Nepal, and Tanzania abolished fees for primary school, they all experienced surges in enrolment. There has to be a lesson in this.

The ability of children to learn is also very much linked to their health status. Around one third of all children entering primary school each year in developing countries have experienced poor nutrition which has damaged their cognitive development. That makes them more likely to score poorly on tests in school, start school later, and drop out earlier. Clearly, efforts to improve education must be matched by initiatives which tackle poverty, hunger and malnutrition, and improve health services.

In the education and development communities, we have learned a lot about what improves access to education and helps children to learn. Yet given the critical importance of education as a driver of development, it is surprising how little development assistance is directed to it. In 2008 only $2 billion was spent on improving basic education in the poorest countries of the world. To put that into perspective, the world spent $1.5 trillion on military expenditures in 2009. 

Teachers themselves are among the most powerful advocates for education and achieving the MDG targets:

  • In Ethiopia, we see thousands of teachers rally on International Literacy Day for improved accountability and quality in education.
  • In the Philippines, teachers were instrumental in organizing a national campaign to stand up against poverty, which involved one third of the total population.
  • Here in the United States, teachers formed a coalition ahead of last year’s MDG Summit to call for increased investment in quality basic education around the world.

I commend the work of this Committee on Teaching about the United Nations for the initiative it has taken to bring discussion about development and the MDGs into the classrooms; to expand students’ perspectives and enable them to empathize with children from the developing world; and to promote wider understanding of the stark inequalities in opportunity which exist in our world, and how to do something about reducing them.

That understanding was evident among the eighth grade students from West Windsor in the Plainsboro Regional School District who were the well deserved winners of this year’s best practice award. Their MDG simulation project took them through steps very similar to the real-life work of UNDP and our UN colleagues, working to accelerate MDG achievement in countries around the world.

Who knows - some of these students may be the UN development workers of the future – working to eradicate extreme poverty and open up opportunity and access to a decent life for all.

If that happens, and if more children and young people become activists for greater opportunity and equality in our world, the Committee on Teaching About the UN and each of you who has shown that you care by being involved, can be proud of the part you played in building a better world. Your work is itself “Teaching in Action”.

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