Helen Clark: "Education and International Development"

Mar 26, 2012

Tisch Distinguished Lecture
Teachers College, Columbia University
New York

It is a pleasure to be invited to give the Tisch Distinguished Lecture today, and to be part of a day of events marking the relationship between the Teachers College of Columbia University and the University of Waikato, New Zealand.

I myself grew up in the Waikato region of New Zealand, and visited the university over many years in public life.  Only last year I addressed a large gathering of women in tertiary education there on the work I now do as Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

I welcome the partnership Waikato University has formed with the Teachers’ College of this prestigious university, and am sure it will work for the benefit of staff and students in each institution.

My topic today – Education and International Development – is a broad one.  Let me begin with two disclaimers:
•    It is 31 years since I was last employed as a university teacher, a profession I very much enjoyed.
•    UNDP is not a specialist organization in the field of education.

Having made both disclaimers, let me say that I myself am passionate about the power of education to transform individual lives and prospects, and those of families, communities, and nations.  I count myself very fortunate to have been a member of New Zealand’s post-war baby boomer generation, where educational opportunities were wide open to me. I am highly motivated to see all children and young people everywhere enjoy those same opportunities to acquire knowledge and skills, and reach their full potential.

In our world, 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 own destiny.  That is why the opportunity to be educated is central to advancing human development.

The Human Development Paradigm

The pioneering work of Mahbub ul Haq and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen on the human development paradigm has guided UNDP’s work for more than two decades.

Both men saw development as being about far more than growth in GDP per capita.  The concept of human development is about increasing the ability of people to live longer, healthier lives, to be educated, and to live in dignity.  It encompasses the enlargement of people’s choices and freedoms.

When the first Human Development Report was produced in 1990, it began by stating that “people are the real wealth of a nation”. From those words, it set out the case for a new approach to thinking about development which put people at its very centre.  This approach laid the foundation for ideas and concepts, which now form part of mainstream development discourse.

A new index was established in an endeavor to gauge progress on this broader measure of development. The Human Development Index (HDI) includes indicators for health and education, as well as for GDP per capita.

The Human Development Report Office in UNDP and its global community of collaborators have also been innovative in measuring development progress beyond the establishment of the HDI.  In 2010, for example, three new indices were introduced:  the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI), the Gender Inequality Index (GII), and the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). Their objective is to enable a more nuanced understanding of the inequities that persist and of the multiple deprivations which the poor experience.

Education is a critical component in each of the human development indices because of the seminal role of knowledge in expanding opportunities and capabilities.  That makes education central to human development.

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 states that:
“(1) Everyone has the right to education.  Education shall be free, at least in elementary and fundamental stages.  Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.  It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

The emphasis in the Declaration is very much on education as a right, and on its broader role in advancing humankind. Investing in education is investing in human potential.  That is why it has multiple benefits for development.  Indeed investing in education creates a virtuous cycle of development. For example, education helps to:
-    reduce poverty. UNESCO estimates that each extra year of schooling a person has is associated with increased earnings of up to ten per cent.
-    reduce child mortality. A child born to a mother who can read is fifty per cent more likely to live beyond the age of five.

-    improve maternal health. Girls who are able to stay longer in education are also likely to be able to delay the age of marriage and childbirth.  The UN Population Fund, UNFPA, estimates that adolescent girls are up to five times more likely to die from complications of pregnancy than are women in their 20s.

-    turn 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.

For all these reasons, and many more, education features prominently in the Millennium Development Goals established following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000.

MDG Two aims to “ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling”.

Achieving this MDG is linked to making progress on the others;  for example on:

-    reducing hunger, which both keeps children out of school, and prevents them from concentrating and learning effectively when they are there.
-    fighting HIV/AIDS. Children in HIV-affected households are less likely to be in school, more likely to drop out after they have enrolled, and more likely to be involved in child labour. 
-    improving access to energy and water. Girls’ education suffers where there is a burden on them of walking long distances to collect wood and/or water for the family.

-    achieving gender equality.  Where women and girls are not treated equally, their education does not get priority.  MDG Three specifically targeted gender equity in primary and secondary education, with the aim of achieving it by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015.

So how much progress is being made on achieving these education MDG targets?

On average, by 2010, people had close to two years more schooling than they had in 1990.  Enrollment in primary education stood at 89 per cent in the developing world in 2009, up from 82 per cent in 1999.  The greatest progress was achieved in sub-Saharan Africa, where enrollment increased by eighteen percentage points between 1999 and 2009 to 76 per cent.

Some examples of fast progress:
•    Ethiopia, a least developed country, reduced the number of its 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 enrollment ratios in 1999.  Now, achieving universal primary education by 2015 is within its grasp.

 The gender gap in school enrollment in developing countries had narrowed by 2009 to 96 girls for every 100 boys in primary and secondary education – an improvement on the 91 girls for every 100 boys in primary school in 1999, and the 88 girls for every 100 boys in secondary school that same year.

But there is still work to do.  In 2009, 67 million children remained out of school.  The rate of progress towards universal primary education had slowed, with no noticeable increase in enrollment between 2008 and 2009 in any region other than Southern Asia. That dims prospects for reaching the MDG target of universal primary education by 2015 – a target which should have been achievable with accelerated action.  If schooling is to reach those children at the end of the road and beyond, much greater efforts are needed.

The global recession and high food prices of recent years erected further barriers to achieving the education-related and other MDGs.  Facing falling real and/or disposable incomes, families can be forced to cut back on education costs, and even to take their children out of school all together.

The role of social protection in improving school attendance

The establishment of basic social protection can help put food on the table and keep children in school.  UNDP is a strong advocate for social protection, because it locks in development gains in areas like school attendance and nutrition.

Cash transfer programmes, for example, which boost family incomes, will take pressure off families which have needed their children to work to supplement household income, or to take care of younger siblings so that parents can work.

A range of these programmes are operating around the world – some conditional, and some not.

The conditional programmes generally provide income supplements to families in return for evidence of children’s enrollment in school, and their having had basic health checks and/or immunisations.

In my view, there is a debate to be had about whether the schemes with conditions produce better results than those without, and whether they may have the perverse effects of compounding family poverty and inequities where the conditions for receiving the cash transfer simply cannot be met.

It should be noted, however, that conditional cash transfers have been linked to substantial decreases in child labor in Brazil, Cambodia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Nicaragua, and to noticeable increases in school attendance in a number of countries.

In Cambodia, two pilot cash transfer programs documented a reduction in school drop-out rates by twenty to thirty percentage points for students between sixth and seventh grade. In Pakistan, such a program increased the number of 10- to14-year-old girls in school by eleven percentage points.

Evidence of improvements in learning outcomes as a result, however, are not as strong – suggesting that more needs to be done to lift the quality of the education being provided. A study, unrelated to conditional cash transfers, of 21 countries in sub-Saharan Africa showed that 22- to 24- year olds with five years of education had a forty per cent chance of being illiterate.

So the twin goals must be to ensure access to education for every child, and to improve the quality of that education to ensure that children attain at least basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Overcoming the barriers to access

Deep-rooted inequalities linked to gender, wealth, ethnicity, language, disability, and geographical location still prevent children from attending school. Household data from 42 countries suggest that rural children are twice as likely to be out of school as children in urban areas.  But even in urban centers, disparities persist.

UNICEF estimates that while some ninety per cent of all children in Delhi, India, attend primary school, only 55 per cent of children living in informal settlements do.

Such disparities need to be eliminated, both to guarantee children their right to education, and to break intergenerational cycles of vulnerability and disadvantage.

The 2010 UNDP Human Development Report for Latin America and the Caribbean notes that for higher income developing countries, inter-generational educational mobility (that is, children being better educated than their parents), has been one of the most important factors in determining socioeconomic mobility between generations.  For example, the report cites a study which finds that the decline in inequality reported in Chile between 1990 and 2006 can be largely explained by the major expansion in higher education over the same period.

The 1948 Declaration of Human Rights appropriately emphasized the importance of “free education, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages”.  School fees and related costs for uniforms, books, and other equipment can pose significant barriers to access to education for children from poor families.

When Ghana, Malawi, Nepal and Tanzania abolished primary school fees, all experienced surges in enrollment. 

A study in Kenya found that distributing free school uniforms decreased absenteeism from class by 43 per cent.

It is also true that hungry children find it hard to learn and are less likely to attend school.  That makes it important to link nutrition and schooling initiatives.  Poor nutrition, including iron deficiency, is linked to poor cognitive development. Undernourished children are more likely to score poorly in tests at school, start school later, and drop out earlier.

The World Food Programme estimates that 66 million children currently enrolled in primary school in developing countries are undernourished, and that this number will increase to 82 million by 2015.  A much larger number, approximately 195 million children under the age of five, are chronically malnourished even before beginning school, placing them on a trajectory for poor academic achievement in the future.  This reinforces the importance of linking initiatives to boost participation in education with those which tackle poverty, hunger, poor nutrition, and improve health status.

School feeding progammes have been shown to be successful in increasing attendance, especially among girls, and in improving nutrition. In times of crisis, these programmes are vital for children living in poverty. The World Food Programme and the World Bank have reported that in response to high food prices in 2008, twenty developing countries scaled-up school feeding programmes to help keep children at school.

Last year, during the severe drought in northern Kenya, UNICEF reported that many schools remained open during their holidays in drought-affected areas, enabling around 1.2 million children to continue to access the school feeding programmes. Similarly, 155 schools in Somalia, reaching 37,000 internally displaced children, were also supported by UNICEF to remain open over the school break.

Initiatives like these can have positive spillover effects for development progress in other areas.  For example, the World Food Programme’s Home Grown School Feeding programme, is working to link school feeding programmes with local small-scale farmer production.  WFP says their initiative “ is based on the premise that low farm productivity, poor agricultural market development, and poor educational and nutritional outcomes are mutually reinforcing, and jointly determine key aspects of rural hunger and poverty.”

Obviously a whole range of other health and disability issues, beyond hunger and nutrition, impact on children’s access to education and their ability to learn.  I mention just one more – worm infections.  Children who suffer from them are less likely to be regular school attenders, and more likely to experience serious illness.

It is appropriate therefore that school-based deworming programmes have been established in many countries, with a beneficial impact on attendance.  A randomized-control study by the Poverty Action Lab on Western Kenya confirmed that deworming had lifted attendance.  When younger children were dewormed, they attended school on average for fifteen more days each year.

Preparing young people to participate in the economy and society

Recent uprisings in a number of the Arab States have brought to the fore the concerns of young people about exclusion from the work force and denial of their basic rights. The high unemployment rates experienced in a number of these states have been exacerbated by a mismatch between the skills acquired in outdated education systems and the needs of the workplace.

The 2010 Human Development Report for Egypt documented a particularly striking trend in unemployment rates – reporting that youth unemployment rates increased with the level of education.  Among youth with only secondary education, fifteen per cent were unemployed in 2008, while of those with university or higher education, a much higher 26 per cent were unemployed.

The Arab Knowledge Report 2010/2011 launched jointly by UNDP and the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation recently, highlights the urgent need for education system reform, within the context of the broader political, economic, and social reforms taking place in the region.

But it is not only the Arab States region which is experiencing a jobs crisis.  Our world needs hundreds of millions more decent jobs and livelihoods to overcome existing unemployment, place new entrants in the workforce, and address the needs of the many working poor who live in households where family members live on less than $2 a day each.  This latter category is estimated at 900 million workers, approximately thirty per cent of the global workforce.

Unless, country by country, there is a much greater focus on inclusive and equitable economic growth, the expectations raised through education, will not be met.  This is a major development challenge.

My comments thus far have focused on the benefits education has for overcoming the multiple effects of poverty and inequality, and on ways to improve access to participation in, and the quality and relevance of education.

The role of education in promoting peace, tolerance, and understanding

But there is also another critical dimension of education referred to in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – its role in promoting peace, tolerance, understanding and friendship.

Education has the power to build positive attitudes and behaviours which bring peoples together.  The converse is also true – a curriculum imbued with bias, prejudice, and misrepresentation of the other will exacerbate tensions and reinforce divisions.

Conflict-sensitive approaches to education in troubled countries can promote co-existence, dual narratives of history, gender equity, problem-solving, and dispute resolution skills, affording education a key role in a society’s path to peace.

Education has not been a priority in peacebuilding discussions to date, but I do believe that development considerations, including education, must become part of mainstream discourse around peace and security.

UNDP participates in a Working Group on Education and Fragility of the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergency (INEE), focusing on crisis-sensitive education where there is fragility and conflict. This work should lead to the development of guidelines and tools for education practitioners in such settings, and open up opportunities to leverage education’s powerful transformative capacity in the service of peace.

Children in strife-torn countries often face especially large obstacles in going to school.  The level of insecurity may prevent them from leaving their homes at all, and local educational infrastructure may be destroyed.  Even worse, children themselves in some conflicts are coerced into becoming combatants.

A UNICEF report on Sierra Leone, comments on how the education system there was devastated during the country’s civil war.  Up to seventy per cent of school-age children had either limited or no access to education.  The World Bank has estimated that only thirteen per cent of Sierra Leone’s schools were usable by 2001. 

Children like these become a lost generation, unless huge efforts are made to give them a second chance to be educated. 

Once the “virtuous cycle” which education can stimulate is broken and is replaced by a ‘vicious cycle,’ it becomes harder to move from conflict to peacebuilding and to human development.

Education has an indispensable role to play in driving more equitable and sustainable development. 

As the 2015 date for the MDG target looms, it is fair to say that as a whole people around the world are healthier, wealthier, and better educated than ever before. Since 1990, the baseline year against which we measure progress, hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of income poverty.

The global targets of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty and without sustainable access to safe drinking water have been met. There are forty per cent fewer deaths from tuberculosis and thirty per cent fewer deaths from malaria than there were in 1990.

Yet it must be recognized that these aggregate figures and averages of achievement disguise some inconvenient truths: that ending extreme poverty and hunger is an unfinished agenda; striking inequalities persist across and within countries; and our ecosystems are under considerable stress. 
Part of doing whatever it takes to lift human development so that every person on the earth can fulfill their potential and live in dignity is providing access to education.  Its power to transform lives has ripple effects over every area of development, making investing in education one of the most effective investments we can make.

In our currently fiscally constrained world, struggling to recover from the many crises which beset it, it is more important than ever to focus on the development investments which have the most transformational and catalytic effects.  That, together with those ringing words of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “everyone has the right to education,” must put education at the very top of development agendas.

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