Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Responding to the Social Challenge: Universal Basic Education

One way of narrowing the gap between rich and poor is universal education, but currently some 115 million children between the ages of 6 and 12 do not attend school. They are starting life with a severe handicap, one that virtually ensures that they will remain in abject poverty and that the gap between the poor and the rich will continue to widen.13 

Recognizing this, the United Nations set universal primary education by 2015 as one of its Millennium Development Goals. Some 88 countries will fail to achieve this if they stay on the present course. The need for much greater effort is obvious. The World Bank has taken the lead with its Education for All plan. If fully implemented, all children in poor countries would get a primary school education by 2015. No child would be deprived of education because his or her parents cannot afford books and school fees.14 

The benefits of education are many. The educational level of females is the principal determinant of the achievement level of their children. Children of educated mothers are better nourished not necessarily because the family income is higher but because the mother's better understanding of nutrition leads to a better choice of foods and healthier methods of preparation. It is the educational level of the mother that sets the tone for the family. Educating her is the key to breaking out of poverty.15 

The education of girls leads to smaller families. In every society for which data are available, fertility falls as female educational levels rise. Simply stated, the more education women have, the fewer children they bear. And mothers with at least five years of school lose fewer infants during childbirth or due to early illnesses than their uneducated peers do. Among other things, these women can read the instructions on medications and they understand better how to take care of themselves during pregnancy. Economist Gene Sperling, the head of the Forum on Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, reports on a study of 72 countries that concluded that "the expansion of female secondary education may be the single best lever for achieving substantial reductions in fertility."16

Basic education increases agricultural productivity. Agricultural extension services that cannot use printed materials to disseminate information on improved agricultural practices are severely handicapped. So too are farmers who cannot read the instructions on a bag of fertilizer. The inability to read the instructions on a pesticide container can be life-threatening. 

Under the World Bank's Education for All program, any country with a well-designed plan to achieve universal primary education should receive financial support. The three principal requirements are that a country submit a sensible plan to reach universal basic education, commit a meaningful share of its own resources to the plan, and have transparent budgeting and accounting practices. Monitoring 10 fast-track countries, singled out because they quickly submit solid plans for achieving the Education for All goals, could provide useful information on what works and what does not work in various social situations.17 

At a time when HIV is spreading throughout the world, schools provide the institutional means to educate young people about the risks of infection. The time to inform and educate about the virus and about the lifestyles that foster its spread is when children are young, not when they are in their teens and often already infected. Young people can also be mobilized to conduct educational campaigns among their peers. 

One great need in developing countries, particularly those where the ranks of teachers are being decimated by AIDS, is more teacher training. Providing scholarships for promising students from poor families to attend these training institutes in exchange for a commitment to teach for a fixed period of time, say five years, could be a highly profitable investment. It would help ensure that the human resources are available to reach the universal primary education goal, and it would also open the way for an upwelling of talent from the poorest segments of society. 

Sperling believes that every plan should provide for getting to the hardest-to-reach segments of society, especially poor girls in rural areas. He notes that Ethiopia has pioneered this with Girls Advisory Committees. Representatives of these groups go to the parents who are seeking early marriage for their daughters and encourage them to keep their children in school. Some countries, Brazil and Bangladesh among them, actually provide small scholarships for girls, thus helping to ensure that girls from poor families get a basic education.18 

As the world becomes ever more integrated economically, its 875 million illiterate adults are severely handicapped. This deficit can perhaps best be dealt with by launching adult literacy programs using volunteers. The international community could offer seed money to provide the educational materials and the external advisors. But the actual programs would be staffed largely by local volunteers. Bangladesh and Iran, both with successful adult literacy programs, can serve as models.19 

The World Bank estimates that external funding of $2.5-5 billion a year would be needed if the 47 poorest countries are to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Doing this in the 88 countries that are unlikely to reach universal primary education by 2015 would cost perhaps three times as much. Even if it were to cost $15 billion per year, it would still be a bargain. At a time when personal computers give many schoolchildren access not only to books but also to the vast information resources of the Internet, having other children who never go to school is no longer acceptable.20


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