Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 7. Eradicating Poverty, Stabilizing Population: Universal Basic Education

One way of narrowing the gap between rich and poor is by ensuring universal education. This means ensuring that 115 million children who do not attend school are able to. Children without any formal education are starting life with a severe handicap, one that almost ensures they will remain in abject poverty and that the gap between the poor and the rich will continue to widen. In an increasingly integrated world, this widening gap becomes a source of instability. Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen focuses the point nicely: “Illiteracy and innumeracy are a greater threat to humanity than terrorism.” 7

Recognizing the central role of education in human progress, the United Nations set universal primary education by 2015 as one of its Millennium Development Goals. The World Bank has taken the lead with its Education for All plan, where any country with a well-designed plan to achieve universal primary education is eligible for 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. If fully implemented, all children in poor countries would get a primary school education by 2015. 8

The benefits of education are many, particularly for women. The achievement level of children correlates closely with the educational level of their mothers. Children of educated mothers are better nourished not necessarily because the family income is higher but because their mother’s better understanding of nutrition leads to a better choice of foods and healthier methods of preparation. Educating women is the key to breaking the poverty cycle. 9

The education of girls leads to smaller families. In every society for which data are available, fertility falls as female educational levels rise. And mothers with at least five years of school lose fewer infants during childbirth or early illnesses than their less educated peers do. Among other things, these women can read the instructions on medications and they have a better understanding of how to take care of themselves during pregnancy. Economist Gene Sperling concluded in a 2001 study of 72 countries that “the expansion of female secondary education may be the single best lever for achieving substantial reductions in fertility.” 10

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 instructions on a pesticide container can be life-threatening.

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 children about the virus and about the lifestyles that foster its spread is when they are young, not when they are 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 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 door for an upwelling of talent from the poorest segments of society.

Gene 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 where needed, thus helping girls from poor families get a basic education. 11

As the world becomes ever more integrated economically, its nearly 800 million illiterate adults are severely handicapped. This deficit can perhaps best be dealt with by launching adult literacy programs, relying heavily on volunteers. The international community could offer seed money to provide educational materials and outside advisors where needed. Bangladesh and Iran, both of which have successful adult literacy programs, can serve as models. 12

The World Bank estimates that external funding of roughly $12 billion a year would be needed to achieve universal primary education in the more than 80 countries that are unlikely to reach this goal by 2015. At a time when education gives children access not only to books but also to personal computers and the vast information resources of the Internet, having children who never go to school is no longer acceptable. 13

Few incentives to get children in school are as effective as a school lunch program, especially in the poorest countries. Since 1946, every child in public school in the United States has had access to a school lunch program, ensuring one good meal each day. There is no denying the benefits of this national program that has continued uninterrupted for so many years. George McGovern and Robert Dole, both former members of the U.S. Senate agricultural committee and former candidates for President, want to provide school lunch programs in all the world’s poorest countries. 14

Children who are ill or hungry miss many days of school. And even when they can attend, they do not learn as well. Jeffrey Sachs notes, “Sick children often face a lifetime of diminished productivity because of interruptions in schooling together with cognitive and physical impairment.” But when school lunch programs are launched in low-income countries, school enrollment jumps. The children’s attention span increases. Their academic performance goes up. Fewer days are missed, and children spend more years in school. 15

Girls benefit especially. Drawn to school by the lunch, they stay in school longer, marry later, and have fewer children. This is a win-win-win situation. Adopting a school lunch program in the 44 lowest-income countries would cost an estimated $6 billion per year beyond what the United Nations is now spending in its efforts to reduce hunger. 16

Greater efforts are also needed to improve nutrition before children even get to school age, so they can benefit from school lunches later. George McGovern notes that “a women, infants and children (WIC) program, which offers nutritious food supplements to needy pregnant and nursing mothers,” should also be available in the poor countries. Based on 25 years of experience, it is clear that the U.S. WIC program has been enormously successful in improving nutrition, health, and the development of preschool children from low-income families. If this were expanded to reach pregnant women, nursing mothers, and small children in the 44 poorest countries, it would help eradicate hunger among millions of small children at a stage in their lives when it could make a huge difference. 17

These efforts, though costly, are not expensive compared with the annual losses in productivity from hunger. McGovern and Dole think that this initiative can help “dry up the swamplands of hunger and despair that serve as potential recruiting grounds for terrorists.” In a world where vast wealth is accumulating among the rich, it makes little sense for children to be going to school hungry. 18


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