A dismal scenario

Published : Jan 16, 2004 00:00 IST

"The 65 million girls out of school globally will never commandeer the world's attention in the same way as a war. They will not be rescued by tanks rolling through the desert. Screaming headlines about their plight will not boost media ratings or the circulation of daily newspapers. Their lost potential will not show up in front page photos to prick the conscience of the comfortable."

- Excerpt from the UNICEF report "The State of the World's Children - 2004".

THE latest edition of "The State of the World's Children" report, brought out by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), can be seen in several perspectives. It can be read as a dismal treatise on the present state of affairs, which includes declining commitment by nations - especially the developed ones - to the educational requirements of the developing world. It can be viewed as containing optimistic overtones in that it reports cases where children, especially girls, have been brought back into the educational stream or given the opportunity for education. But overall, little seems to have changed over the last one decade, more specifically over the last three years which were supposed to be epochal as far as realising some of the Millenium Development Goals (MDG) were concerned.

It was in September 2000 that member-states of the United Nations made a most passionate commitment to free their fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanising conditions of poverty. Governments resolved that by 2015 they would meet goals such as eradicating poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; combating Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS), malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability and above all developing a global partnership for development. Two goals were considered to be of prime importance - achieving universal education and gender equality, and empowering women. "Educate a woman and you educate a generation" seemed to be the leitmotif of the plan for empowering women. But the 2004 report makes the dismal observation that despite decades of commitment to ensure quality education for every child, 121 million children - the majority of them girls - are still denied this right. The report states that gender parity in education, in access to schools, successful achievement and completion of education, is as elusive as ever and girls continue to lose out systematically on the benefits that an education affords.

The reasons are manifold but the main ones are poverty and a distinct lack of commitment by governments to ensure that no child is deprived of quality education. Not only have individual countries declined to allocate more funds for education, but international commitment has been glaringly wanting. Maternal mortality continue to be as high as ever in much of sub-Saharan Africa, parts of South and East Asia; mortality rates of children under five also continues to be high in these regions. It is ironical that this is happening even as countries continue to incur heavy expenditures on their military.

The signs in the first three years following the declaration of the MDG are not encouraging, says the report. In fact, it is apparent that certain interests have taken over global concerns. "The events of 11 September 2001 and the battle against terrorism around the globe have occupied much of the world's headline attention and soaked up resources that could have been devoted to human development," states the report. The report should have been in a position to question if greater militarisation is the solution to the fund crunch. It is also striking that the report does not contain anything substantial on the plight of the children of Iraq - especially after its recent invasion by the United States and Britain. Nevertheless, the report should be credited for at least pointing out what may be one of the main causes of the dismal progress in `education for all'.

But even before the 2015 goals are to be realised, a more immediate goal awaits countries. That is, by 2005, countries are supposed to achieve gender parity in primary and secondary education. But this is contingent on increasing the funds for education, along with providing access to quality education. In their bid to achieve the MDG as well as the gender parity goal, governments facing a relative fund crunch may end up compromising on quality education. The recent Education For All Global Monitoring Report of the UNESCO, which assessed the yearly performance of countries regarding the measures they have taken to achieve gender parity in enrolment, has not presented a very optimistic picture either.

The failure also lies in the "demand-side" perceptions regarding the right to education. Parents often do not realise that governments are obliged to make education available to all children and tend to treat their children's failure to attend school as a failure of their own. They are not therefore likely to demand that governments fulfil such fundamental obligations to their children. And it is also unfortunate that governments do not necessarily talk the language of rights to their people. Education is often sacrificed at the altar of fiscal crunch and competing demands on public resources. In addition, certain kinds of development paradigms that give priority to economic growth and structural adjustment have underestimated the potential of social development. Such approaches, the report notes, do not begin by asking what resources are required to fund education, health, nutrition and shelter for children.

The report is particularly critical of the development paradigms followed in the 1980s and 1990s, where public expenditure was drastically curtailed at the behest of the Bretton Woods sisters, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This paradigm called structural adjustment often entailed cuts in spending on education, health and food subsidies, which disproportionately hurt the poor. These cuts imposed by the World Bank and the IMF hit poor women particularly hard, as they had to step up their workload both inside and outside their homes. But the adjustment did not lead to economic growth. A World Bank study in 2000 concluded that the growth of per capita income in the 1980s and 1990s for a typical developing country was zero. The effects of structural adjustment were particularly bad in sub-Saharan Africa.

Apart from structural adjustment, poverty continued to be the main reason for children not attending school. In an extensive UNICEF survey of children and adolescents in East Asia and the Pacific, respondents were asked to give reasons for not attending school. Twenty-two per cent said that they stopped attending school so that they could work; 43 per cent cited lack of money as a reason; 22 per cent said that they had to help at home; 19 per cent responded that they did not want to go to school or did not like school; and 4 per cent said that there was simply no school available in their neighbourhoods. Therefore, the onus of sending and retaining children in schools lies very much with international and national policy-makers. Net enrolment rates - which indicate access to primary schooling - have gone up, but there are significant regional variations. While enrolment rates in Latin America and the Caribbean - 94 and 97 per cent respectively - are close to that of industrialised nations, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa lag behind at 74 and 59 per cent respectively. The children who are out of school also include those who have dropped out early. And 83 per cent of all girls out of school in the world live in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific. By merely increasing the enrolment numbers, governments would achieve little; what counts is the retention and continuation of children in the educational process and for this nothing less than political will and funds to match will suffice.

The UNICEF report emphasises that societies would inevitably have to deal with factors that are fundamental to the quality of life of the whole community. And there is more and more evidence to suggest that the quality of life has not improved for the majority of the world's population. The report underscores that there cannot be any progress in one sector if the overall quality of life remains at pathetically low levels. It states: "Girls' education is so inextricably linked with the other facets of human development that to make it a priority is also to make a change on a range of other fronts, from the health and status of women to early childhood care, from nutrition, water and sanitation to community empowerment, from the reduction of child labour and other forms of exploitation to the peaceful resolution of conflicts."

A holistic approach will have to be adopted in realising the MDG goals. There is no doubt that education of girls tends to have a "multiplier effect". A recent UNICEF analysis of household data from 55 countries and two Indian States has shown that children of educated women are much more likely to attend school. Extensive evidence from developing countries has suggested that the effect of a mother's education on her child's health and nutrition is so significant that each extra year of maternal education reduces the mortality rate of children under five by between 5 and 10 per cent. However, these trends would also depend on several other factors such as economic status and access to social sector benefits.

Another very relevant aspect that the report raises is the matter of funding for education. Barring some significant exceptions, industrialised countries and international financial institutions have so far substantially failed to meet their part of the bargain. The report states that in 1990, both at the Jomtien Conference and at the World Summit for Children, donor-countries promised extra funds for education. In 1996, they made an additional commitment to ensure universal primary education by the year 2015. Instead, aid flows to developing countries actually declined in the 1990s. Bilateral funding, including that by the World Bank International Development Association, also declined. The report observes that the "current global preoccupation with security may result in some funding commitments being abandoned". It is unfortunate that in an era of multilateralism, where the world is supposed to have become a safer place to live in, such preoccupations have only increased, causing immense hardship to the poor.

One interesting and very significant suggestion that the report puts forth is the abolition of school fees. "School is not an optional add-on, to be funded if and when the economy improves - it is a human right," underscores the report. Where parents have to pay for their children's schooling, `Education for All' becomes impossible and girls lose out in the race more than boys do. In some developing countries where education in government-run schools is supposed to be free, parents often have to churn out money from their meagre savings for uniforms and books.

For the realisation of MDG, governments will have to put in more than a token effort in the education of girls. Otherwise, as the UNICEF report rightly puts it, "We cannot walk any deeper into the 21st century with this piece of 20th century business still unfinished."

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