Ideas to Action:

Independent research for global prosperity

CGD in the News

Educating our Way out of the Crisis (Global Post)

November 6, 2009

GlobalPost published CGD visiting fellow Desmond Bermingham's op-ed on global education:

Educating our Way out of the Crisis
After global finances and climate change, education should be number three for the G20.

You might think that the G20 has already got enough on its plate. The leaders of the world’s largest economies need to make sure we don’t fall back into a global financial crisis, reform the international financial institutions and, of course, there’s the small matter of reaching an agreement on collective action to avoid a global meltdown (literally) as a result of global warming and climate change.

Strengthening global finances is obviously the No. 1 task for the G20. Several experts have argued that climate change should be number two. I would like to propose that education — in particular ensuring that every child and young person in the developing world has the chance of at least a decent basic education — should be task number three. Planning has already begun for next year’s G20 meeting in South Korea — the first to be hosted by a newly industrialized nation. Education should be on the agenda.

Why education? Because without it, any growth achieved by the injection of funds in the post-crisis period will be short lived and unsustainable. The Obama administration recognized this in the U.S. and set aside $100 billion of the stimulus package to support innovation and reform in the domestic education system. This is just as important — maybe even more so — in developing countries. Without a decent education, young people will be consigned to a future of subsistence farming in increasingly difficult environmental conditions or scraping a living on the edge of growing urban centers.

Education also has a critical place in the armory of responses we will need to avert the impending climate change crisis. Low carbon economies will need young people with the ability to apply new thinking on green agriculture, renewable energy and new information and communication technologies. David Wheeler of the Center for Global Development provides evidence from past natural disasters that the single best investment to increase social resilience and reduce human costs is educating girls. And let us not forget the critical importance of empowering young women to make better choices about the age at which they start a family and how many children they have. There are currently about 75 million children who do not even have the chance of a primary education, according to UNESCO's 2009 Education for All Global Monitoring Report. There are more than 700 million adults who lack the basic literacy skills they need to thrive in modern societies. These are big challenges but we should be encouraged by remarkable progress that has already been made. The poorest countries in Africa raised their enrollment rates from 54 percent to 70 percent between 1999 and 2006. The number of adults without literacy skills has fallen by almost 100 million over the past two decades, mostly due to advances in China. The global goal of education for all can be achieved with the right political will, ambition, creativity and a relentless focus on results.

The G20 has a unique comparative advantage in leading this effort. Many of the newly industrialized countries in the G20 have had recent experience of sustained economic growth supported by substantial investment in education. China, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa have all made significant progress in their education sectors over the past two decades. South Korea in particular has much expertise and experience to offer developing countries on improving the quality as well as increasing access to education.

The G20 could provide much needed political leadership to strengthen the global education movement by building on programs such as the Education for All Fast Track Initiative (FTI). This initiative has helped many countries to make progress over the past seven years but it is still only covering 20 percent of the children out of school and it is struggling to mobilize additional resources to meet the needs even of those countries. A new, more independent and more inclusive global education initiative should open up space for new partners including private sector organizations and foundations as well as new donor countries. The U.S. has already stated its commitment, through the U.S. Basic Education Coalition, to support a revitalized global education movement, but it should not be expected to do it alone. This is a task that needs collective action from the G20 to secure the global public good of an educated and skilled population.

Above all a new global education initiative should encourage innovative and creative thinking in the sector. It should promote new approaches to flexible and open learning and focus on outcomes not inputs. Twenty-first century learning does not need to take place in 19th century style schools. And the new education initiative should follow the lead of global initiatives such as the International Initiative for Independent Evaluation (3IE) to make sure that mechanisms are in place from the start to assess independently what is working and learn lessons from what is not.

The G20 does have a lot on its plate. But there seems to me to be a strong case for adding one more dish — to ensure that our young people have the skills and knowledge they will need to develop a safer, more sustainable and more equitable world than they have inherited from us. Some would say, it is the least we can do.