The adoption last year by United Nations countries of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Climate Agreement reflect a deep shift in development strategies.
The new agenda builds on an integrated vision of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. Its vision is global, bringing all countries together, bridging the traditional north-south divide. What is more, the 17 new goals are designed as a single interconnected agenda.
The point is clear. We cannot promote gender equality if we do not bolster food security. Poor air quality and extreme weather events can close schools and make learning impossible. On the reverse side, ensuring quality education for all is essential to tackle inequalities and prevent conflict. All issues are linked.
Education stands at the heart of these nexuses — this is the message of the 2016 UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report, which was launched Tuesday and examines the power of education for all of the 17 new sustainable development goals.
Education is a human right — it is also a transformational force for sustainable development, for mitigating climate change. Achieving the global education commitments by 2030 could prevent 3.5 million child deaths by 2040-2050 in sub-Saharan Africa alone — this could lift 60 million people out of poverty in poorest countries. In low income countries, we estimate that universalizing upper secondary completion would increase per capita income by 75 percent by 2050.
From more productive agriculture to improved health and poverty eradication, education is a game-changer for sustainable development. But, for this, we need to overcome steep challenges.
These start with children out of school, totaling 263 million children today — 61 million from primary school, 60 million from lower secondary and 142 million from upper secondary. In addition, 758 million adults still remain illiterate — the majority are women. Children in conflict zones are a third of all out of school children, and attacks against schools are increasing. Figures show that children refugees are five times more likely to be out of school.
Girls and women carry the heaviest burden. Thirty-two million girls are out of primary school, and the number of excluded adolescent girls is even higher. Only 1 percent of the world’s poorest rural women complete upper secondary education.
On current trends, universal primary completion will be achieved only in 2042, universal lower secondary completion in 2059 and universal upper secondary in 2084. The poorest countries will achieve universal primary education over 100 years later than the richest.
Evidence shows also that most education systems are not keeping up with market demand — by 2020, the world could have 40 million too few workers with tertiary education relative to demand.
At the same time, education continues to suffer chronic under-funding — to cover the $39 billion annual financing gap would require a six-fold aid increase.
The UNESCO report shows that, on current trends, only 70 percent of low income countries will meet the primary school goals by 2030. The most disadvantaged girls in sub-Saharan Africa will only make it to school in 2086 if we continue business as usual.
This is why business as usual is unacceptable.
We need to act in new ways, to put education first, to connect the dots across policy areas. We need a radical break with past trends, especially in low- and middle-income countries, to build on education across the board.
For instance, school feeding programs not only reduce hunger and improve nutrition — they also increase school attendance and address the needs of disadvantaged groups. This new way of acting is driving the partnership between UNESCO, UNFPA and U.N. Women, to tackle the cross-cutting obstacles that prevent the empowerment of young girls and women. When so many issues are so tightly interconnected — we need precisely such collaboration for effective action across the board.
No one is saying this will be easy. We all need to think, organize ourselves and design policies differently, starting with education sectors.
This means also rethinking the goals of education — to foster the skills, attitudes and behaviors all societies need today and tomorrow. Here again, schools are on the frontline. I am encouraged that environmental issues becoming more central in classrooms. Together, schools, businesses and communities must think beyond economic growth alone, to focus on sustainability and consumption, on overcoming inequalities, on raising awareness about climate change.
The 2030 Agenda is clear — learning must be all throughout life, and help citizens deal with complexity, connecting issues that have been in silos for decades. Take the example of water management. Public and private actors, farmers and industry leaders often compete over water resources, whereas they should collaborate, for much higher return — this requires the right kind of education. Cooperation needs to be taught.
The new agenda is ambitious, and this is only right. To reach the new sustainable development goals, we must do more than talk about breaking silos — we must lead concrete integrated plans and actions, joining diverse sectors, levels of government and types of actors. This calls also for new funding — the current level of development aid, $ 5 billion per year for basic education, is tragically small compared to needs and the high returns we can expect from greater investment. Education is essential to crafting a better future for all — this means acting now, in new ways, with new commitment by all.
(c)2016 Irina Bokova
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Irina Bokova is the director-general of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.