The World's Unschooled

The World's Unschooled

July 1, 2002

The New York Times


Americans take universal schooling for granted. Nearly a quarter of a billion children worldwide cannot. Last week's promise by Washington and other rich countries to increase their aid budgets for Africa is welcome, but even better would be an increase in the pitifully small share of those aid budgets that goes toward expanding access to primary education worldwide.


Basic education is one of the most powerful development tools every extra year of school in very poor countries can raise earnings by an average of 10 to 20 percent. Without increased efforts, scores of countries will fall short of the internationally declared goal of providing a full primary education to all children by 2015.


Roughly 130 million boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 11 are not enrolled in school. Another150 million drop out with less than four years of education under pressure of their parents' poverty. Born poor, these children are virtually condemned to stay poor and rear their own children in poverty.


The problem is most acute for girls. Fewer than half of Africa's girls finish primary school. That is a huge loss. Educating girls has dramatically positive effects, including lower birth rates, reduced infant mortality and higher incomes. In countries like Pakistan, making free public schooling more widely available would give poor families alternatives to the kind of radical Islamic madrasas that funneled their young graduates into Afghanistan's battlefields.


The first steps need to be taken by the governments directly involved, as 180 countries agreed when the international goal of universal primary education was set. They are expected to increase their own education spending, improve school quality and incorporate education into effective development strategies. Those that do were promised sustained financial help from the developed world, but that has not yet been provided.


The amounts needed are not impossibly large. The World Bank estimates it would take around $5 billion a year from all aid donors. America's fair share would be about $1 billion. Washington now contributes roughly $200 million a year.


The World Bank has identified 18 countries whose efforts to improve education qualify them for immediate outside help. These include Ethiopia, Mozambique, Uganda, Nicaragua and Vietnam. Five others, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Congo, which do not yet qualify, are home to more than a third of the children not in school. They need increased international help so that they can meet the standards and qualify for international assistance.


Those countries already able to make good use of aid should not be left waiting. President Bush, who has rightly made such an issue of education in this country, should seek substantially increased financing for it in next year's foreign aid budget. Other rich nations should do likewise. Poor countries not yet qualifying for outside help must intensify their educational efforts. As Mr. Bush has said, no child should be left behind.



Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company