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Invest in education now and gain more in the future

© UNICEF Pacific
Coastal erosion on Abemama.

By Tomas Jensen, Communication Specialist, UNICEF Pacific
 
Abemama, Kiribati November 2009: ¨We have no books that are appealing to teenagers and can help them develop their verbal and written English skills.¨ Principal Berenato Timon of a private secondary school on the small island of Abemama in the republic of Kiribati is asking me if I can help. His request makes my mind wander off for a second to the future where I see more than a hundred thousand possible climate refugees from Kiribati having to find another place to live after their beautiful atolls may have succumbed to rising sea levels. How will all these women and men and their girls and boys adapt and survive in new countries if they do not have both solid life-skills and academic competencies to bring with them? 
 
Abamama is a stunning little paradise with fringing reefs, palm trees and children playing in and around a spectacular blue lagoon. Beneath the surface the people of Abemama are however struggling with limitations to the health and educational opportunities available in their paradise. On top of that, climate change is already a reality here that they can taste as their fresh water is turning salty due to a combination of more frequent droughts and rising sea-levels. The rising sea is also eating away at the coastline and in some cases eating away at their only main road connecting the many villages on the island.
 
My focus returns to the present and the request from Berenato which I of course wish to help with. At first I come up with an idea that all newly enrolled students can bring one book for teenagers as part of their enrolment procedure. Berenato thinks it is a good suggestion but shares that many parents are already struggling with paying for the school tuition and therefore many students will not be able to bring a book. I ask how much the school fees are and find out that they are very low and that the school is not running for profit. At the same time I close my eyes to visualize any bookshops I have seen on the main island of Tarawa and realize there are not that many options in Kiribati to find books that are both of interest to teenagers and useful for their development of English skills.
 
Together with two of his students, Berenato shows me the school library which is equipped with some books, most of them in the category of textbooks on topics such as analysis of statistics and user manuals for old outdated computer programmes. No wonder that the students are more frequently seen catching fish on the beach or in choir practice than caught reading, and that when they do read it is easy to digest romance and action stories. With great respect and admiration for the activities of fishing, singing and reading for pure entertainment, such skills will not alone equip these young people for a climate change affected future. In such a future they will have to demonstrate solid skills and competencies to become properly integrated in new communities and different economic settings.
 
These young girls and boys need and have a right to quality education that can nurture both their life skills and academic competencies.
 
In Tarawa I discuss Berenato’s request with my colleagues from the Ministry of Education and ask if the ongoing support to procurement of books for primary school libraries can be extended to all schools in Abemama. They explain that they would be very happy if all schools in Kiribati received the books and equipment needed to ensure a quality education for all children, but that funds are too tight .They remark how the economic crisis in their country is driving up prices on basic commodities, eroding their already limited salaries and purchasing power – just like the rising sea is eroding their coastline and basic road infrastructure. The World Bank has predicted that the economic impact of climate change to Kiribati will be massive to a nation of only 100.000 people. (Cities, Seas, and Storms -Managing Change in Pacific Island Economies, World Bank 2000). How will these people be able to cope with enormous expenditure needed to mitigate the effects of climate change, when the quality of education in Kiribati is already now compromised by limited availability of learning resources and erosion of the very basic salaries of teachers and public service officers?
 
Getting books for the students future is not going to be easy and the I-Kiribati’s will have to be very creative to ensure that massive efforts are initiated now to prioritize the education of the girls and boys of today who will have to cope with the mounting challenges of tomorrow. It will take each one of them more than a minimum basic school cycle to reach a stage where they can start truly start competing in a global environment, and contribute to their country’s pressing need to grabble with effects of climate change. Saving on the budgets and support to the education of the children in Kiribati and other countries in the Pacific will only aggravate the social and human challenges they will face in the future. And beyond their basic human right to quality education – it is very likely that the girls and boys of Abemama and many other areas in the Pacific will have no choice but to become much better integrated in the global economy when effects of climate change at some point has made their homes uninhabitable. At that stage the countries to which they will have to move will be much better off if they arrive with skills and competencies needed to contribute socially and economically in their new home. Investment in their education now should therefore be a central priority not only in Kiribati and other Pacific countries likely to experience similar scenarios – but also in the countries to which they will likely migrate in the future. Invest in their education now and gain much more in the future!
 
For more information, please contact:
Tomas Jensen, Communication Specialist on (679) 3300439 or tjensen@unicef.org  
  
www.un.org.fj/vanuatu2010
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