The State of the World's Children 1999

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Investing in education

In the world economy, where defence expenditures total approximately $781 billion a year, the $7 billion more per year needed for education over the next decade remains an unmet challenge for the international community. By spending $7 billion more each year for the next 10 years -- less than the amount people in the United States pay annually for cosmetics and Europeans for ice cream -- the dream of educating all children could become a reality.

Global navigation in Uzbekistan.  Copyright © UNICEF/97-0507/Murray-LeeAnd universally accessible education, argues UNICEF's The State of the World's Children 1999 report, leads to fuller, healthier lives for children, greater social equity and stability, and higher levels of economic and social development.

In the world economy, where defence expenditures total approximately $781 billion a year, the $7 billion more per year needed for education over the next decade remains an unmet challenge for the international community. This is despite the powerful benefits of educa- tion -- as the single most critical element in combating poverty, empowering women, protecting children from hazardous and exploitative labour and sexual exploitation, and promoting human rights and democracy.

Yet recent experience shows that resources can be made available immediately when the need is deemed great enough. For example, when the economies collapsed in Indonesia, the Republic of Korea and Thailand in 1997-1998, the Group of Seven led the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in mobilizing over $100 billion dollars in a few short months to rescue Asia's financial 'tigers'.

Imagine what a similar infusion of resources would do for education. On their own, some countries, in spite of poverty, have managed to make resources available for education with significant results. Viet Nam, for example, with a $290 GNP per capita, has an overall literacy rate of 94 per cent and a female literacy rate of 91 per cent. Following independence in 1980, when only half the adult population was literate, Zimbabwe more than tripled the number of primary school teachers in 10 years and progressed from enrolling less than half its school age population to universal enrolment. Today, the adult literacy rate in Zimbabwe is 85 per cent.

What keeps many other countries from making such a commitment to education is the debt burden they carry. Nicaragua's debt, for example, was six times the size of its GNP in 1995, and Tanzania spends six times more on debt repayment than on education. The world's poorer nations carry an incredible $2.2 trillion of external debt, according to a recent United Nations report, with Asia and Latin America both accounting for 31 per cent of the total, Africa 16 per cent and transition areas in Europe and Central Asia 18 per cent. Debt relief is imperative for many countries facing "unsustainable debt positions," especially for the 41 most Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs).

  • It would take an additional $1.9 billion in sub-Saharan Africa and an additional $1.6 billion in South Asia each year for the next 10 years to educate all children. These two regions have the highest numbers of children out of school.

Another measure for helping inject more resources into education is the 20/20 Initiative, an approach advanced by UNICEF and other partners. It calls for governments of donor and developing countries to allot 20 per cent of their official development assistance (ODA) and national budgets, respectively, to basic social services -- including education. With these resources, children would be assured their human right to a basic education within the decade.

All the countries of the world except Somalia and the United States have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes the right to a high-quality education. And 155 countries committed themselves to the goal set at the 1990 World Conference on Education for All, held in Jomtien (Thailand). In addition to these legal and moral obligations, the world community can see that in those countries jolted by economic crises, earlier investments in an educated population meant less damage and a greater potential to rebound more quickly.

How then to explain the fact that under the Lomé IV aid agreement, only 14 of 70 countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific ranked education a high priority, 45 saw it as a low priority and 6 had no education or training projects at all?

"The answer is familiar," says UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy, in The State of the World's Children 1999. "The political will is lacking."

  • Only 56 per cent of boys and 44 per cent of girls enrol in primary school in the world's least developed countries.
  • Only 60 per cent of boys and 51 per cent of girls enrol in primary school in sub-Saharan Africa.

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