The State of the World's Children 1999

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Investing in human rights

Learning to write in Bogota, Colombia.  Copyright © UNICEF /87-0005/TolmieIn the years since Jomtien, significant possibilities have emerged to advance human welfare. At the same time, disparities between privileged and poor have widened and with them the threat of social instability and civil conflict, making the arguments for the education revolution as an investment to promote peace, prosperity and the advancement of human rights even stronger now than they were a decade ago.

However, without a major change in the approach to delivering schooling and ensuring learning, it will be impossible for most poor countries to deliver Education For All. The pioneering examples in the report clearly show the way forward. The world now has a much better understanding of how children learn, what kinds of schooling are most likely to promote this -- and also how to deliver these more efficiently. Cost-effective successful models now abound, and many are simply waiting for the resources and commitment it would take to 'go to scale' with them -- to apply the same principles countrywide.

In other words, the education revolution is under way, but if it is to embrace all schools, in rich and poor countries alike, it needs to be backed up by sufficient resources and the requisite political will, both nationally and internationally.

National and international responsibility

The primary responsibility for basic education rests with national governments. Many have frankly failed to make it a sufficient priority. It is standard for developing countries to plead their own poverty as an excuse for not ploughing enough resources into the pursuit of Education For All, yet all the evidence from four decades of development suggests that even poor countries can work wonders if they only have the commitment.

UNICEF has made a detailed study of nine countries and the Indian state of Kerala that have achieved much better results in health and education than neighbouring countries with similar incomes. Regardless of their position on the ideological spectrum, all these countries have given strong state support for basic social services, refusing to rely on a trickle-down from economic growth or on the free play of market forces. In common, they have:

  • consistently spent a higher proportion of their per capita income on primary education than their neighbours, while also maintaining relatively low unit costs;
  • managed to improve quality by reducing pupil-teacher ratios while keeping repetition and drop-out rates low;
  • kept primary schooling free of tuition fees;
  • managed (except for one) to achieve universal primary enrolment including broadly equal participation by girls and boys -- and the exception, Malaysia, is not far short.

The lesson is clear, says the report: National governments can and should do much more to fund the push towards Education For All. But international aid donors and lenders have, in general, also not significantly increased their funding of education since Jomtien. The proportion of bilateral aid committed to education in 1993-1994 was 10.1 per cent, compared with 10.2 per cent in 1989-1990 and with 11.0 per cent in 1987-1988.

Even the World Bank, one of the Jomtien conference convenors and now the greatest single provider of funds to the education sector, has an inconsistent record in funding education in the 1990s. Between 1989 and 1994 the proportion of Bank lending allocated to education went up from 4.5 per cent to 10.4 per cent. But by 1997, the proportion had fallen to 4.8 per cent. The trend seems to be changing again, and the Bank estimates that it will have allocated 8.6 per cent of its total lending to education in 1998.

More troubling, though, is the alarming fall-off in loans from its soft-loan subsidiary, the International Development Association (IDA), to countries in sub-Saharan Africa, unquestionably the region in direst need of help. IDA lent $417 million in 1993, but the figure has fallen precipitously each year since, arriving at a low point of $132 million in 1996 -- less than its average annual lending in the pre-Jomtien period of 1986-1990.

Education: The best investment

The World Bank's economic case for investing in primary education has had increasing influence as its research documents that the private rates of return -- the amount earned by individuals in formal-sector employment in relation to that invested in their education -- appears in all regions of the developing world to be higher for primary than for secondary and tertiary education.

In recent years, the Bank has lent its weight to the cause of girls' education. In a speech in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then Vice-President and Chief Economist of the World Bank, argued that "investment in the education of girls may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world." Girls' schooling not only cuts child mortality and improves the nutrition and general health of children, it also reduces population growth, since educated women tend to marry later and choose to have fewer children.

The value of investing in basic education -- and especially in the education of girls -- is now almost universally accepted. Why, then, has the international community not rushed to embrace this most essential project, which comes closer than anything else to being the long-sought magic bullet that will deliver 'human development' worldwide?

The answer is disappointing but familiar, according to UNICEF: There has not been sufficient political will. When the international community decides that something is of urgent importance, it can move mountains.

The shadow of debt

A way to address the resource problem hamstringing education is to approach the developing world's indebtedness with the same sense of urgency and resolve as would accompany an economic collapse. Developing countries in all regions except Latin America and the Caribbean are having to pay a higher percentage of their export earnings in debt repayments than they were in 1980. The most indebted countries of all must exist in the shadow of a debt many times the size of their national income -- Nicaragua's debt, for example, was a chilling six times the size of its gross national product (GNP) in 1995. Tanzania, meanwhile, is not untypical in spending six times more to pay off its debt as it does on education.

The 1996 initiative of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to relieve the most heavily indebted poor countries at first seemed highly promising but has now foundered badly. This inertia should embarrass an international community that responded so swiftly and munificently to the needs of much richer Asian countries in 1997-1998. When it comes to debt relief, according to a senior World Bank official with responsibility for African programmes: "This is clearly an area where we have failed these countries. The political will to do better just did not exist."

The human face of capital

The stagnation on debt relief notwithstanding, the international economic agenda is perceptibly shifting. After almost two decades in which human development has taken a back seat to globalization and structural adjustment, we may be entering an era of investment in 'human and social capital' that will make the task of spreading the education revolution worldwide much easier, says The State of the World's Children 1999. A model is emerging among leading economists, including those at IMF and the World Bank, that privatization alone cannot assure long-term economic growth; equally essential are human capital (a nation's health, education and nutrition) and social capital (shared values, culture and a strong civil society).

The new economic thinking will add weight to the 20/20 Initiative advocated by UNICEF and other partners, which enjoins 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. This alone would, if implemented, certainly liberate sufficient resources to achieve Education For All within a decade, the cost of which UNICEF estimates to be an additional $7 billion a year, on average -- less than is spent on cosmetics in the United States or on ice cream in Europe annually.

It is clear that the link between human rights and sustainable human development, envisioned 50 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articulated in the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, foreshadowed the increasingly accepted argument for equitable economic development.

And in this, education's role is especially vital and unique, as it increases human potential and development at the individual as well as the social level.


The UNICEF report concludes: "It may have taken almost 50 years for the education rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights to be fully accepted. But those rights are no longer negotiable. It is the world's responsibility to fulfil them without further delay. We can move swiftly ahead knowing that Education For All -- making the education revolution a global reality -- is the soundest investment in a peaceful and prosperous future that we can make for our children."

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