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 State of the World's Children 1999 Report
Education crisis poses vast threat

A discussion of UNICEF's 1999 survey of the state of the world's children, citing facts and figures showing the urgent need for increased commitment to education world-wide. 

To achieve education for all children, the world would need to spend an additional $7,000 million per year over the next 10 years. This is less than what is annually spent on cosmetics in the United States or on ice cream in Europe. It is less than 1 per cent of the world's annual military spending.

Denied the right to quality basic education, hundreds of millions of children are growing up unequipped to make decent lives for themselves in the 21st century. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) warns in its annual survey – The State of the World's Children 1999 – that this situation has powder-keg implications for global peace and prosperity.

Nearly 1,000 million people – one-sixth of humanity – are already classified as functionally illiterate, UNICEF says, unable to read a book or sign their names, much less fill out a simple application form or operate a computer. "The consequences of illiteracy are profound – and even potentially life-threatening," said Carol Bellamy, UNICEF's Executive Director.

Citing findings gleaned from throughout the developing world, the UNICEF report shows that there is a direct correlation between years of schooling and child mortality rates. The report says that children who grow up without basic education not only find it harder to sustain themselves and their families, but also to make their way as adults in society in a spirit of tolerance, understanding and equality.

At its most basic, education helps people learn how to achieve fundamental human rights – such as health, nutrition and safe motherhood – while improving the quality of life. But it also helps adults and children alike to learn to manage conflict, respect pluralism and diversity, and work with others toward common objectives including the healthy and harmonious family life that all children need. "On a society-wide scale, the denial of education harms the cause of democracy and social progress and, by extension, international peace and security," the report says.

The denial of the right to education is especially egregious in the case of girls, whose gender often leads to subsistence chores instead of school, or who are marginalized in the classroom. The gravity of the situation can be summarized in the statistics: of the estimated 855 million adult functional illiterates throughout the world, two-thirds are female.

Education is the single most important intervention in ending child labor, and the education of girls is the single most important factor in providing education to all children. For children traumatized by armed conflict and violence, including child soldiers and those dealing with the violence of sexual abuse, education is vital to both healing and rehabilitation.

The report stresses the vital importance not only of access to basic education but also of the quality of that education. For example, 150 million children in developing countries start school but do not reach grade five. They leave school without the literacy, numeracy and life skills that are the foundation for learning through life.

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 [major industrialized nations] led the Organization for Economic cooperation and Development in mobilizing over $100 billion in a few short months to rescue Asia's financial √ętigers'.

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 – Vietnam, for example, with a $290 GNP per capita, overall literacy rate of 94 per cent and a female literacy rate of 91 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.

(* The billions in this article are US billions – ie thousand millions.)

From the January/February 1999 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005