Children at school in Tanzania.
School will soon let out across the nation for millions of American children. For most, the start of summer vacation brings a sense of liberation. They have the freedom to put down their books and spend time with more leisurely pursuits, be it swimming at the pool, camping in the mountains, playing sports or just sitting and playing video games until their eyes are bloodshot.
For many children around the world, however, school is always out, a circumstance that is hardly liberating. If anything, their lack of access to education holds them captive to a cycle of perpetual poverty, unable to improve their station in life.
If knowledge is power, there are at least 72 million kids who are absolutely powerless. They are denied a seat in a classroom for a variety of reasons, but it all boils down to one underlying cause – their families can’t afford it.
In many developing nations, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, governments started charging fees for health and educational services in the 1980s and 1990s. They didn’t want to charge fees, but that was one of the conditions the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank imposed as the price for restructuring their debts.
It’s a policy that has crippled the long-term development of many impoverished countries. Faced with the dilemma of putting food on the table or sending a child to school, the poorest families have little choice than to opt out of the educational system. In families that can afford to send some – but not all – of their children to school, it’s most often the girls who lose out.
And that’s an opportunity squandered, as the benefits of educating girls are tremendous. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that a woman’s wages in developing countries increases 20 percent for each year of education she receives beyond grade three or four. Studies also show that women who are educated are less likely to get infected with HIV/AIDS and their children are more likely to survive beyond the age five.
But the girls – and boys – who live in poor families find themselves in a “Catch 22” scenario: Education provides a path out of poverty, but destitute families can’t afford the fees and other costs associated with sending a child to school.
Breaking this horrific cycle requires a bold and innovative strategy. Such a plan is already under consideration.
During his campaign last year, President Obama pledged support for a Global Fund for Education, with the U.S. contributing $2 billion annually. Nations struggling to improve their educational systems – especially access for the poor – could apply for assistance from the fund. Their proposals would include measurable goals for which they’d be held accountable. Such assistance could allow more countries to eliminate fees and other barriers that keep the most vulnerable kids – especially girls – out of school.
I know the President has a lot on his plate right now, but he’s shown a remarkable ability to multi-task, and this is one task certainly worth adding to the mix.
From a pragmatic standpoint, the goal of universal primary education is more than an altruistic pursuit. An educated populace contributes more to the global economy, which ultimately improves the U.S. economy. Education also promotes health and prosperity within nations teetering on the edge of instability. Extremists often find a welcome mat in places where poverty and ignorance flourish. As we’ve learned from recent history, nations that descend into chaos become havens for America’s enemies.
Should Obama pursue the Global Fund for Education, he might well find an ally in my senator, Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who believes strongly in the power of education to transform lives. He’s consistently supported increased resources for basic education in the foreign aid budget. Any legislation to support a Global Fund for Education would also have to move through the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, where Isakson sits. How about it, Senator?
As the global economic crisis unfolds, we see that trillions of dollars have been lost in bad investments. Educating all children can be achieved for a small fraction of what we’re spending to bail out financial institutions. It’s an investment guaranteed to pay big dividends for our world in the future. More importantly, it will restore hope for the millions of children who currently lack it.
You can be part of the solution by sending a letter to the editor of your local paper and urging President Obama to make good on his pledge to create a Global Fund for Eduction. If your letter gets published, send copies to the White House, your senators and your member Representative.