Bombs, Books, and Bucks

The $82 billion “emergency supplemental” bill to finance American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan leaves the United States spending more money on military power than is needed on a yearly basis to permit every child in the world to receive, within one decade, both primary and secondary education. Clearly, the question is not whether universal education is affordable, but whether America and the world can afford to neglect the political, economic, social, and health benefits of educating the roughly 380 million children around the globe who currently do not attend school.

Education, no less than military might, is a security imperative, for it helps the world – both individuals and societies – to escape the consequences of widespread poverty, rapid population growth, environmental problems, and social injustices. Education strengthens social and cultural capital, which contributes to strong and stable polities. It improves human health, increases life expectancy, and lowers fertility rates.

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Aside from these obvious benefits, education is also a widely accepted humanitarian obligation and an internationally mandated human right.

But this right is unrealized for the 28% of the world’s school-age children who are not enrolled in school. Most are illiterate and live in absolute poverty. The majority of these children are female. Of those who enter primary school in developing countries, more than one in four drops out before attaining literacy. Moreover, enrollment does not necessarily mean attendance, attendance does not necessarily mean education, and education does not necessarily mean good education.

In 2000, the global community pledged to achieve universal primary education (UPE) by 2015. Many poor countries are wildly off track when it comes to meeting this goal. At the current rate of educational expansion, an estimated 118 million children will be absent from primary school in 2015. Nearly twice that number will not attend secondary school.

The World Bank, UNICEF, and UNESCO have estimated that achieving UPE by 2015 will entail annual expenditures of between $6.5 billion and $35 billion, on top of the approximately $82 billion that developing countries spend each year on primary education. These funds will be needed for schools, teachers, teacher training, materials and equipment, administration, and assessments.

Based on a five-year project that we led at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, we believe that the UPE goal is not ambitious enough: the world should aim for, and can achieve, high-quality, universal secondary education, as well as universal primary education. Developing countries spend approximately $93 billion per year on secondary education. If a gradual approach is taken between now and 2015, the annual additional cost of extending secondary education to every child will likely be between $27 billion and $34 billion.

Creating the necessary space to accommodate universal enrollment will require significant investment. These funds would at best ameliorate – not eliminate – prevailing global disparities in educational access and quality. Not included is the cost of other improvements needed to encourage children to attend school, such as meals, tuition subsidies, and more effective, dynamic, and knowledgeable teachers. Nor does this include the cost of improving national governments’ capacity to collect data and to implement and oversee educational reforms.

Though more money is essential, it is not sufficient. In some regions, cultural barriers inhibit schooling of girls and of linguistic, religious, and ethnic minorities. The political energy required for expanding and reforming education is difficult to muster in the world’s wealthiest nations.

Ensuring high-quality education for all children requires an open discussion of educational goals, an international commitment to improving its effectiveness and economic efficiency, recognition of the need to extend secondary education to all children, and acknowledgment of educational diversity and the need to adapt aid policies to local contexts.

None of these tasks is possible without supplementing the funding already provided by developing countries. The world, or even the US by itself, has the ability to provide the additional funds needed. As the G8 leaders gather in Scotland, it is hard to imagine them coming up with a better investment in our common future.