The Trouble with Universal Education

In an ideal world, universal, high-quality education at all levels would be a worthy international development goal. But, amid competing demands for basic necessities like health care and potable water, narrower, more cost-effective education targets are essential.

COPENHAGEN – With the deadline for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals fast approaching, the world is gearing up to establish a new set of goals for the next 15 years. Given limited resources, policymakers and international organizations must ask themselves: Where can we do the most good? Should a larger share of the $2.5 trillion that will be directed toward development aid over that period, and of developing-country budgets, be directed toward health, the environment, food, water, or education?

With these questions in mind, the Copenhagen Consensus (which I direct) asked some of the world’s top economists to assess the economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits of many different targets. Education for all was among the goals that were assessed.

The importance of education is indisputable. The problem is that the international community’s credibility in promising universal education has been compromised; it has pledged to achieve this goal in at least 12 UN-sponsored declarations since 1950. For example, UNESCO promised in 1961 that, by 1980, primary education in Africa would be “universal, compulsory, and free.” Yet, when the time came, about half of primary-school-aged children in Africa were still not attending school.

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