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Creating a Learning Generation

MEXICO CITY – Over the last 15 years, the number of students worldwide has increased by some 243 million, a reflection of governments’ commitment to expanding access to education. But some countries have made far more progress than others, not only by increasing the share of young people in school, but also by guaranteeing the quality of that education. Closing this education gap must be a top priority.

The International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, of which I am a proud member, is working to do just that. Led by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is currently the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, the Education Commission operates on the strong belief that education is a fundamental human right, and the route to substantially improved living standards.

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The Commission is co-convened by Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Malawian President Peter Mutharika, and the director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova. And it draws on the experience of many types of leaders – including former heads of state, legislators, successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople, artists, and academics – from around the world.

There is also a youth panel that elicits the perspectives of distinguished young people. That panel is chaired by Kenya’s Kennedy Odede, who developed an educational model that combats extreme poverty and gender inequality through education, and Guyana’s Rosemarie Ramitt, an advocate for young people with disabilities. Also on the panel is Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who courageously defied the Taliban to campaign for girls’ access to education.

This impressive group of leaders and thinkers has worked tirelessly to assess the state of education worldwide, with an eye to identifying the particular challenges that confront different countries. The resulting report, “The Learning Generation: Investing in Education for a Changing World,” provides a series of recommendations that will enable low- and middle-income countries to boost education quality and enrollment rates within a generation. It was presented this week to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has already agreed to act on the recommendations it contains.

The report’s recommendations focus on several fundamental objectives, including innovation, inclusiveness (with the lowest-income citizens getting particular attention), and a comprehensive, long-term investment plan for education.

Of course, achieving these goals will cost money. That is why the Education Commission calls for a financing compact between developing countries and the international community, whereby wealthier countries offer increased finance and guidance to developing countries that commit to educational reform and investment.

There is certainly space for developing countries to boost investment in education. Fuel subsidies are widespread in developing countries, consuming some 25-30% of government revenues – much more than education spending, in most cases. These subsidies do not just undermine efforts to reduce environmental damage from emissions; they also tend to benefit the rich significantly more than the poor.

Eliminating energy subsidies would free up public funds for scientific research and education, generating benefits for the environment and improving the wellbeing and prospects of the poor. Though reducing subsidies can be politically challenging, Ghana and Indonesia have shown that reallocating funds to social sectors can help build popular support for it. I plan to do my part to by pushing for subsidy cuts in my own country, Mexico.

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As I have argued before, if money for energy subsidies were reallocated to education, the environmental benefits would be compounded. After all, the better people understand the science of climate change and its effects, the greater their capacity to help mitigate it. With the right knowledge, people can build resilience to climate change, thereby safeguarding their livelihoods. Moreover, they can help to advance important innovations, such as clean energy and solar power, and develop tailored climate-smart solutions that bring social and economic benefits to their communities.

There is no justification for neglecting education, the foundation on which social and economic development is built. By combining the resources and capabilities of national and sub-national governments, the private sector, and civil society, we can create a learning generation: children with the knowledge and skills they need to lead lives of meaning and purpose. Only then will we be able to realize the hope of a more just and sustainable world.