On September 21, 1832, in Boston's Franklin Hall, the first American woman to deliver a public lecture, Maria Stewart, shocked the town when she stood and spoke. What cause compelled her to abandon social norms and decorum so brazenly? "Daughters of Africa, awake! Arise!," she cried, as she demanded that the United States provide education for black girls.
As so often turns out to be the case, our forebears were right. If Mrs. Stewart, herself an African-American, knew what we know about development today, her demand would be the same now as it was then. Every shred of evidence we've accumulated over the past 30 years of academic and policy research, all the experience of our development efforts, confirm what our pioneering ancestors knew innately: education for all our children--poor, rich, white, black, boys, girls--means healthier babies, stronger families, wealthier economies, and more vibrant democracies.
Ask leaders of the "tiger" economies of Southeast Asia their secret for rapid development, and they'll all tell you the same thing: first and foremost, we invested in our people. In its most basic form, that's what development is: investing in people and their welfare.
So, where does the world stand now? Roughly speaking, almost everyone in the rich countries, the formerly communist countries, and the Asian tigers is educated, with adult literacy rates approaching 100%, as are people of means in the poor countries. The poor in poor countries, however, fare worse, as do some poor people in rich countries. With half of the world's 6 billion people living on $2 per day or less, the education gap remains stark.
Indeed, reasonable estimates put the number of school-age children who are not attending school at 113 million, with 97% living in developing countries. These numbers are bad, and they're getting worse. According to the UN's Human Development Report, one in five children in the world's poorest countries does not go to school, including a staggering 40% of school-age kids in sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition, the Human Development Report notes that 24 countries around the world are making insufficient or no progress--if not actually backsliding--in achieving the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education. One can only imagine how dire conditions may be in the 93 countries for which no data on the topic even exist. In the words of Mark Malloch-Brown, Administrator of the UN Development Program, "We're losing the battle for primary education."
In the 1990's, we in the development community made a serious and costly blunder by pressuring national governments in developing countries to impose school fees in order to help achieve balanced budgets. Some research suggested that fees might be useful in decentralizing education--a laudable goal--and in helping poor countries to "live within their means" (a nasty requirement in an age of global prosperity). In fact, the policy was a disaster for the world's most vulnerable children: any out of pocket costs for schooling meant no schooling at all.
Recent evidence from Uganda and Kenya show just how costly this error was. In 2000, upon receiving debt alleviation, Uganda chose to eliminate all school fees and says its number of schoolchildren nearly doubled thereafter. The new government of President Mwai Kibaki in Kenya announced his country would eliminate school fees, and within days an additional 1.2 million kids showed up for class.
We know what to do to educate our children. We know that basic education should be a free public good. We know that school meals programs are a development marvel that do as much as anything else to increase enrollment while providing nutrition to the hungriest youngsters, markets for their fathers' produce, and often jobs for village mothers. Innovative initiatives providing rural child care mean that girls can go to school, and basic public health provision--such as de-worming--attracts chronically sick children to the classroom for both learning and healing.
Serious, exemplary work has already been done to outline local, national, and global solutions. The Dakar Education Forum, the World Bank's Education for All initiative, and the UN Millennial Development Program's Education Task Force all provide tremendous policy detail, with budgets, for those interested in action. Education ministries in Brazil, Uganda, and throughout many parts of the developing world know what works. What they all lack is dedicated political support from the world's powerful in government.
The leaders of the G-7 will gather in Evian in a matter of days, looking for common cause and ways to heal a world rent by unspeakable violence. In a proud moment for Americans, last week President George W. Bush provided an example of strong leadership by demanding of Congress and US taxpayers significantly more money--$15 billion to start--for health care for the poor. His counterparts in Europe and Japan should follow suit. The G-7--representing the most empowered people in the world today--should decide that education will be the next international priority.
President Bush and his wife Laura, herself a lover of books, have declared this US administration to be one devoted to education. Let them assume the leadership that we all see is possible, inspired anew by the opening words of Maria Stewart's historic speech: "Oh, do not say you cannot make anything of your children; but say, with the help and assistance of God, we will try."