SEOUL – On a recent visit to a camp for Syrian refugees in Turkey, I witnessed some of the most powerful displays of human endurance that anyone can imagine. And yet, amid all the stories of trauma and loss, what affected me the most was these refugee families’ unquenchable thirst for education.
The children I spoke to told me of their continued desire to learn in the camp’s makeshift schools, crammed into classes and taught in shifts running from before dawn until after dark. Their parents spoke of the hope they place in the transformative power of education.
Syria once boasted universal education. Now, with more than four million people forced to flee their homes because of the violence wracking the country, it has become one of the world’s many places suffering from what can only be described as a global education crisis. There are an estimated 58 million primary-school-aged children out of school worldwide, and those affected by conflict and natural disasters are among the hardest to reach.
Worse, the number of child refugees cut off from school – in places like Nepal, Myanmar, and Yemen – is increasing at an alarming rate. If the international community does not act to nurture and educate these children, the cycle of poverty and conflict will be reproduced for generations to come.
The fact that so many children are cut off from education constitutes a clear failure on the part of the world’s governments, which promised in 2000, when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted, to ensure primary schooling for all children by 2015. To achieve this, it is not enough to enroll children in school; they must be kept there and provided a quality education. UNESCO estimates that at least 250 million of the world’s children of primary-school age are unable to read, write, or do basic arithmetic.
This week, the international community will have a chance to do something about this scandalous state of affairs. Policymakers from around the world will meet in South Korea at the World Education Forum to agree on the global education targets that are set to replace the MDGs.
It is truly fitting that South Korea is hosting this forum, because it is so often seen as a model of what investment in education can deliver. Some 8% of South Korea’s GDP is spent on education, and UNESCO estimates that every dollar invested in primary schools generates $10-$15 in economic returns. South Korea, which has lifted itself up from the ranks of the world’s poorest countries to among its richest in just two generations, is living proof that education pays off.
The new Sustainable Development Goals that are to be agreed this year underscore the challenges that world governments must address by 2030. I insist that quality universal primary education must be one of the SDGs’ top priorities. The emphasis here is on quality. Success is measured not only by the number of children we enroll, nor by their achievements on standardized tests; the most important outcomes are the tangible and intangible impacts of education on the quality of students’ lives. This is the unfinished business of the MDGs.
Wherever I travel with the Education Above All foundation, I encounter bright, motivated children who have been denied the chance to learn. As the world moves on to new priorities, we cannot forget our responsibility to those who have been failed by our complacency. The job is not done. We must remain committed to achieving the goal of quality primary education for all children – not some, and not even most – wherever they live.