“22 Million more children enrolled in school in FTI partner countries between 2000 and 2008”, I write in a public release on theAnnual Report 2010 of the Education for All – Fast Track Initiative (EFA FTI). 22 Million… let’s take one step back to let it sink in. This is more than the population of The Netherlands and Denmark combined.
We can be proud as we present numbers on the performance of FTI partner countries. Still, one cannot afford to be complacent; 67 million children today do not go to school, which is about France’s entire population or a quarter of that of the United States.
FTI’s Annual Report 2010 is released at the same time that the Ethiopian ambassador to the United States declares that his country will achieve the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education for all children by 2015. Ethiopia, a country of 70 million people, has made spectacular progress: its net enrollment rate of 40% in 2000 more than doubled up to 83% in 2009 (source: UNESCO Institute of Statistics). Almost as many girls as boys are now entering school. Ethiopia’s government, which spearheaded universal access to education for the past decade, now rightfully puts more emphasis on the quality of education. But while Ethiopia’s progress is laudable, there are important factors still preventing children staying in school as about 40% of girls and boys drop out before completing a full cycle of primary education, according to our Annual Report’s data.
The FTI’s 2010 Annual Report is published in the same week as economist Esther Duflo’s new book “Poor Economics”, which challenges current policy thinking about development cooperation and puts more emphasis on monitoring and evaluation and evidence-based policy advice. Duflo and co-author Abhijit V. Banerjee, both scholars at Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, dedicate a key chapter of their book to education, and notably to the quality of learning. They state that despite enormous progress in enrolling children in school over the past decade, it hasn’t brought the desired results in terms of literacy. They blame both students and teachers for not turning up in school. While not giving any detail on the causes or cures for absenteeism, Duflo and Banerjee are rightly sounding the alarm that Education for All doesn’t mean much if children aren’t learning.
As I watch the 3 and 4-year old classmates of my son already studying letters and numbers in kindergarten, and parents worrying if boys and girls can’t yet write his or her own name, I am saddened by the stark contrast of 12-year olds in, for example, Western Africa not being able to read a paragraph of text or write a few simple sentences. The power of being able to read words, formulate thoughts in writing, cannot be underestimated. As seen in the wonder and delight of children grasping letters, words and whole books, literacy doesn’t only build cognitive skills, it also places the foundation for imaginative and entrepreneurial minds and self-consciousness. The EFA FTI takes the ability to read very seriously and has set compelling policy measures in motion to promote learning levels. FTI partners – developing countries, donors, civil society organizations, multilateral agencies – have to open the window of opportunities that children can open, have once they know how to read, write and do simple arithmetic. Soon, I want to be able to write “22 Million more children in FTI countries reading 10 books a year”.