Viewing the challenge of education through different lenses

Julia Gillard speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations

Julia Gillard, Board Chair of GPE, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in March 2015, New York (c) Don Pollard

Earlier this month, our Board Chair Julia Gillard spoke about global education priorities in a roundtable session in New York City hosted by the New York chapter of The Council on Foreign Relations. This post is based on a portion of her remarks there.

The dimensions of the challenge to educate all children across the globe are enormous. The stark reality is that, in spite of great progress over the last couple of decades, there are still 58 million children who do not go to primary school, 28.5 million of those living in environments of conflict or humanitarian crisis. Around 250 million children either don’t make it to grade 4 or can’t perform basic literacy and numeracy tasks by the time they reach grade 4.

Why should the world care about this problem?  For good-hearted people, one answer is that it tears at our hearts that millions of children around the world, especially girls, don't get the benefit of an education.

That’s an understandable and indispensable response, but there are two other lenses through which we can – and should – view the challenge of global education.

Education’s connection to global security

The first is a global security lens.  Many great thinkers have set their eyes on the tragedy of violent Islamic extremism, asking what we can do to counter it and how radicalization feeds it.

In my view, anger is basically disappointed hope, and education is a building block of hope.  Many children, displaced from chaotic and conflict-stricken situations in countries like Syria, the Central African Republic, or South Sudan, cannot go to school or find work when they are of age. When they become young adults and see no prospect of improving their lives, we should not be surprised that the outcome of their experience is anger and, potentially, violence.

What’s more, we know that education can help reduce intergroup conflict. Research in Arab States, for example, has shown that tolerance towards different religions is 14% higher among those with a secondary education than those without. 

It would be naïve to say that education is the sole answer to the global security challenge. Indeed, some of the principal terrorists in our world have been relatively well-educated people, and there are surely other factors that contribute to violent extremism. Still, if we don't give today’s five or six year olds any hope or any prospects for the future, then they will be far more likely to succumb to the siren song of radicalization by the time they are age 10, 15 or 25.

The Economic Lens

We can look at the education challenge also through an economic lens.  Advances in technology and increased global economic relationships are increasingly putting a premium on those who are educated and have specific skills.

So the prospects for personal progress are small for those with little or no advanced education, let alone basic literacy or numeracy, and societies with disproportionately large swaths of uneducated citizens will be trapped indefinitely within a cycle of poverty.

For families in some cultures it might appear – at least in the short term – to make more economic sense to pull a daughter out of school in her early to late teens so she can work and get married. We've got to change that equation so families like these see the longer-term economic benefit of sending a girl to school.  We might give them incentives, like cash assistance and a good meal every day that can alleviate a family’s immediate burden.

Giving Meaning to Our Words

The new Post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, which the world will unveil this September, must have actual meaning. To give them meaning, we have to solve the financing challenge for education this year.

We have to turn around the almost 10% drop in donor nation aid to education since 2010, which is seven times the rate of decline of overall global development aid (1.3%). We also need to fill the annual financing gap that according to UNESCO is $22 billion a year if we want to reach universal access to quality primary and lower secondary school for all children. 

That gap of $22 billion might sound to some like a lot of money, but when you compare it to the consequences of not giving people the education they deserve – continued poverty, crippling and deadly health outcomes, and, yes, increasing extremism and conflict that destabilizes societies – it’s a rather modest investment.

For the most part, the conversations about security, about the global economy (the focal point of many major gatherings like the G20 Summit in Turkey this year) and about education (which we at the Global Partnership have with our colleagues) are occurring on parallel tracks that never converge.

It seems almost self-evident that we need to join up these conversations. We need to make the case beyond our own sector that education is an essential ingredient to global security and economic development. And we have to approach the challenge of education with the same urgency and sense of priority we usually reserve for security and economy.

Getting all the world’s children into school to learn is a big challenge that will require our persistence and patience. And it will call on us to draw on the energy, focus and resources beyond the education sector.

Please click here for the full transcript and audio recording of Julia Gillard’s remarks.


The Global Partnership for Education Secretariat is headquartered in Washington DC and has approximately 100 staff. The Secretariat provides administrative and operational support to all its partners including...

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