Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

The Silent Epidemic

by Thomas Gift - December 07, 2009

Recent efforts to combat low school enrollment in the developing world—such as President Obama's pledge to establish a $2-billion Global Fund for Education and the 2002 creation of the World Bank's Fast Track Initiative—are flush with good intentions. Yet, to effectively supply the funding, guidance, and logistical support to achieve education for everyone, policymakers must focus their efforts more intensely on tapping the unrealized potential of females and rural inhabitants.

This holiday season, millions of American students will enjoy a respite from the daily grind of math problems, social studies homework, and language exams. For too many children in the developing world, however, this “vacation” lasts all year.

Across the globe, 72 million primary school aged kids, and another 226 million adolescents will not attend school a single day in a classroom in 2009. For some, this reflects a simple cost-benefit analysis: When families think their children won’t reap gains from education, they tend to invest less in their schooling. For others, a dearth of resources—from qualified teachers to textbooks, pencils, and even suitable school buildings—makes obtaining even a few years of instruction hopelessly out of reach.

International concern about the “silent epidemic” is mounting. Still, the push for universal education has yet to elicit resources and mobilization on scale with initiatives to combat HIV/AIDS, debt relief, climate change, and malaria.

This is beginning to change.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama pledged to establish a $2-billion Global Fund for Education, modeled after the similarly-named Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, a public health organization that has allocated more than $18 billion to prevent and treat infectious diseases since 2002. The announcement comes on the heels of the 2002 creation of the World Bank's Fast Track Initiative, a global financing mechanism that allocates resources to countries whose education plans have been technically vetted and endorsed.

These enterprises are flush with good intentions. Yet, to effectively supply the funding, guidance, and logistical support to achieve education for everyone, policymakers must focus their efforts more intensely on tapping the unrealized potential of females and rural inhabitants. For developing countries ravaged by the scourges of war, corruption, famine, disease, and poverty, no measure would advance well-being more than enriching their stock of human capital.

Unequal access to education among females is pervasive in the non-industrialized world. While school enrollment for girls has increased marginally over the past decades, only 53 of 171 countries with available data have achieved gender parity. In places like Niger, the Central African Republic, Yemen, and Chad, for example, fewer than 70 girls enter school for every 100 boys. Today, more than two thirds of the 960 million illiterate adults in the world are women, a figure directly traceable to deficiencies in schooling.

High rates of gender imbalance come when there is broad recognition that female education is a critical engine for economic and social development. David Gartner of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Universal Education has argued that “education, especially for girls and women, is the most highly leveraged investment now available for developing countries.”

Lawrence Summers, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, has added that “educating girls yields a higher rate of return than any other investment in the developing world.” A recent 100-country study by the World Bank found that every 1 percent increase in the level of education for women generates .3 percent additional GDP per capita growth.

The other most pressing challenge in expanding educational access is the entrenched rural-urban gulf that afflicts developing countries. “There is evidently a lack of political interest in the rural world,” claims Aicha Bah-Diallo, a former education minister in Guinea. “Legislators don’t assess rightfully the importance of education for rural people in the development of their countries.”

According to a 2006 UNICEF survey of 41 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, covering the period 1990-1995, almost half of the countries showed a rural-urban school participation gap of 20 percentage points or more. In a 2006 report, UNESCO noted that “rural people are often caught in the vicious cycle of having no access to the services and opportunities that might lift them out of poverty—education, gainful employment, adequate nutrition, infrastructure and communications.”

These realities appear even starker when considering that about 80 percent of the population in developing countries lives outside of cities or metropolitan areas.  

There is some encouraging news. Villages in developing countries increasingly have a school within walking distance. In addition, the United Nations has recently formed Education for Rural People, a public-private partnership that addresses rural-urban educational disparities by providing classroom expertise and assisting with the blueprints of “Rural Development Plans.” The Dakar Framework for Action, an official policy platform of the multilateral watchdog group Education for All, has also outlined a number of practical, on-the-ground strategies for attacking regional gaps, with special emphasis on rural children.  

These are steps in the right direction, but they only scratch the surface when it comes to meeting the needs of girls and residents of remote rural regions—especially as donor assistance for education continues to come up woefully short. Estimates by UNESCO show that at least $11 billion is required each year from donors to achieve universal education by the target date of 2015. But in 2008, official development assistance commitments fell below $6 billion, and actual disbursements to basic education totaled less than $4 billion.

It’s a telling irony that, in the United States, debate about schools can afford to center on whether we are actually educating our children too early, too much. Structured universal pre-K? The death of summer vacation? Extended instructional time? 

If only children and parents in the developing world had those luxuries.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 07, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15864, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 9:47:53 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue