Achieving the Millennium Development Goals: Education is the Key Missing Link

President Obama is releasing a plan for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015 in advance of the largest gathering of world leaders in at least a decade at the United Nations. While the Administration’s outline includes useful ideas on tracking development outcomes and increasing transparency and accountability, it also represents a missed opportunity to deliver on Obama’s commitment to invest $2 billion in a Global Fund for Education to achieve universal primary education. For most of the MDGs, particularly those that are most off-track, success will be nearly impossible without the achievement of universal primary education, MDG 2. With 72 million children still not in primary school, achieving universal education would offer extraordinary leverage in the broader fight against global poverty.

While there is some progress in poverty reduction for MDG 1: “Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger,” there is much less progress on the commitment to halve the number of people suffering from hunger by 2015.  Child malnutrition is a key dimension of world hunger and 137 million children under the age of 5 are still underweight globally. Educating women is an important tool for reducing child hunger, according to a cross-country analysis of 63 countries. The study found that educational gains in women’s education accounted for 43 percent of all progress in reducing child malnutrition.

MDG 3: “Eliminate gender disparity,” commits to closing the gender gap in all education levels and increasing female representation in the wage employment and national parliaments. The latest data indicate that 28 countries still have fewer than 9 girls in school for every 10 boys. Nearly two-thirds of these countries are located in sub-Saharan Africa, where there are fewer than 8 girls for every 10 boys enrolled in secondary school. A focus on educating girls, especially in Africa, is not only essential to achieving universal education, but it is also vital to achieving the nutrition and health MDGs.

The goal that is most off-track is MDG 4: “Reduce child mortality,” the commitment to cutting child mortality by two-thirds between 1990 and 2010. A recent study published in the Lancet finds that despite progress in the last 20 years in all regions, child mortality will still need to be reduced by another 3.7 million over the next five years in order to meet that goal. Half of all child deaths now occur in Sub-Saharan Africa with rates as high as 180 deaths per 1,000 children in Equatorial Guinea; compare that to just 2.5 deaths per 1,000 children in Singapore.

An analysis some years ago by President Obama’s top economic adviser, Larry Summers, found that children in Africa born to mothers with just five years of education were 40 percent more likely to live to age 5. The children of educated mothers are much more likely to be immunized against killer diseases, their mothers are much more likely to have received antenatal care, and they provide better nutrition to their children. Achieving universal primary education and reaching gender parity in education could save millions of children’s lives and put MDG 4 within reach.

The next health commitment, MDG 5: “Improve maternal health”, calls for reducing maternal mortality by three quarters between 1990 and 2015. Despite some progress globally in reducing maternal deaths related to childbirth, there has been much less progress in Africa in recent decades. While medical interventions are critical to responding to this challenge, education is again one of the most leveraged investments according to recent studies. One recent study found that female education alone, both female literacy and the ratio of female enrollment, could explain 50 percent of the variance between countries in rates of maternal mortality. In Bangladesh, the significant fall in maternal mortality over recent decades can in part be explained by the dramatic expansion of education for girls.

Education is also a crucial strategy for a leveraged response to AIDS. MDG 6: “Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.”  MDG 6 commits to halting and reversing the spread of these diseases by 2015. Yet, despite impressive progress in recent years in expanding access to AIDS treatment, the results on the prevention sides show that much work remains to be done to reverse the spread of the disease. Research on the last decade of the AIDS epidemic indicate that increased schooling is lowering the rate of AIDS infections and that expanded access to secondary education is especially significant in reducing female vulnerability to infection. Alongside other comprehensive prevention strategies, expanding educational opportunities in the most affected countries is critical to reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

MDG 7: “Ensure environmental sustainability” focuses on promoting a sustainable environment by protecting environmental resources, halving the number of people without water and sanitation, and achieving significant improvements in the lives of 100 million slum dwellers. Once again, education is critical when it comes to improving the lives of those living in slums. The overwhelming response to expanding free primary education to children living in Africa’s largest slum, in the Kibera division of Nairobi, Kenya demonstrates how universal education is an incredibly tangible improvement for millions of slum dwellers.

With just five years left before the 2015 deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the world is running out of time. While many interventions will be needed, one of the best single levers we have to achieve these goals is to accelerate progress toward universal education. President Obama should join other world leaders at the upcoming MDG summit in announcing how together they will invest in multilateral mechanisms to deliver on their promise to give every child the chance to go to school. There is no other investment that will have as significant an impact when it comes to promoting health, gender equity, and nutrition in the fight against global poverty.