Educating the World

Beyond being horrified by stories of Taliban militants beating a 6-year-old girl for carrying a notebook, as reported by Newhouse News Service, and warning a classroom of girls in an underground school that they would be burned alive if they returned the next day, as related in U.S. News & World Report, Americans are pained by the simple reality that any government would ban school for girls.

Afghanistan is moving beyond the Taliban, but schooling may remain inaccessible not only to many of its girls, but to their brothers. Around the world, 125 million children 6 to 11 years old are out of school, most because of a lack of school buildings, textbooks and qualified teachers as well as inability to pay for school fees, uniforms and transportation. Girls, who make up two-thirds of the unschooled children, are also held back by cultural pressures, parental fear for their security, and a lack of female teachers and bathroom facilities.

In Afghanistan, education was hard to get even before the Taliban regime: in 1996, 90 percent of girls and nearly two-thirds of boys were not going to school. In Pakistan, the all-male madrassas, fundamentalist Islamic schools, prosper because less than 2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product is devoted to public education. In 12 nations in sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than half of 8-year-olds are enrolled in school.

If the world really wants Afghanistan to reinvent itself as a stable and functional nation, it must help Afghans assure education for their children. And at the same time, the United States and other wealthy nations should seize the moment to get all of the world’s children into school.

The goal of universal education is not solely a Western aspiration. In Dakar, Senegal, in 2000, 180 nations committed to the goal of universal education by 2015 for boys and girls. They included Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia and most of the other nations of Africa, South Asia and Latin America. Leaders trying to develop their nations’ economies know the advantages. Not only does each year of schooling in the poorest nations raise people’s earning power by 10 to 20 percent, but recent research also demonstrates that girls’ education leads to smaller, healthier families.

The cause of universal education is stunningly neglected. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that an additional $9.1 billion would be needed each year to reach the goal set for 2015. That is probably understated. Total American spending on education in poor countries is only $150 million to $200 million a year.

Congress and the president should raise our commitment to basic education to $1 billion a year and challenge the rest of the world to match us proportionally. This help would be most effective if it was accompanied by more American and international financing to reduce hunger, poverty and the spread of AIDS. We should also call on the World Bank and the United Nations to work with the rich and poor countries on a coordinated global program for basic education. It should lay out responsibilities for all countries in promoting basic education. It should introduce peer review boards to evaluate the education plans of the nations receiving aid.

We cannot count on education to end the threat of terrorism; indeed, many of the suicide hijackers of Sept. 11 were highly educated. However, a major American commitment to achieving universal education would give millions of poor children more hope and greater opportunities for choosing constructive futures. It would also be a profound demonstration of our heart and humanity at a time when we are so confounded by those who cheer acts of violence against us.