Obama’s Commitment to the World’s Children

David Gartner
David Gartner Former Brookings Expert

September 18, 2009

One year ago, in the face of a major financial crisis, Presidential Candidate Barack Obama made a powerful commitment to the world’s children. During the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, Obama pledged to establish a $2 billion Global Fund for Education so that every child around the world can go to school. In the coming week, President Obama will return to the Clinton Global Initiative before he addresses the United Nations and the world’s leading economies in Pittsburgh at the G-20 Summit. The president has a unique opportunity to lead the international community in making universal education a reality.

President Obama’s commitment reflects the fact that education is one of the best investments for promoting economic development and empowering women around the world. Obama’s top economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, found that “educating girls yields a higher rate of return than any other investment available in the developing world.” Educating mothers can save millions of lives because a mother’s level of education is one of the best predictors of the health of her child. In Africa, five million children die each year before reaching their fifth birthday, but the children whose mothers received just five years of education are 40 percent more likely to survive.

The president’s pledge builds on the Millennium Development Goal established by the international community to ensure that every child worldwide completes at least a basic education by 2015. Time is running out and 72 million primary-age children are still not in school. Nearly half of these children live in Sub-Saharan Africa and girls make up a clear majority of these children. Achieving universal primary education by 2015 requires that every school-age child enters school by next year. This vision of universal education builds on a long and powerful tradition of universal public education in the United States as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Universal education is also a smart way to promote a better, safer, more prosperous world. Obama explained in his speech last year to the Clinton Global Initiative that: “We live in a time when our destinies are shared. The world is more intertwined than any time in human history . . . Our security is shared as well.” Universal education promotes global security because the lack of education fuels conflicts around the world. Nearly half of out of school children now live in countries that are affected by conflict. Just as universal education in the United States promote democracy and economic development, it will build stronger global partners and promote global security.

President Obama’s call for a new Global Fund for Education is extremely important because achieving universal quality education will require significant innovation and an evolution of the mechanisms that now exist for financing education. A new Global Fund for Education should be an independent and inclusive institution that supports country-driven solutions and is capable of mobilizing the resources needed to achieve education for all, while holding all stakeholders accountable for achieving results with these resources. Obama’s idea of a Global Fund for Education already has strong support among global leaders in the fight against poverty, including Nobel Laureates such as Desmond Tutu and Muhammad Yunus.

The world’s children are counting on President Obama and his fellow world leaders who are gathering together to deliver on their promise of universal education. By elaborating on his plan to give every child the chance to go to school and providing the promised $2 billion for the Global Fund for Education, President Obama can catalyze other wealthy nations to also do their part to meet the 2015 deadline for universal primary completion. Universal quality education could well be a defining legacy of Obama’s presidency and a signature achievement of our times.