United States, India and Universal Education: Obama and Singh’s Shared Values Should Guide Them

When President Obama welcomes Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the White House today, the leaders of the world’s two largest democracies have a unique opportunity to put forward a shared vision of opportunity for future generations. At a recent speech in Washington, Prime Minister Singh highlighted the core values shared by India and the United States and the profound way in which our two nations have been shaped by two great moral leaders of the 20th century: Mohatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King. “In my interactions with President Obama, I have found shared thinking on the moral imperative of putting the poor at the forefront of the global agenda in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. They must have access to education, and give them bankable skills, to nutrition and to healthcare,” Singh said.

Because of their shared values, Obama and Singh should work together in the coming year to realize their shared vision of achieving universal education for all. Much of India’s tremendous economic growth in recent years has been driven by its investments in education. This year, India passed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, which promises access to education for all children ages 6 to 14 years old. Although there is still work to be done, with special regards to the issues of educational quality and vulnerable children, India has demonstrated major progress in the area of primary school enrollment. Between 2005 and 2009, the percentage of out of school children in India was nearly cut in half, according to national surveys.

Since India is a vibrant democracy, civil society groups like Pratham have successfully launched grassroots efforts to improve the quality of education in the country and help millions of children learn how to read.

The Indian experience shows that tangible progress is possible on the commitment that President Obama made to help ensure that all children around the world are able to complete primary school by 2015. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited India earlier this year, she expressed her commitment to, “equality of opportunity for all children,” and expressed her desire to work with India on, “the common cause of educational opportunity.” As key members of the G-20, India and the United States are well placed to lead the world in the coming year to refocus energy on the last opportunity to get all children in school in time to meet that 2015 deadline for universal primary school completion.

Just as India will face a major challenge in the coming year to increase its own education spending to the promised 6 percent of GDP, the Obama administration will make a critical decision in the coming month about delivering on its own commitment to provide $2 billion for a Global Fund for Education. While each nation contends with its own competing priorities, making this shared vision of educational opportunity a reality is an important test of global leadership in the 21st century. Just as Gandhi and Dr. King were connected and ultimately successful because they called upon core values of human dignity, the potential partnership between India and the United States illustrates the way in which shared values can help define a new era and create opportunity for a new generation.