Importance of Education for Development

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GATE's chairman and CEO, Mr. Glenn Jones, has said that "Education is the great hope for the survival of humankind and for the forward progress of civilization." The French revolutionary Danton said more than two centuries ago, "After bread, education." Education is the most basic necessity after those that are vital to life itself--food, clothing, and shelter. It is education that lifts people out of the state of chronic poverty in which they are constantly struggling to fulfill basic needs such as these. The truth is that all people have a right to have these basic needs fulfilled, and they also have a right to education. In this regard, the world is not doing very well.

More than 836 million adults in the developing world are illiterate, according to surveys by UNESCO. Around the world, one of every eight children is not enrolled in primary school, and more than one third of adolescents are not in high school. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of these unschooled youngsters and illiterate adults can be found in the poorest countries on earth. The direct link between poverty and lack of educational opportunities has been demonstrated many times over. As Lyndon Johnson said during the War on Poverty in the 1960s, "Poverty has many roots, but the tap root is ignorance."

While everyone has a contribution to make in furthering our educational progress, basic education is a fundamental right, and it is the responsibility of governments to provide it. The huge gaps in opportunity that we witness in our world are just one form of injustice, and states are bound by duty and by law to strive for justice. Quite simply, we are not investing enough in education. I am more familiar with the situation in Latin America than in other areas of the world, and I can tell you that in many of our countries, we are condemning our children to be poor laborers, just as their grandparents were. Instead of preparing them for the twenty-first century, we are sending them back to the nineteenth century. We can do much better than this.

I have recently proposed that the next government of Costa Rica set and reach the goal of having universal education through the age of seventeen by the year 2006. In order to do this, we will have to increase the share of our budget that goes to education. According to Costa Rica's constitution, we should be spending 6% of our gross domestic product each year on public education. It is not happening. The actual figure is just below five percent, and the reason is that we do not have our fiscal house in order. For Costa Rica to be able to comply with the mandates of its own constitution, and in a broader sense, for all societies to fulfill their obligations to their poorest citizens, we must begin by instituting responsible macroeconomic policies, eliminating the fiscal deficit, reducing the public debt, and creating the conditions for greater economic growth. Only if we strike the proper economic balances will we be able to alleviate poverty. These adjustments are vital for the well-being of the whole society. Our children deserve no less from their leaders.

Many leaders of poor countries will tell you that the cost of providing decent educational opportunities is prohibitive. Saddled with debt, lacking infrastructure, and short of trained personnel, many nations in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and elsewhere simply cannot afford to provide basic schooling for all of their children. However, this is not a problem of lack of resources, but rather a problem of resource allocation, both within developing countries and on the part of the wealthier countries. The United Nations estimates that it would only take an additional six billion dollars per year to make basic educational opportunities available to the entire population of the developing world. To put that figure into perspective, consider that Americans spend 8 billion dollars per year on cosmetics, and Europeans spend 11...
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