Global Learning Crisis: A Note

Despite all our claims of being at the pinnacle of civilisational progress, we have a Global Learning Crisis at hand.

We have 57 million primary school-age children are out of school, half of them in Sub-Saharan Africa. 31 million of them are girls, and half of them have never ever set foot in a school. A further 250 million children can not read or write, despite being in school: Out of these, 130 million can not read or write even after spending more than 4 years at school. 90% of the children in Honduras, more than 50% in Uganda and 33% in Mali can not read a single word of connected text at the end of grade two.

Among the children who manage to attend Primary School, 25% of them drop out before reaching the Secondary School. 69 million school-age adolescents are not attending secondary school. UNESCO reports that these numbers have hardly decreased in the last three years and the progress has stalled or reversed in a number of countries.

Finally, add to that 774 million adults, two-thirds of them women, can not read or write at all. 400 million of these adults are in South and West Asia, a vast proportion of them are being in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

These are big numbers, and so is the amount that would be needed to solve this. Despite the optimistic tones, one can safely expect that UN's Millennium Development Goals of making access to primary education universal (MDG 2) or eliminating Gender Disparity in Education Access (MDG 3) will not be met. Even if the governments max out their spending on education, which they wouldn't, the Low Income countries will still need $16 Billion of external funding every year to make primary education universal. They are currently receiving only $3 Billion, and such Donor money is under pressure because the rich country public finances are still dire.

The profits of private corporations have grown, indeed, but it seemed they are not good at doing education. Justin Van Fleet at Brookings estimate $500 million is spent in education causes by US Corporations, but UNESCO reports that only about $134 million is being spent on basic education in low income countries. This is puny, not just in the context of the need, but also compared to the contributions made to Global Health, where American companies alone give $7 Billion globally to combat diseases and improve basic healthcare. Much of the education spending come almost as an afterthought, despite claims on the contrary, the main reason being displacement by mining and energy companies. Some of the projects are also driven by consumer products companies, particularly in Africa. The talk is of Higher Ambition, though often there is a direct linkage between the business goals and community spending.

Which we shouldn't complain about, perhaps, given the business of business is business. There are other issues to talk about before we can really blame the businesses for doing too little. The kleptocracies remain in place in many countries, both pocketing the country's wealth as well as signing off natural resources and vast construction projects without seeking to compensate the social costs. Tax evasion remains endemic, both by elites of low income countries as well as global corporations. Conflict ridden countries like Congo and Central African Republic do worse than their peers in education, which is no surprise. The education problem that we face is directly related to the governance issues we are facing.

In the end, private sector may not have any panacea for the basic education problem, the global learning crisis as UNESCO calls it. The deep-rooted governance reform need to be pursued, if we are to tackle the problem of education deprivation. It is likely that the corporate spending in education will grow, as we see the increased involvement of various corporations in American school system, but this will be driven by the need to maintain an educated manpower pool, which is indeed the main motivator for these interventions. This is where the private sector interventions may be the most significant - by driving innovation in the classroom. Be it Bill Gates' obsession with measurability or more benign goals of making learning relevant or interesting or cost-efficient, businesses can bring a lot in terms of ideas, technologies and innovation. The focus should be on this, rather than how much money they put in.


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