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The Road to Dakar: Ten Years of Education for All

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The 1990s -- the Education for All decade -- saw the decline of Communism, a revolution in communications and information technologies, galloping globalization, the collapse of financial markets, the spread of HIV/AIDS and increased poverty and ethnic conflicts. These developments had profound effects on education.
Ten years ago, representatives from 155 countries and 150 organizations pledged to provide education for all by the year 2000 at the World Conference on Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand). With the statement that “Every person – child, youth and adult – shall be able to benefit from educational opportunities designed to meet their basic learning needs”, the World Declaration on Education For All defined a bold new direction in education.
Drafted by education ministers and national and international organizations, the Declaration rang the death-knell for rigid, prescriptive education systems and ushered in an era where flexible systems could thrive. From now on, education would be tailor-made, adapted to the needs, culture and circumstances of learners.
The decision to review progress a decade later was taken in Jomtien. Two important milestones intervened in 1996. The mid-decade conference held in Amman, Jordan, noted considerable progress but was hampered by weak reporting from participating countries – underlining the need for an in-depth assessment. The report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century promoted a holistic view of education consisting of four “pillars”: learning to know, learning to do, learning to be and learning to live together. The text was widely adopted.
The World Education Forum (26-28 April 2000, Dakar, Senegal) is unique because it has been preceded by the global EFA 2000 Assessment, two years of “homework” which will provide a critical mass of information to help ensure that educational programmes are rooted in the real world.

The Importance of Education

Education is the single most important means to fight poverty; no country has ever succeeded in overcoming poverty without education.

Education for women and girls is a crucial factor in everything from raising literacy and living standards to lowering population and mortality rates.

The concept of learning throughout life has replaced the traditional distinction between the school years and what comes after.

Learning is the key to sustainable development.

Education should reach the unreached.

Enhancing learning improves the quality of life.

Access to education along with its quality are the etermining factors in its success.

Adaptability and flexibility are the new survival skills, essential to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

Education leads to a heightened environmental awareness, a greater knowledge of basic rights and duties, and a greater participation in civic life.

This global exercise is the most comprehensive study ever made of basic education. It was carried out by national teams assisted by ten regional advisory groups, comprising UNDP, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF, the World Bank, bilateral donor agencies, development banks and inter-governmental organizations.
From the United States to Fiji, from Chile to Mongolia, countries have worked hard to produce and analyse top-quality data covering the six targets agreed on at the 1990 World Conference on Education for All. “It is a qualitative as well as a quantitative assessment,” says Svein Osttveit, Executive Secretary of the International Consultative Forum on Education for All, the body set up in Jomtien to monitor and advise on progress and to keep education for all on development agendas. Denise Lievesley, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, sees it as “a vital benchmark to enable us to assess progress in the future and to ensure that any targets we make are realistic and are accompanied by appropriate resources.”
In the run-up to the World Education Forum, five regional preparatory conference and a conference of the nine high-population countries (E9) took place between December 1999 and February 2000 (in Johannesburg, South Africa; Bangkok, Thailand; Cairo, Egypt; Recife, Brazil; Warsaw, Poland; and Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic). Delegates at these regional meetings were able to carry out the fullest possible stocktaking of education in each region by examining national EFA reports and mapping educational policy and reforms in each country. The global synthesis report, which will be presented at Dakar, will give the most accurate picture to date of the state of basic education in the world.
Basic education around the world is a picture characterized by contrasts. The 1990s, some observers claim, have seen a crisis in education with 113 million out-of-school children, widespread discrimination against girls, nearly a billion illiterate adults – mostly women – dilapidated schools, and a shortage of qualified teachers and learning materials. Others point out that the number of children in school has soared (from 599 million in 1990 to 681 millions in 1998) and that many countries are now approaching full primary school enrolment for the first time.
While the donor community is criticized for dwindling aid commitment, countries such as Bangladesh, Brazil and Egypt are earmarking close to 6 per cent of their gross national product (GNP) for education. For some African countries, education absorbs up to a third of their national budgets, although several of them spend as much on debt repayment as on health and basic education combined.
Disparities in quality are also widespread. Over-conservative education systems are out of touch with young people’s needs, in sharp contrast to the plethora of initiatives that successfully adapt learning to local needs or reach out to marginalized populations with skills training and income-generating activities. New media and virtual networks are also starting to shake the dust off education systems.
There are daunting challenges ahead: how to reach out with education to HIV/AIDS orphans in regions such as Africa where the pandemic is wreaking havoc; how to offer education to the ever-increasing number of refugees and displaced people; how to help teachers acquire a new understanding of their role and how to harness the new technologies to benefit the poor. And probably the most daunting challenge of all – in a world with 700 million people living in 42 highly indebted countries – how to help education overcome poverty and give millions of children a chance to realize their full potential.
The dawn of the new Education for All decade is an opportunity to redefine education strategies to cope with the legacy of the 1990s and to help learning keep up with the pace of change.
The road to Dakar has been a rich learning experience for everyone involved in education. The learning society is within reach and the World Education Forum will be an important milestone towards its achievement.

Meeting Basic Learning Needs:
An International Priority

The World Conference on Education for All in 1990 helped move education back to the centre of the international development agenda. A series of global conferences in the 1990s all reaffirmed international commitment to the Education for All goals. Chief among them were the World Summit for Children, 1990; the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, 1992; the World Conference on Human Rights, 1993; the International Conference on Population and Development, 1994; the World Conference on Special Needs Education, 1994; the World Summit for Social Development, 1995; the Fourth World Conference on Women, 1995; the International Conference on Adult Education, 1997 and the International Conference on Child Labour, 1997.