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Rt Hon Clare Short

From the Department for International Development
UNIVERSAL PRIMARY EDUCATION:THE KEY TO POVERTY REDUCTION
Speech by the Rt Hon Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development
World Education Forum, Dakar, April 27, 2000
In 1990, at Jomtien in Thailand, the world set targets for improvements in education for all. None of these have been fully met. We meet in Dakar to ensure that we do much better. The focus of this Forum must be on action. Not setting new targets or issuing grand declarations, but putting into effect policies that will deliver on existing international commitments. Above all, this meeting needs to reaffirm political commitment to the two core international targets on education - universal primary education by 2015 and the elimination of gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2005. There were a number of other important education targets set at Jomtien and we should make plans for better progress on these. But I'm going to focus today on these two targets - which are the most important of the Jomtien targets - and suggest how we can make faster progress on providing educational opportunity to all of the world's children.
This is not only right in principle; it is also the absolute key to economic and social progress. If the world's poorest countries can ensure that all their children, including the girls, get the opportunity of a good education then massive development progress is possible. But if they fail - if the world's poorest people continue to be denied this opportunity - not only will the terrible poverty of the 1 in 5 of humanity who live in abject poverty be perpetuated, but the gap between the world's rich and poor will grow.
The world is entering a new phase in its economic history. The new technologies are creating a new knowledge-based economy. If we do not make very rapid progress in education for those who are excluded, the poor of the world will be even more marginalised in the world economy. Capital is now plentiful. The new technologies can be made available to any country that organises itself in a way which attracts inward investment. And that investment will create the possibility of the rapid economic growth essential to the reduction of poverty. But these benefits will only flow to the countries that educate their people. Bridging this education divide, opening up educational opportunity to all - this is one of the biggest challenges we face in the 21st Century.
I want to use the limited time available here to set out some priorities for action - some bottom line commitments against which this meeting can and should be judged.
First, this Forum needs to agree a strong commitment by national governments to the targets of Universal Primary Education and gender equality. It is not enough to say it; we need to mean it. We know from the assessments made by Education For All and from other studies that the single most important requirement for progress on Universal Primary Education is high-level political commitment in each country. Where that commitment exists, real progress is possible. Where it is lacking, progress will be much slower or simply not happen at all.
One test of this political commitment is the allocation of adequate resources to basic and primary education. To make faster progress, governments must give priority to Universal Primary Education, and provide the finance for it.
But just as important is the effectiveness of education spending. We know that there are real differences of performance - in levels of primary school enrolment and in the quality of education provided - between countries which spend similar amounts on education. Those countries which have been most successful in boosting enrolment, in retaining children in school and in improving quality are those that have put in place reforms that deliver quality and include all children.
The crucial shift is towards a focus on learning outcomes - on the quality and relevance of the education that children receive and the educational achievements they attain. That means the development of committed and well-motivated teachers, the provision of appropriate curricula and educational materials, the involvement of parents and wider civil society and the appropriate use of technology.
Let me just say a few words about civil society and about the role of technology. In education, as in development more generally, an active civil society has a crucial part to play - in keeping governments to their commitments, in speaking out on issues of quality and equity, and in urging faster progress. Without the voices of civil society - and the most important part are the community groups closest to the people - the education targets are unlikely to be reached; and they certainly won't be sustained.
There has also been considerable discussion about the role of technology - and rightly so. There is a real danger of a new divide, with much of Africa and south Asia having little access to the new technologies that are transforming the world. I believe we must find urgent ways of bridging this gap. Last month, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, outlined an initiative for using the new information and communications technologies - starting in Africa - to accelerate the education and training of teachers, and to improve the quality of teaching. This could help us deliver quality primary education and also create an enhanced higher education capacity, with growing numbers familiar with and having access to information technology. We will be taking this initiative forward in discussion with governments and others over the next year.
Second, this Forum needs to recognise that educational objectives cannot be pursued or achieved in isolation. Education and skills are the commanding heights of a modern economy. That means placing them at the very centre of a government's economic and development strategy. A high-quality, equitable education system depends, above all, on good economic policy that generates the growth necessary to fund and sustain that system. This economic growth depends in turn on an expansion of educational opportunities. But this approach to education also means addressing the barriers that impede the educational development of the poor and recognising the links between education and other areas of policy.
The biggest barrier is poverty itself. In most countries with the worst education indicators, most children - particularly girls - from the poorest households have no schooling. And of the children who do enrol, it is overwhelmingly the poor, especially girls, who drop out of school. Many education systems impose costs of access - school fees and the requirement for school uniforms - which are a further barrier to education for the poorest. And, of course, many children have to work to supplement the meagre incomes of their families.
A policy for improving the educational opportunities of the poor needs to address these issues together, to reduce the direct and indirect costs that make education prohibitively expensive for them, and to enhance the income levels of parents so that they are no longer so dependent on the work of their children.
The other great barrier to educational progress is poor health. Inadequate diet, malnourishment, lack of clean drinking water - these are all major barriers to learning and educational progress. But the greatest challenge is HIV/AIDS, which is threatening to overturn the progress in education enrolments reported to this Forum. Unless governments take stronger action to address this challenge, the education and development gains we have made will be lost and further progress jeopardised.
Third, this meeting needs to send a clear signal that the international community will back meaningful reform. It is vital that the Framework for Action that we will launch tomorrow makes clear that funding agencies will allocate significant additional resources to support primary and basic education, where governments are committed to this objective and have put in place the appropriate policies to deliver on it. Too much of development assistance still goes to support higher education - often educating the sons and daughters of the elite at the expense of the poorest. This needs to change.
The British Government has committed an additional 300 million to basic education in the last three years. And we have focused most of these resources in the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia - the regions with the worst education indicators. We intend to do more.
This session is devoted to resources. I am clear that we should support with the necessary resources any government that is committed to Universal Primary Education. But I do not support a call for new separate funds for education, new conditionality or a new set of education objectives.
Progress on education must go together with progress on other essential development objectives. I believe that the key to this is the Poverty Reduction Strategy process, agreed at last year's annual meeting of the World Bank and the IMF. This was strongly supported by many developing countries because at last the Washington institutions have recognised that developing country governments and their people must lead their own development. Countries are invited to design their own Poverty Reduction Strategy, setting out the steps they are going to take to make progress on the international development targets, including those for education.
In the first instance, this applies to countries qualifying for debt relief under the revised HIPC initiative. However, it is agreed that ultimately all development resources from the World Bank and the Fund should be allocated in support a nationally-agreed, nationally-led poverty reduction strategy.
Obviously support for basic education would be a key component of these strategies in every country. And where governments have good policies, especially on education, then funding must be made available.
At the same time, funding agencies need to spend those resources in new ways. Not supporting a multitude of isolated education projects which crumble when external funding comes to an end, but working with governments - helping them to deliver high-quality education for all their children and to do so sustainably into the future.
Fourth, I hope that this meeting will agree that we need to make much faster progress in improving educational opportunities for girls. Not just saying it, but meaning it - and setting out the practical steps we can take to do this.
This is an issue of entrenched inequity in education systems. The denial of educational opportunity to any child is a violation of their human rights, but for girls in particular it is also profoundly damaging to development. The evidence is now beyond dispute. Educating girls, even just to primary level, is the most effective development intervention any country can make. I welcome the fact that Kofi Annan has singled out this issue as a major priority. He is right to do so. But it is important that this commitment to girls education is fully integrated into national education and development strategies.
Fifth, we need to give much greater priority to educational statistics. If we are serious about measuring progress against the education targets then we need to have confidence that the figures we use are accurate. All too often they are not.
The Education for All 2000 assessment therefore represents a very important advance. It has provided us with the richest store of information on basic education that the world has ever gathered. It is vital that we put this resource to good use. Good statistics can help promote evidence-based policy making, by telling us what works in education, and what doesn't. They also allow us to make comparisons between the performance of countries - why some countries are doing better on girls' education than others - and how we share these lessons.
But we also need to build up national and international capacity to produce and use statistics. Over time, every country should have the capacity to produce its own data on education, to assess and monitor its own progress. I believe that investing in statistical capacity should be a priority for governments and for funding agencies. At the international level, too, we need to do better at producing and using data. I believe that the new UNESCO Institute of Statistics has an important role to play here - in building capacity, analysing data and contributing to the development of effective development strategies.
This takes me to priority number six - the need to use this Forum to drive this agenda forward.
I believe we must now move away from these large-scale forums which only take place every five or ten years. Such gaps are too large to permit us to drive forward progress effectively. Whatever mechanisms for follow-up to Dakar are agreed this week, we must make sure that they do the following: support countries' own data-gathering to monitor their own progress; give added strength to regional structures so that they can aggregate data across countries; and regularly feed into international statistical analyses like the current Education for All assessment.
But this must be done routinely and regularly. This information is gathered annually by government systems; it should be also published yearly. That way we can all see where the constraints and sticking points lie, and adapt our policy responses accordingly.
The new post-Dakar machinery should also promote the ideals of Education for All in all relevant international meetings, ensuring that universal primary education remains at the top of the development agenda. And it should foster co-operation between the key institutions and help them to work together to achieve the international development targets.
Conclusion
These are the British Government's priorities. Other speakers have outlined theirs. I believe that we need to agree on a core set of objectives at this meeting, and then get on with the business of implementing them. The challenge is a huge one. But the prize is very great. We are the first generation in the whole of human history that has the chance to eradicate basic illiteracy from the human condition. And we can do this within fifteen years. Let's resolve today - together - that we will do what needs to be done to make this happen. Press Enquiries: 0207 917 0533 Public Enquiries: 0845 3004100