World Education Forum > Speeches >
Mark Malloch Brown


26 APRIL 2000
Mr. President, excellencies, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen,
In Mexico, basic education is currently looming as a decisive factor in the upcoming presidential election: the leading candidate has promised computers in every elementary school; his opponents argue that it is more important to think of fixing windows, providing textbooks and improving the bureaucracy. In the United States, vice-president Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush have deserted the traditional campaign trail for the classroom as they offer competing proposals to revive the country's public school system. The same debates are being repeated elsewhere. In every case, politicians are struggling to answer the persistent cry of parents: who will prepare our children for a new knowledge-based future?
Since political leaders first came together at Jomtien a new wave of political and economic challenges has swept across our world. But one thing that has not changed over these turbulent ten years is the critical need for education. If anything, the need to prioritize Education For All is more morally and economically urgent than ever. While debates continue to rage over other development variables there is no argument over the power of education. Time and again in study after study - and country after country - well-run education programmes have proven themselves to be the best value investment for development dollars. From the Republic of South Korea, where a generation of parents allowed the state to plow back the sweat of their labour into their children's education; to my own memories as a first-time visitor to the United States, taking the Greyhound bus across the country and seeing that the oldest building in town after town was always the church or school -- the message is the same : education works.
Ask a parent in a Kenyan village, a young girl in the alta plano of Bolivia or a boy in the paddyfields of Thailand: There is no alternative to education. And that is why we at UNDP are very proud to be one of the co-sponsors of the International Consultative Forum on Education For All. And I particularly congratulate Koichiro Matsuura and UNESCO for their hard work in the preparation and planning for this very important event. We also salute our other co-sponsors Carol Bellamy and UNICEF, Nafis Sadik and UNFPA, Jim Wolfensohn of the World Bank and our hosts President Wade and the Government and people of Senegal.
In many parts of the world we have made enormous progress since Jomtien. The total number of children in primary school rose from 599 million in 1990 to 681 million in 1998. But even for those countries that have met education targets the goal-posts have already shifted; primary education is not enough. And others that have faltered are now even farther behind. There are still 113 million out-of-school-children, nearly a billion illiterate adults, a majority of them women, and severe shortages of qualified teachers, adequate schoolrooms and teaching materials. At the same time, education has moved from being the floor on which a country builds its competitive success to being its competitive success. Older measures of competitiveness such as labour costs, resource endowments and infrastructure are being superceded by human capital. The single most important question for economic success is now : How smart are your people? Because knowledge does not respect geography or old economies. Ideas have wings and in the IT age they fly at the speed of light.
So we cannot underestimate the scale of the challenge. And even as the proportion of Official Development Assistance devoted to education has remained steady over the past decade, the total has dropped due to the overall fall in aid flows. At UNDP, that has forced us to re-think how best to help meet our shared, overarching goal of helping halve world poverty by 2015. We must do it, however, within the boundaries of a re-focused organization that understands and sticks to its comparative strengths vis--vis its international, bilateral and national partners. We are not an education agency; but we are a governance and, I hope, IT for development agency with important broader co-ordination, technical assistance funding and policy functions. And we are the UN's focal point in the fight against poverty.
So in education, UNDP's comparative advantage does not lie in areas like teachers, classrooms, textbooks or recurrent costs. The new UNDP must recognize that to be a good leader you also have to sometimes be a good follower. That means falling behind UNICEF, the World Bank or others where and when that is needed. UNDP must stick to its strengths: helping build political support at the community, national and global levels for education and promoting the policy choices and institutional growth that lodges education provision at the centre of a sound national development strategy. There are seven broad areas -- encompassing good governance and advocacy, gender and health, and the role of IT in both basic education and higher education - where I think UNDP can help do this.

First and most important is getting parents - and in most countries these days that means voters - angry and involved in the debate over the state of education. Just go from one end of India to the other and you can see the difference motivated parents prepared to thump the school desk to get the attention of a local educational establishment can make. UNDP has a very important advocacy role and we have wonderful tools to use: Through the global and national Human Development Reports we can work with our local partners help identify educational disparities and gaps and build policy momentum to address them. Then with our partners in the UN system and the World Bank we can - and in many cases already do -- help integrate education into broader national poverty eradication strategies. All intended to drive government ownership of education policy that encompasses political, legislative, and budgetary action and responds to the insistent drumbeat of a public demand to educate our kids.

Second, however, we have to recognize that this is not something that can be driven at a national level alone. The point about parent power is that it is felt first at the community level. And not just on behalf of their children; often it should be to demand vocational training to meet their own needs - particularly when members of a disenfranchised informal sector. Shifting responsibility to the local level is the best way to ensure both implementation and accountability. In many countries, there are wide regional discrepancies in education provision -for example here in Senegal, I understand primary enrollment rates vary from over 90 per cent in Dakar to under 30 per cent in Diourbel. Often such gaps reflect in large part the varying strengths of accountable local institutions, including parent-teacher associations. As UNDP's new Poverty Report clearly pointed out to bring change within reach of the poor, you need to use local institutions, particularly transparent and effective local governments.

This is something that Brazil has managed to do very effectively over the past decade. To implement a reform process funded by the World Bank and other partners, UNDP was asked to support the establishment of financial mechanisms to decentralize funding to local school councils. In the first mould-breaking phase of state level educational bureaucracies this sometimes meant sending cheques straight to Parent-Teacher Associations or headmasters to get resources to frontline classrooms. As the reforms progressed we also helped develop an Integrated System of Education Information that integrated 25 state databases into a national system. That information has become a critical tool for the ministry to improve coverage and targeting of everything from school lunches to textbooks. Unlike the system in many OECD countries it works in real time. That is it identifies bottlenecks in the current school year, not after the fact. Brazil, with a huge school age population has met the challenge of Jomtien through smart policy, political commitment - and, I might add, using IT through distance learning.

Third, we need to maintain international political support for EFA. This Forum marks one very important way of doing that. But it also means continually working to ensure that funds freed up through debt relief and other initiatives are properly and effectively channeled to education programmes. At the same time all of us on the governmental and inter-governmental side need to use partnerships with international civil society groups like the Global Campaign for Education and Oxfam, the private sector and the media to keep these issues firmly on the global agenda. National educational reform must be rewarded with increased international financial support.


Fourth, is the overwhelming importance of girls'education. This is - rightly - a major theme of this Forum, and Secretary-General Kofi Annan has already very eloquently highlighted the scale of the problem. But it cannot be emphasized enough. Not only is education the key to lasting gender empowerment: it can have a dramatic effect on poverty reduction and quality of life for entire communities. More than 60 per cent of the children not in school are girls, with the problem particularly acute in parts of Asia and Africa. That is why the new global Initiative to educate girls is a test the United Nations system and its partners must not fail. Working through the UN Development Group that I chair, UNICEF has taken an important leadership role on the issue and we are absolutely committed to the Initiative's broader success.

Fifth, we can no longer isolate the issue of HIV/AIDS and regard it as simply a health problem. It is also now a potentially devastating education problem, especially on this continent. One on level it is decimating already thinly stretched professional ranks: in some areas as many as one in three teachers are now affected, exacerbating already serious capacity problems. On another, education remains our best weapon in combating the disease through prevention strategies. And as countries like Uganda and our hosts in Senegal have shown us, integrating HIV/AIDS issues into education planning is one of the most effective ways of doing this successfully.


Sixth we need to recognize and embrace the genuinely transformative power of the telecommunications revolution for education. Too many people dismiss the Internet as a tool for rich countries. They argue that in a world where half the population has yet to use a telephone, and there are still so many illiterate adults, it is inappropriate, expensive and ineffective. But the point about revolutions is that they are revolutions: they transform all processes they touch from financial transactions to educational provision. Unlike old telephone systems it can reach anywhere without an expensive landline infrastructure and access costs are falling dramatically. Vast pools of interactive information from textbooks to technology and instructor support that would otherwise be inaccessible are being sprung open for the world's poorest. Even now, at a time when Africa has nearly 10 per cent of the world's population but just 0.1 per cent of Internet connections, it can already make a dramatic difference in poor countries. South Africa's growing - and successful -- experience with special telecentres for disadvantaged communities is a model UNDP has been working to help spread elsewhere in the continent.

And that brings me to my seventh and final point, which is an appeal to keep in mind that while basic education is an absolutely necessary building block for real success in this new global knowledge economy, it is far from sufficient. It is only the foundation for what must be a focus on life-long learning and skills acquisition. As Mark Twain laconically observed, I have never allowed schooling get in the way of my education. Developing countries as a group contain 80 per cent of the world's population but only half its higher education students despite huge demand and scarce resources. At the Public University of Kinshasa, as many as 2,500 students are forced to cram into a single class in biomedical sciences. At Nairobi Medical School library, the number of journals have shrunk to 20 from 300 a decade ago. Restoring higher education is unlikely to be a bricks and mortar strategy alone; rather expect old institutions' capacities to be renewed by internet support.

Education For All has in its decade of life tilted from mobilizing tool to, at times, the near jeopardy of empty slogan. Dakar is a time for sober reflection and a bold and visionary re-commitment. No silver bullets. But with the right mix of sound policies and sufficient resources, I believe, a goal we now have a real opportunity to achieve.
Thank you.