Timor-Leste: Education First Starts Here
“From here we start,” stated United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from the grounds of Cassait School in Liquiça District, Timor Leste on 16 August 2012, alongside UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and his Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown, announcing the forthcoming launch of his Education First initiative.
The primary school counts 430 students and 17 teachers, grapples with classic problems of rural schools in many parts of the world from overcrowding and lack of clean water to difficulty in growing much-needed shade trees and river overflows in the rainy season. Nonetheless, the school has benefited from UN support and is part of the Ministry of Education’s child friendly school initiative, Eskola Foun, which has led to improved student achievement. Principal Geraldo Soares Ribeiro sees his main challenge as contributing to peace and stability by “encouraging children to be active players.”
Ms Bokova toured several classrooms with the Secretary-General and Mr Brown, listening to young students read and show basic science experiments. “We will hold hands together with the youth of Timor-Leste,” Mrs Bokova told official gathered at the school. “This is the first time that a Secretary-General has put education on the global political agenda. It is historic. Education can drive the world in challenging times. It is a force for human dignity, human rights and human development. UNESCO will continue to promote inclusive quality education and will stand behind your commitment.”
In a lecture at the University of Timor-Leste, Mr Ban General said the world needed “a bold new push for education.” Recalling the deprivation he had experienced during his childhood in Korea, he said that “education has the power to strengthen the capacities of every woman and man, to allow them to dream the world anew and shape it in this direction. It has the power to build healthy, inclusive societies, and to fight the scourges of disease and discrimination. It is at the heart of nation building. This is why I have made a top priority of my second terms as Secretary-General.” During the question and answer session with students, Mrs Bokova emphasized the need to “instill a sense of confidence in the country’s future and to focus on developing human capital through sound educational policies and life skills linked to the world of work.”
In a separate event, Mrs Bokova met beneficiaries of a UNESCO literacy programme run by the National Directorate for Recurrent Education. Close to 600 technical staff received training, community learning centres were strengthened and livelihood projects started. Both Ms Teresinha and Mr Soares proudly signed their names and wrote out sentences thanking UNESCO. “It is an honour to support you,” said Mrs Bokova. “Literacy enables you take your life into your hands, to continue learning and to give confidence to your children,” wishing authorities success with the program’s future.
Education Minister Bendito Freitas thanked the Director-General for UNESCO’s support to policy planning, evaluation and monitoring of programs. “As a young nation we must double our work to ensure that all children in Timor go to school. We need the participation of all stakeholders to address problems of infrastructure, to teach human rights and improve curricula.” Mrs Bokova stressed the importance of sound education policies for obtaining successful results and pledged UNESCO’s reinforced contribution.
Mrs Bokova also attended the inauguration of new premises of the Timor-Leste National Commission for UNESCO, located in Xanana Gusmão Reading Room, a project initiated in 2000 by Ms Kirsty Sword Gusmão, Chair of the National Commission. “I come at an important moment in the life of your people with a strong message of solidarity and support to the transition towards peaceful sustainable development,” said Mrs Bokova. “Access to quality education for all, respecting the cultures of different communities, reaching out to the marginalized – this is how we contribute to the respect of human dignity. I see political will and dynamism in your country to reach this goal, and the National Commission is a strong driver of this ambition. We are ready to accompany you in working for the dignity of the people of Timor-Leste.”
Ms Gusmão noted that “Timor-Leste is a young nation which faces immense challenges in its efforts to achieve the targets and fine objectives of UNESCO. Nevertheless we have also inspired the world over the past ten years since our independence was declared with our resilience and commitment to improving the living standards of our most disadvantaged and marginalized citizens…We thank UNESCO for guiding us on the road to a deeper understanding of the value and importance of our culture, our languages and traditional knowledge systems as rich and irreplaceable resources in our process of national development and reconstruction of our national identity.”