Increased Support for Education Crucial to Reaching Sustainable Development Goals, Speakers Tell High-Level General Assembly Event
Education was the key for achieving all 17 Goals in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but realizing that Goal’s full potential would require increased financing, smarter use of technological innovations and greater access to learning opportunities, especially for women and girls, speakers told the high-level General Assembly event on education today.
The event, last in a series focusing on drivers of sustainable development, aimed to generate ideas for advancing global efforts to implement Goal 4 of the Agenda — ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. Participants included ministers, senior Government officials and other high-level representatives.
General Assembly President Peter Thomson (Fiji) emphasized in his opening remarks that inclusive, equitable and quality education fuelled sustainable growth. However, Goal 4 would require a massive scaling-up of efforts. More than 263 million children worldwide were out of school, while one third of the world’s children lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills. Those living amid armed conflict and natural disasters were most vulnerable. “We are going to have to get the wheels of implementation turning faster than they have been,” he said.
It was critical to ensure investment in teachers, technological advances, and an increase of women and girls’ access to education, he said. Recalling his meeting with three young women who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria, he recounted how they spoke of their resolve to achieve higher education and their mission to call on the international community to step up its efforts for all girls around the world to have access to schooling. Those girls, he underscored, should serve as an inspiration for the meeting.
Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, said inclusive and equitable quality education would prepare the world’s young people to shape a more peaceful and prosperous society for everyone. Goal 4 was the world’s promise to deliver on equitable and quality education for all, she said, describing it as a “docking station” for all the other Sustainable Development Goals.
However, she emphasized that much work remained to be done on education in many countries, villages and communities. There must be a focus on several areas, including financing for education, which remained insufficient in many developing countries, greater use of technology, girls’ education, lifelong learning, and extending educational opportunities in humanitarian situations.
Irina Bokova, Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), pointed out that in developing countries, least developed countries, small island developing States, and refugee camps alike, when children were asked what they wanted most, the answer was education. Recalling that the 2030 Agenda had promised to leave no one behind, she said “that must start at the benches of schools”. Nonetheless, some 200 million adolescents worldwide, mostly girls, were still out of school and most of the illiterate adolescents were girls. Because of continuing discrimination, they dropped out of secondary education.
Moreover, some 50 per cent of refugees had no access to secondary education, she said. If all adults completed secondary education, 420 million people could be lifted out of poverty. However, funding to education had fallen for the sixth consecutive year. Governments should allocate 4 to 6 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) to education, and wealthier nations should support those countries in need. For its part, UNESCO would continue to lead “from the front”, she said, highlighting the various ways it was supporting education initiatives at the national and regional levels.
“The status quo is not acceptable,” she stressed, emphasizing the need for awareness-raising and placing education at the heart of international and national agendas. Financing, particularly at the national level, was essential. Partnerships were critical in attaining all the goals. “No one today can act alone,” she said. Education remained a prerequisite in the attainment of all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
“My parents have never been to school, but they understand the importance of education,” said Saul Mwame, founder of Building Africa’s Future Foundation. His parents had worked hard their whole lives so that he could achieve his dreams of becoming an aeronautical engineer. His aim now was to ensure that not only boys got to go to school but girls as well, including his younger sister. It would not be possible for someone like him, born in the United Republic of Tanzania, to share his story had it not been for the work of the United Nations and civil society.
Education had an immense positive impact on the well-being of individuals, he continued, emphasizing that sustainable development could only be realized through quality education. His goal was to create awareness among young people on the critical role of education. Young people must be inspired to use their minds to solve the many problems the world faced. Human beings were created to help one another. “Nothing is impossible but what has been achieved is not enough,” he stressed. No matter what path one came from, he or she had a role to play in making education accessible to all people.
As the event drew to a close, Dessima Williams, Special Adviser, Sustainable Development Goals, Office of the President of the General Assembly, said today’s discussions were encouraging. She also welcomed the several initiatives announced today, including by the ministers of Norway and Ghana, for continuing to finance education initiatives and providing high school education for free, respectively.
Also presented during the day-long event were panel discussions focusing on four themes: what it would take to achieve Goal 4; innovation in education; education in vulnerable and humanitarian situations; and education for sustainable development and education for global citizenship.
A ministerial-level dialogue was held on “What will it take to achieve SDG 4?” moderated by Alice Albright, Chief Executive Officer, Global Partnership for Education. Panellists included Koumba Boly Barry, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education; Ju-ho Lee, Former Minister for Education, Republic of Korea; and Helena Barroco, Diplomatic Adviser to Former President of Portugal Jorge Sampaio.
Ms. ALBRIGHT said the deadline of 2030 was looming large, but progress towards Goal 4 was far too slow. “We cannot keep doing things in the same way,” she said, emphasizing the need to increase financing, strengthening educational systems and promoting innovation through new ideas, platforms and partnerships.
Ms. BOLY BARRY, addressing the challenges facing education today, said nearly 1 billion people today had no access to the right to education, a number that included more than 600 million adults and youth, as well as 263 million children, with more than 60 per cent of the total being women. Quality was also a problem, with many children in school not learning very much and 40 per cent of primary school pupils were leaving school without mastering basic math or language skills. It was as the educational system was turning out unemployed people. Another challenge was governance, she said, emphasizing the need to take into account every aspect of society in all its diversity. She also highlighted the need to raise awareness, asking how many teachers understood Goal 4 and the Incheon Declaration.
Mr. LEE, describing how the Republic of Korea had dealt with educational challenges, said his Government and private spending on education accounted for 9 per cent of its GDP. Driving such high spending was his country’s belief in the power of education. Regardless of economic and social background, if a child showed promise, they could go as far as gaining admission to world-class universities with support from public and private foundations. The Government had also made education a top policy priority for combatting poverty and building the economy. Such a holistic approach to education had enabled the Republic Of Korea to become a very high achieving country in economic and social terms. He went on to discuss the report of the Education Commission, of which he was a member, titled “The Learning Generation”, noting its conclusion that, with sufficient investment, it was possible to get all young people into educational settings within a generation.
Joining in on the discussion, several ministers for education shared their countries’ experience and challenges.
ROBERTO AGUILAR GOMEZ, Minister for Education, Bolivia, said in the last 11 years, his Government had substantially increased its education funding. “We made a revolutionary jump in placing education at the top of our priorities,” he added.
LEONOR MAGTOLIS BRIONES, Education Minister, the Philippines, echoed a similar sentiment, stating that the highest level of Government spending — higher than the military — went to education. The Philippines were developing a prototype of an electronic classroom, which would be able to reach the highest mountains, with or without electricity.
Several speakers continued to underscore the need for financing in education.
SOPHON NAPATHORN, Vice-Minister for Education of Thailand, noted that 4 per cent of his country’s GDP was allocated to education. Youth younger than 15 years could study for free and the Government continued to develop a curriculum to serve national needs and market demands.
LEILA BOKHAIR, State Secretary, Norway said that domestic financing was by far the most important source of financing and must be scaled up. However, there was also recognition for external resources. Her Government would continue to promote education as a top priority, while prioritizing vulnerable and marginalized children.
YAW O ADUTWUM, Deputy Minister for Education, Ghana, pointed out that poor and vulnerable people did not participate in secondary education. For that reason, Ghana would, for the first time, be providing high school education for free starting in September.
Ms. BARROCO, responding to a question about education in humanitarian situations, discussed the work of the Global Platform for Syrian Students, a scholarship programme for Syrian refugees founded by Jorge Sampaio, former President of Portugal. Higher education in emergency situations was a neglected issue, with such education mostly being seen as a luxury. However, a country could not rebuild itself without preparing the next generation of its leaders. In the case of Syria, prior to the conflict 25 per cent of its secondary school graduates had gone on to university, either in Syria or overseas. Because overseas universities had experience in admitting foreign students, the Global Platform, with 150 students participating, was a successful pilot programme that could be replicated elsewhere. However, such an initiative must be firmly grounded in the multilateral system, with a coordination system that would allow universities to connect with refugees, as well as a financing facility. Going forward, the Global Platform was planning to introduce a “solidarity levy,” inviting students around the world to contribute $1 or £1 or €1 that would help finance higher education for young Syrian refugees.
In the ensuing discussion, ministers offered their national perspective.
VICTOR SANCHEZ, Vice-Minister for Education, Dominican Republic, shared the benefits of expanding school hours, beginning at 8 a.m. and continuing to 4 p.m. That change not only helped children stay out of trouble, but also enabled students, who perhaps did not have easy access to nutritious meals, to be fed.
MOISERAELE MASTER GOYA, Assistant Minister for Education, Botswana, said his country was the first in its region to achieve universal access to education. Challenges remained, however, in the field of sustaining quality. Botswana’s economy, highly dependent on diamonds, had been critically impacted by the international financial crisis. For that reason, it was important to diversify the economy.
Also participating in the discussion was Olga Nachtmannova, Deputy Minister for Education, Slovakia; John McLaughlin, Deputy Minister for Education of New Brunswick, Canada; Tilaye Gete, State Minister, Ethiopia; Mercedes Miguel, Minister for Education, Argentina; and Aishath Shiham, Minister for Education, the Maldives.
A panel was also held on “Innovation in Education”, moderated by Vikas Pota, Chief Executive Officer, Varkey Foundation. Panellists included Leslee Udwin, founder and Chief Executive Officer, Think Equal; Shai Reshef, President and founder, University of the People; Maggie MacDonnell, Winner of the Global Teacher Prize 2017; and Asmaa Alfadala, Director of Research and Content Development, World Innovation Summit for Education. It also featured Muhammad Usman, Executive Director, Centre for Renewable Energy and Action on Climate Change.
A panel discussion was held on the theme “Education in vulnerable and humanitarian situations”. Moderated by Dean Brooks, Director, Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, it featured presentations by Omar Abdi, Deputy Executive Director, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); Yasmine Sherif, Director, Education Cannot Wait; Carolyn Miles, Chief Executive Officer, Save the Children USA; Geoffrey Loane, Education Adviser to the Director of Operations, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); and Fahad Al-Sulaiti, Chief Executive Officer, Education Above All, Qatar. Speaking as respondents were Petra Němcová, Happy Hearts Fund, and Dor Akech Achiek, Settlement Services International.
Mr. BROOKS put forth a number of questions to the panel on such topics as the effectiveness of current humanitarian mechanisms with regard to education, ways to assess their impact and how they could be improved upon, and how gaps between humanitarian assistance and development aid affected sustainable learning.
Mr. ABDI said the number of children forcibly displaced by conflict — 50 million — should be a source of shock and shame. The cost of failing such children was high, yet the humanitarian system was unable to guarantee them an education. Since 2005, there had been only a 4 per cent increase in the amount of funding for education in emergency situations. Twenty-five per cent of UNICEF’s global funding appeal was for educating children in emergencies. He underscored the need for partnerships, saying no Government, agency or non-governmental organization had a monopoly on solutions.
Ms. SHERIF said the fact that the 2.7 per cent of humanitarian resources invested in human capital demonstrated a complete disregard for human life. Education did not get the muscle and support that it deserved. Education Cannot Wait was a global instrument for political, strategic and financial initiatives that would put children’s education at the centre of how humanitarian crises and emergencies were addressed. It offered predictable funding, but it also required financial commitment and support from partners. Its objective was to ensure quality results on the ground, empowering young people to achieve their potential and become agents of change — “the future Nelson Mandelas of their countries”.
Ms. MILES, noting that more than 4,000 schools had been targeted during the Syrian crisis alone, emphasized that schools were safe places for children to go to, protecting them from early marriage, child labour and trafficking, especially in times of conflict and chaos. She underscored the importance of sustained investment; improving the quality of education, including building teacher capacity; and inclusive policies to ensure that every child could go to school.
Mr. LOANE said education was arguably one of the public services least resilient to external shocks. Part of ICRC’s work involved introducing sets of values and principles to enable children to discuss what was happening around them and to give teachers the skills to help them do so. In its contacts with States and non-State armed groups, ICRC addressed the responsibility for ensuring that education services continued. Noting that schools could be occupied for military purposes, or become targets, he said the absence of education was a motivating factor for families to become displaced.
Mr. AL-SULAITI said attacks on education must stop. His organization was working with others to find solutions. Although there were many options, there were perhaps not enough to halt attacks on education. If education accounted for 2 to 4 per cent of funding for humanitarian action, would 10 or 15 per cent be enough, he asked, going on to emphasize the importance of a multisectoral approach in implementing the Goals and the role of schools in ensuring the success of vaccination campaigns.
Ms. NĔMCOVÁ, speaking as a respondent, said natural disasters should not be looked at separately. All schools built by her organization were designed to withstand floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. Proactive solutions were needed, as well as more collaboration to create better sustainable responses.
Mr. ACHIEK, originally from South Sudan, also spoke as a respondent, crediting formal education in a refugee camp in Kenya for enabling him to get a master’s degree and work in the humanitarian and community services sector in Australia. He emphasized the role of non-conventional educational activities, such as youth leadership programmes, saying their success depended on creating environments in which both girls and boys participated equally.
In the ensuing discussion, participants offered their national perspectives.
The representative of Georgia said that in those regions of her country under foreign military occupation, education in the Georgian language was being replaced by Russian. That represented a huge challenge that needed to be tackled with the international community.
BERNARDITO AUZA, Permanent Observer for the Holy See, quoted Pope Francis, saying the right to education was ensured first and foremost by respecting and reinforcing the right of the family to educate its children, as well as the right of churches and social groups to assist families in that regard. That principle required promoting a “culture of encounter” that involved a real atmosphere of respect, esteem, sincere listening and solidarity that did not blur or lessen one’s identity. Such a culture could respond to many forms of violence, poverty, exploitation, discrimination, marginalization, waste and restrictions on freedom that the Goals sought to remedy.
LEONOR MAGTOLIS BRIONES, Secretary of the Department of Education of the Philippines, recalled her childhood during the Second World War, during which her mother, a teacher, held classes in the mountains, teaching pupils to write on banana leaves. Today in the Philippines, an intense outpouring of generosity had helped to ensure that education continued in typhoon-hit sections of the country. Children evacuated from conflict areas in the predominantly Muslim part of the country had been guaranteed places in schools in predominantly Christian areas. It was also announced on 5 June that classes would continue in Mindanao where martial law had been declared. Children were not parties to conflict, she said. They had a right to education and the entire country was taking them in.
A representative of Ecuador said around 1,400 schools sustained damage during an earthquake on 16 April 2016 in the north of his country. In response, some schools were repaired while provisional classrooms were put into place. Meanwhile, funds were raised through solidarity campaigns. More than one year on, Ecuador was recovering, he said, thanking friendly countries and others for their solidarity.
Also speaking were Leila Bokhari, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Norway and a representative of Australia.
Another panel, “Education for Sustainable Development and Education for Global Citizenship”, was moderated by Dankert Vedeler, Assistant Director-General, Ministry of Education of Norway and Co-Chair of the Education 2030 Steering Committee. Panellists included Hahn Choonghee, Co-Chair, Group of Friends on Education for Global Citizenship; Susan Hopgood, President, Education International; May East, Chief Executive, Gaia Education; and Fran Siracusa, Member, Global Goals Educator Task Force. Participating as respondents were Sanaya Bharucha, Teach for India, Senior Manager, Student Leadership and Musarrat Maisha Reza, Director of Programme Design and Development, Be the Peace-Be the Hope.
Mr. HAHN said education in the past had been regarded as teaching knowledge and skills for higher opportunity or a better job. However, now education must be transformed into a tool helping to achieve a better future for all. Curricula must cater to each country’s unique needs in order for them to realize their full potential. “It is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed,” he said, citing the United Nations Charter’s guiding principles. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) was trying to recruit young people worldwide. Therefore, young people must be able to think critically, reject extremism and develop tolerance for others. At a time of increasing global challenges and threats, worsened by local tensions and conflict, learning to live together was more important than ever before. Global Citizenship could contribute greatly towards finding lasting education solutions.
Ms. HOPGOOD said that the global political climate had changed substantially since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda in 2015. Nationalistic movements in several parts of the world had presented new challenges. A major component for systematic change was financing, she continued, expressing concern that Governments too often were not meeting their commitments. Teaching and learning continued to take place in unsafe and unhealthy environments. “Tools, time and trust” were the three major components required to allow educators to teach. Furthermore, education must return to a holistic approach and teachers must be freed from oppressive standardized tests. Building the right curriculum would help make sustainable development a component of all subjects. “Quality education is not teaching about the Sustainable Development Goals but rather teaching [them],” she continued, adding that by teaching the targets, “we make them real”. It would also create the opportunity for children to get involved in their future.
Ms. EAST said that between now and 2030 some 2 billion babies were expected to be born and would need, eventually, to be educated. In addition to that, by 2030 some 1.2 billion young people would reach working age and would need jobs. Much more was required to incorporate education on sustainable development into school curricula. The focus must be on retraining educators. Education must promote interdependence and working together to reverse climate change and create a collaborative rather than a competitive society for all. Every school should establish a school garden as a microsymbol of life, enabling children to learn about the soil, water, nutrition, health and the connection between humans and nature. Students could also learn about sharing, equality and social justice.
Ms. SIRACUSA underscored various challenges she faced as a teacher when educating her students about the Sustainable Development Goals. Describing the activities of her organization, Global Goals Educator Task Force, she stressed the need to inform and empower young people so that one day they could take control of their future. She also noted various pathways and spaces the Task Force had created for educators and teachers to take part in, including a social media presence that helped support teachers as they taught sustainable development. The Task Force had also created an Ambassador Programme that every educator could take part in.
Ms. REZA, participating as a respondent, said it was important to implement experimental learning, which would encourage others to turn privilege into a platform for action. She also noted that 65 per cent of girls in Bangladesh were married before their eightieth birthday and highlighted the crucial role of local leaders to affect change.
Ms. BHARUCHA, also speaking as a respondent, said that her organization, Teach for India, was focused on creating a country where all children, not just the privileged few, could attain an education. She also underscored the power of holistic education.
FLORENCE ROBINE, Ministry for Education, France, said that policies must be based on science and facts. She expressed concern that norms were being imposed on children, including evaluations carried out at a very young age. “How could children as young as 3 or 4 be classified?”
Also speaking today were representatives of Bulgaria, Namibia, Bolivia and Canada.