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Director of the EFA Global Monitoring Report, UNESCO

Education Transforms

People around the world know that education is the key to a better life. Voters from over 190 countries who responded to the United Nations My World survey said providing a good education for all was the best way to build a better world. There’s a huge gap between that goal and reality, however: 250 million children are still being denied a chance to learn the basics.

Next week, when world leaders gather in New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, they have a chance to bridge that gap by putting education at the top of their list of global priorities to pursue after the 2015 deadline for the current development goals. To provide concrete evidence why they should do so, the Education for All Global Monitoring Report team has just released new analysis demonstrating education’s powerful role in transforming lives.

Education contributes to wider development by improving maternal and child health and nutrition, by reducing poverty, by accelerating economic growth, by promoting environmental sustainability, by strengthening tolerance, by empowering girls and women, and through many other channels.

Education has a particularly vital role in preventing child deaths educated mothers are not only able to recognize their child’s symptoms and seek treatment, but are also more likely to understand and carry out preventive measures. Numerous agencies supply insecticide-treated bed nets to counter malaria, for example, but mothers are unlikely to use the nets effectively to unless they understand how they protect children from mosquitoes that carry the disease.

The benefits of education can be huge: the new analysis shows that ensuring all women in poor countries complete primary school – helping them to spot warning signs and seek treatment for their children when ill – would save almost a million lives year. If they all had secondary education, child mortality rates would be cut in half, saving three million lives.  In Nigeria, for example, one of the countries with the highest child mortality rates in the world, if all women completed secondary education, the number of child deaths would reduce by 43%.

Droughts cannot be prevented, but education has a crucial role in helping communities prepare for them and thus avoid famines. The new analysis shows that providing all women with a secondary education could save more than 12 million children from one of the lifelong consequences of malnutrition being stunted, or short for their age.

Education is also vital to foster the tolerance and trust that helps avert conflicts. In the Arab States, for example, which has been suffering from upheavals this past year, people with a secondary education are 14% more likely than those with just a primary education to be tolerant towards people of different religions. This tolerance and trust underpins democracy as well. The new analysis shows that, across 18 sub-Saharan African countries, those of voting age with primary education are 1.5 times more likely to express support for democracy than those with no education, and the level doubles among those who have completed secondary education.

Education’s unique power as a catalyst for wider development goals can only be fully realized, however, if it is equitable. In countries in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the risk of conflict in the areas with the highest education inequality is almost double that of the areas that have the lowest education inequality.

Despite this clear evidence of education’s benefits, it has slipped down the global agenda since the world’s development goals were set in 2000, and children are paying the price. Developing nations are bearing the brunt of drastic cuts in aid for education: six of the 10 largest bilateral donors reduced aid to basic education between 2010 and 2011. The gap in annual financing needed to ensure basic education for all has widened to $26 billion Policy-makers and donors sometimes overlook the importance of  education because the benefits of quality schooling are often invisible.

That’s why the EFA Global Monitoring Report team has drawn together clear and convincing evidence of education’s considerable power to transform lives and societies. If world leaders meeting in New York next week want to guarantee that the goals they draft for the world after 2015 are more than just dreams, quality education for all must beat the top of their list.

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