If education is the cure for poverty, then how do we make the antidote?

Inexplicably, the international community continues to fail the world’s poor by not creating access to the legitimate education programs that would allow them to conquer poverty.

The United Nations headquarters (photo credit: REUTERS)
The United Nations headquarters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The United Nations recently claimed that the Millennium Development Goal that focused on primary education increased global enrollment from 83 percent to 91%. Despite these gains, today it is estimated that 124 million children do not attend school and 757 million adults are illiterate.
That nearly a billion people are without a proper education is distressing as a good education is a proven foundation for alleviating poverty, sustainable economic progress, healthier lifestyle and enhanced social development.
Inexplicably, the international community continues to fail the world’s poor by not creating access to the legitimate education programs that would allow them to conquer poverty.
The UN’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on education may have achieved some progress but overall it was ineffective as it concentrated more on the quantity of children attending classes rather than the quality of education for each age group.
Substandard education was highlighted in an UNESCO report that stated over 29 million children dropped out of school in Sub-Saharan Africa each year. The reason can be attributed to the children not receiving a high level of education as in most cases classroom sizes are too big and teachers are unpaid, inexperienced or have no training.
As a result of the poor quality of education, uneducated parents are more focused on their short-term needs and neglect the long-term benefits of education and thus pull their children out of school to work. This can be seen as a result of the UN not making great gains in improving adult education. Since the parents have not personally experienced education improving their quality of life, they miss the advantages for their children and thus remain trapped in the cycle of poverty.
Other education problems include ineffective, outdated, or irrelevant curricula that do not teach students the most essential skills for success where they live. In addition, many children have the impossible task of concentrating without correct nutrition, as schools lack funding for food programs. Such food programs can also be an added incentive for parents to enroll their children.
Fixing education in the developing world In September 2015, the UN announced that one of the new Sustainable Development Goals (the new MDGs) would be improving the “quality” of global education.
This time around the goal is more broadly focused on all levels of education and aims to eliminate gender and wealth inequalities.
While this is a step in the right direction, ultimately achieving quality education will involve increased investment in infrastructure, teacher training, curriculum development, classroom materials, technology, food programs and lowering schools fees. Most importantly the ultimate goal should be ensuring any program is focused on learning and not just attendance.
Today no universal education model will work for every country, as each education system must be adapted to local and cultural dynamics. This means that national governments should give local leaders, parents and teachers greater educational autonomy, including increased input in setting the curriculum in their region.
More emphasis needs to be put on teaching skills that are applicable for obtaining jobs in each specific region. For example, a place like Palawan Island in the Philippines, which was voted the most beautiful island in the world but is also one of its poorest regions in the country, should focus more on tourism skill sets, such as learning languages. Mineral-rich countries like Peru or the Democratic Republic of the Congo should put more stock in teaching skills aimed at securing industry jobs, developing better math, science or geography programs that can produce engineers or geologists (one of Peru’s highest paid professions).
Education innovations can be part of the solution There is hope for improving global education as successful innovative ideas are being used by many organizations, such as One Laptop per Child, who have developed and distributed millions of durable, economical, low-power laptops that allow rural children to digitally access updated textbooks, classes and information.
Also, in isolated rural areas Internet problems have been solved by Alphabet’s (Google’s holding company) Loon project, as it has developed technology that can supply Wi-Fi access to isolated rural areas via balloons.
In fact, India is attempting such a project to combat low Internet access and weak education.
Plus, Bangladeshi-based NGO BRAC has been successfully providing quality education to the poor with its non-formal primary education program, which has a drop-out rate of less than 5%. In addition it has a thriving adult education program that puts emphasis on women by teaching them to read, write and share their resources so they can successfully run businesses.
Another great innovator is The Economist 2015 innovation award winner Bridge International, which has developed a low-cost model for building nurseries and primary schools that delivers high quality education in East Africa.
These innovations can advance global education but need to be combined with increased global investment in the education sector. Corruption and lack of knowledge regarding the importance of education means governments are not investing enough money in education and sometimes even spend more on their militaries.
Moving forward Developed countries can also take some of the blame, as Kevin Watkins from Overseas Development Initiative has previously stated that only 2% of yearly international global aid given to developing countries is invested in education. To combat this, countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and EU countries must put stricter conditions on their aid and make sure it is invested effectively in the education sectors of developing countries.
Obviously, education is not the only solution to achieve sustainable human and economic development, but it is undoubtedly the foundation of true progress. In the next decades, with the help of increased investment and utilizing advances in technology, we have a great opportunity to give the world’s poor a quality education and with it the tools to alleviate poverty.
We can use South Korea as an example, as in the 1960s it was a poor country with a horrendous education system and today has transformed into an economic powerhouse by having one of the best education systems in the world.
The author is a Canadian international development specialist who has traveled to over 80 countries while working for several NGOs, including extended time on education programs in Peru and Ukraine. You can follow him on twitter at: @ brbrasseur.
This article was originally published with Global Policy Journal on January 4, 2016.