For far too long, education has not been enough of a global priority. In the last decade alone, international development donors have spent proportionately less on education — while significantly increasing aid to global health.
Access to good quality schools is just as important as access to quality healthcare. Yet for some reason, donors have not made the same level of commitment to education.
One reason for this may be that donors are often focused on funding programs that can achieve quick measurable results. In health, for example, aid programs that provide children with vaccines or bed nets can be implemented within weeks or months. And the results are often visible shortly after.
The education sector, by contrast, has a bigger challenge when it comes to metrics. Progress cannot be measured within weeks or months but instead must be evaluated over years and decades. And unlike the health sector, where you can show success by looking at declines in mortality rates, showing success in education is less clear-cut.
While the global education sector has traditionally used the number of children in school and graduation rates as indicators of success, these metrics don’t tell the whole story. As is often the case in many developing countries, a child can progress through school without learning basic reading and math skills. Without a global comparative indicator for learning, it is difficult to benchmark and monitor progress in education worldwide.
Another reason why global health is more sufficiently funded than education is the immediacy and visibility of health crises. Threats of global pandemics — from Zika to Ebola to HIV/AIDS — often generate an urgency that rallies public support and political will.
Like weak healthcare systems, poor education systems also contribute to global crises. Yet there is not the same sense of urgency when it comes to taking action.
We might not see children dying in the streets because of a lack of a quality education, but the long-term impacts are just as consequential. Children who do not receive a quality education end up trapped in generations of extreme poverty that not only impact them but their communities, families, and children.
So what do we have to do to make education a top priority for world leaders?
We have to do what the global health sector has done.
First and foremost, we have to convince world leaders that access to a quality education is a fundamental human right that all young people are entitled to — on par with the right to live a life free from preventable diseases.
Children cannot lead healthy lives in the future without access to quality schools now. The good news is we have the data to back this up. Recent research from the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity finds that if we can get all children in school and learning, by 2050, the mortality reductions resulting from improvements in education — measured in years of life gained — would almost be equivalent to eradicating HIV and malaria deaths today.
We have to do a better job explaining why the long-term benefits of education are worth investing in. We know education increases peace and stability. Every additional year of schooling reduces an adolescent boy’s risk of becoming involved in conflict by 20 percent. Education is also vital for economic growth. According the Commission, if we could get all young people in school and learning, by 2050, GDP per capita in low-income countries would be 70 percent higher compared to if we didn’t take any additional action.
Education leaders and advocates need to ensure that educational investments are focused on proven policies and interventions. In developing countries, these include switching to mother-tongue instruction, expanding basic education, providing remedial education for at-risk students, among other interventions.
Ultimately, it is up to all of us to advocate and push the international community to take action and invest in global education reform. We have to show leaders that not investing in education now can have irreparable damage for future generations and that it’s a global priority that can’t wait any longer.