Ten years ago, I lived in KwaZulu Natal South Africa for a year, working at a foster care center that supported children living in the region. It was there that I met an amazing young man named Menzi Zulu. When I first met Menzi he was eight years old, and unlike the majority of children in this poverty-stricken region, Menzi was fortunate enough to be enrolled at the primary school down the street.
Menzi was lucky. In 2002, some 100 million children worldwide did not have the same opportunity to get a primary education.
Now ten years later, Menzi’s life is full of possibility. He is about to graduate from high school and begin his university studies with dreams and opportunities ahead of him no one would have predicted could be possible.
Fortunately, Menzi’s story is not as uncommon as it used to be. What people may not realize, is that today – a mere ten years later – nine out of every ten children are enrolled in primary school throughout the world.
While in many places, the target of 100 percent attendance is already met or expected to be met by 2015, the latest data also shows that in 2011 there were still some 57 million children out of school. And according to prevailing trends in different pockets of sub-Saharan Africa and some parts of Asia, progress is insufficient to guarantee the goal of universal primary education will be met by 2015.
The world won’t achieve universal primary education by 2015 without urgent action.
I believe we can correct this. One solution is for U.S. government leaders – President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary Kerry, USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah - to commit to education by increasing the U.S. financial contribution to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) - a body composed of developing countries, donors, the private sector, international organisations, civil society and private foundations.
Why? While achieving universal schooling by 2015 is a noble goal in and of itself, investing in education is perhaps the most effective and quickest way to reduce poverty. Children who are literate and know basic mathematics can provide a better future for their families, communities and the countries in which they live.
Investing in education produces enormous yields.
For instance, each additional year of schooling raises average annual gross domestic product growth by 0.37 per cent. In areas where the enrolment rate for secondary schooling is 10 per cent higher than the average rate for the population, the risk of war is reduced by around 3 per cent.
There is more and more evidence that proves increased access to education's impact on issues like the promotion of girls’ and women’s rights, falling infant mortality rates, and increased crop yields. In fact, if all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty.
The GPE exists to ensure funds delivered towards education are spent efficiently in the recognition that with so many countries operating within different frameworks, coordination is paramount in order to guarantee effective spending. Most funds given to the GPE come from twenty member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). A report released in April 2013 showed that out of these donor nations, the United States ranked second to last in its total donations, just ahead of Romania. The United Kingdom has given $676 million, and Australia has given $149 million. In the same time the U.S. gave a meager $2.3 million contribution.
We are living in a time where some Americans have become fatigued and even cynical by how the United States invests its foreign assistance dollars. But this an opportunity to make a significant difference in the lives of the most disadvantaged people in this world. By increasing its funding to the GPE, the U.S. can be sure its foreign assistance will see greater returns for the world.
The huge success we have seen in the expansion of primary school education around the world is a direct result of countries like Australia who spend 25 per cent of their aid budget specifically on education. By helping children get an education we can pull them out of poverty and eventually lessen the foreign aid that is needed when extreme poverty is only a part of history.
It’s time for the U.S. step up and renew its commitment to the eradication of extreme poverty by sharpening its focus on education and the long lasting results it can bring – especially for the 57 million children who are yet to complete primary school. This is the best global investment the US government can make.
Evans is CEO of the Global Poverty Project and co-founder of the Global Citizen Festival. For more information visit www.globalcitizen.org