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Millennium Development Goals: back to school

Ehsan Masood
1 August 2006

It is an annual ritual, and no less important for that. The publication of the United Nations's scorecard on efforts to tackle poverty in developing countries is designed to remind world leaders that their ambitious promises to halve global poverty through the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) by 2015 are unlikely to be met – this despite significant increases in development aid.

In contrast to previous years, however, there was no fanfare surrounding the 2006 report. It was announced on 3 July in a small paragraph from the UN's statistics division. Two weeks since that announcement, the report has yet to make it onto the UN's official MDG website – a sure sign, if one were needed, that the organisation’s flagship scheme to end world poverty is in trouble.

The 2005 report was signed by Kofi Annan. This year's signatory is a senior official though one less well-known than the UN's secretary-general: José Antonio Ocampo - a case perhaps of the senior doctor delegating the task of conveying news of terminal illness to his more junior colleague? Ocampo says that the "challenges the goals represent are staggering", though he is able to find "clear signs of hope".

Later, Ocampo admits that there are vast disparities in progress and that the poorest are being left behind. His report ends with a phrase much favoured by international policymakers to signify that a cause is all but lost: "Much more can and must be done."

I don't envy Ocampo. He wants to give his readers a dose of reality, but at the same time remind them that a world without extreme poverty is possible as well as desirable – though not necessarily in the time-frame they have set themselves.

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network


Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:

"British Muslims must stop the war"
(August 2005)

"The globalisation of Islamic Relief"
(November 2005)

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO"
(December 2005)

"Bush’s 'war on science' through the microscope"
(January 2006)

"Alexandria’s bridge" (February 2006)

"Language: a toolkit for life on earth"
(March 2006)

"The rocky road to citizen rule"
(April 2006)

"Measuring miracles" (April 2006)

"The light of education: blind children's best buys'" (May 2006)

"Ziauddin Sardar: paradise lost, a future found" (May 2006)

"A post-imperial diplomat" (May 2006)

"Israel and the bomb: don't ask, don't tell" (June 2006)

"Muslim Britain: the end of identity politics?" (July 2006)

"The aid business: phantoms and realities" (July 2006)

The parent factor

Among José Antonio Ocampo's readers will be the very leaders of rich and poor nations who met in September 2000 at the United Nations in New York and agreed to do what it takes to reach the eight Millennium Development Goals in reducing poverty before a target date of 2015. These goals are:

  • eliminate extreme poverty and hunger, by lifting the living standards of the very poorest
  • achieve universal primary education
  • promote gender equality and empower women, especially in education
  • reduce child mortality among under-fives by two-thirds
  • improve maternal health, including reducing maternal mortality by three-quarters
  • combat HIV/Aids, malaria, and other diseases
  • improve environmental sustainability, including the guaranteed access to safe drinking water
  • develop a global partnership for development.

All the data in the 2006 edition of the Millennium Development Goals report suggest that none of the goals are likely to be met. Only one will come close: this is the target to achieve universal primary education. Thanks more to circumstance than design, by 2015, nearly nine out of every ten children are on course to have a primary-school place.

But on every other indicator, progress is either patchy or non-existent. The numbers of people who go to bed hungry in the developing world, for example, is rising, and stands at some 824 million people. Nearly half a million children die from measles annually. The list of failures is long and depressing.

So why is the single goal of universal primary education potentially within reach? The answer has little to do with the promises made at the 2000 millennium summit, and everything to do with the hard work and innovative thinking on the part of a host of actors (governments, civil society and parents), who decided long ago that getting children into schools has to be a major priority for the developing world.

This is the conclusion of research published by the World Bank that examines the world of primary education in developing countries. The bank knows a thing or two about schools and schooling; it is the largest non-governmental donor in this field, having granted or lent some $36 billion for education for developing countries over the past four decades. At present, its lending portfolio in education amounts to $8.4 billion in some eighty-eight countries.

As might be expected, the components of success in primary-school education amount to a mixed bag, and depend very much on what countries and regions need, and how much they can afford to pay. In the poorest regions, for example, a priority is often to create schools from scratch. Equally important is the provision of incentives for parents who have never been to school to let their children go, and to reassure them that schooling will not automatically lead to their children rejecting traditions and traditional values.

There are additional dynamics at work in relatively higher-income countries, where primary-education enrolment may already be high. Here, a priority might be to improve the curriculum, improve standards of attainment as well as school attendance, and to experiment with new models of school management and governance.

Taken together, what the World Bank researchers' data shows is that there is no magic bullet: more a collection of variable interventions. What some of these tend to have in common, however, is that they are schemes that have a good record of success in the developed world, or among elite, fee-paying schools in developing countries.

Some successes have come through spending vast sums of money on school buildings, equipment and teacher training. Mexico, for example, has invested heavily in its primary and secondary education – some $625 million over the past fifteen years. Its policies have specifically targeted some of the country's most deprived states, as well as regions with large numbers of indigenous peoples. In addition to infrastructure spending and introducing performance-related teachers pay, a key plank in Mexico’s policies has been to focus on the role of parents.

Worldwide it is children from the poorest families who do not go to school. Where they do, they tend to underperform significantly, compared with the national average in their countries. Often, this is because parents have little or no involvement in a child's school life. This can be because parents themselves never went to school and lack the confidence to interact with teachers; or it might be because of a lack of trust between parents and school authorities – something that is also a factor in the underperformance of children from minority communities in the developed world.

In Mexico, the government decided to improve parents' participation through a nationwide scheme (known as AGEs), which trains parents to take part in school management. Empowering parents – encouraging, training, and even paying them small sums of money – to play a formal role in school activities, has had a significant effect in improving education in rural Mexico, according to World Bank researcher Paul Gertler and his colleagues. Drop-out rates have fallen and standards are on the rise.

AGEs is relatively cheap – it costs $6 per student per year, or $27 million for all of Mexico's 4.5 million children of primary-school age. And it shows what you can do with a small amount of money allocated wisely. A similar example comes from Ecuador, a poorer country compared with Mexico with average incomes at $1,500 per year. Ecuador's policymakers have for many years been aware of the fact that while primary-school enrolment is high at 90%, this drops to 45% when pupils make the transition to secondary school.

There are several reasons for this, including the higher costs of secondary schooling, as well as the need for parents to place children in work so they can begin contributing to the household budget. One solution to enable more children to stay on in post-11 education was to pay mothers a $15 monthly child voucher to help with the increased costs of secondary schooling. And the system appears to be working. Both, the numbers of children in work, as well as school drop-out rates have been falling since the scheme was introduced, according to Norbert Schady and Maria Caridad Araujo of the World Bank's research staff.

People, not aid

But development aid isn't the whole story. It is possible to boost primary-school enrolment with very little involvement from donors or the government, as a case study from Pakistan has shown. One in four of Pakistan's rural households include a parent (usually a male) who works far from home, and who regularly sends money in the form of remittances. World Bank researcher Ghazala Mansuri decided to explore what happens to the schooling of children from these households in all four of Pakistan's provinces. Does it improve because of a family's more favourable finances? Or does it decline, in part because children are needed to do the work of the absent parent.

Mansuri found that not only were the children from migrant households more likely to attend school (especially girls), but she found that they were more likely to study to a higher level compared with their counterparts from settled households in rural areas. Girls in particular completed more than two extra years of schooling compared with those from non-migrant households.

What can we learn from these examples? There is the obvious: that primary schooling has to be free to all regardless of ability to pay. There are two further lessons: that parental involvement in management and governance, as well as small financial incentives, can make a big difference to a child's school attendance; and that (as the Pakistan example shows) if parents were able to earn a living wage, they wouldn't need recourse to external support.

Equally important is the issue of time, and of deadlines, such as the 2015 target to reach the Millennium Development Goals. None of these improvements happened overnight, and their genesis predates the MDG project – in most cases by at least a decade. The fact that we stand at the threshold of universal primary education will happen despite the MDG initiative, and not because of it.

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