Op-ed by Queen Rania; Financial Times Supplement: This is Africa

August 15, 2010

Now, before you reach for your red pens, or tut that the Queen of Jordan can’t do math, let me explain.

I’m talking about the sum of Millennium Development Goals 2 and 3, and the impact they have on the eight MDGs created in 2000 to tackle poverty once and for all.

The MDGs were designed to be mutually reinforcing but, I believe, success in MDG 2 (universal access to primary education) and MDG 3 (promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment) is vital for success in all the other goals. In my mind, education is the development tool of choice. If every child around the world was in school, and if every woman played an active role in society, then 2+3 would lift humanity and transform our global community.

But “if” is the operative word.

September’s MDG summit in New York, which Professor Jeffrey Sachs has described as “the last chance to get it right,” will discuss the ‘if’ as it evaluates ten years of global progress - or lack thereof.

Africa, particularly the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, will be taking a keen interest in the summit’s findings and conclusions. Since the bold and public promises of 2000, sub-Saharan Africa has limped rather than leaped in development spheres.

Yes, there have been laudable gains: primary school enrolment has increased at five times the rate achieved in the 1990s; and, in the last ten years, it has reduced its out-of-school population by nearly 13 million –down to 32 million. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have made great strides towards gender parity, and over 40% of countries have achieved parity in primary education.

But major challenges remain, and the halcyon dream of 2015 is looking less likely by the day.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to nearly half the world’s estimated 69 million out-of-school children (the majority of whom are girls); 20% of the children who do go to school, do so, hungry.

In some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, young adults with five years of primary schooling have a 40% chance of being illiterate.

To achieve MDG 2 by 2015, 1.6 million teachers need to be trained in the next five years.

Even those in school face enormous obstacles. No schoolbooks or desks. Poorly qualified teachers. Overcrowded classrooms.

And location, poverty, gender, and security, over which children have no control, remain barriers to educational access everywhere.

It is devastating that in Eritrea and Liberia, hard-fought progress towards universal primary education is reversing due to current or recent conflict.

It is deplorable that in Somalia, one in seven children does not survive to age 5, and just 22% of those who do reach primary school age are in school – one of the world’s lowest enrolment levels.

It is disgraceful that 12 million girls currently out of school in sub-Saharan Africa, will never find their way into school in the future.

I’ll admit it: I’m daunted by the scale of those challenges; but I’m heartened by the knowledge that MDG 2 and MDG 3 are achievable. Simple, low cost interventions like creating girl-friendly schools, abolishing school fees, building village water wells, or facilitating a local bus route so that girls get to school safely, work. They work.

So, no wonder the African people find it hard to understand why the global community isn’t delivering on its promises when education, especially girls’ education, is known to deliver lasting change to communities and countries.

• When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90% of it into their families, compared to only 30%-40% for men.

• Girls who complete primary school are 70% less likely to be infected by HIV; and if every child was in school today, we’d prevent 7 million cases of HIV in the next decade. With nearly 3 million new cases a year, that’s a huge impact.

• Educated girls are also more likely to delay marriage and less likely to get pregnant very young, reducing the risk of dying in childbirth when they are still children themselves.

My own experience with UNICEF and 1GOAL (the global campaign, pegged around the Soccer World Cup, to collect signatures demanding education for all) complements these stats. When I meet children, they tell me that they want to go to school. Africa’s children want to go more than most. And Africa’s girls are desperate to go. When opportunity presents itself, they grab it and make it count.

Last year, I visited a school in Soweto, South Africa, where UNICEF’s Girls/Boys Education Movement classes teach equality and empowerment. Seventeen year old Thokanzi told me how she had been forced to leave her classes the year before because her new husband wanted her to stay at home. She complained so much to her girlfriends that twelve of them came to her new marital home, and argued with her husband to let her resume her education. They even volunteered to help Thokanzi with the housework after school finished. He relented. She returned. 1-0 to Girlpower.

Earlier this year, I went to Egypt. Wafa’a’s story convinced me of how indispensable UNICEF’s girl-friendly schools are. Underweight and sickly as a baby, Wafa’a’s parents didn’t register her birth; they thought she would die. Without a birth certificate, she didn’t exist, and she couldn’t enroll in school. For six years, she asked her parents to register her birth so that she could attend class, but there was always something more important to do. Every day, from the fields that she tilled with her father, she watched her friends walk to class. She practised imaginary writing in the air; she flicked through her friends’ schoolbooks without understanding them. When she was eleven, UNICEF, with the Egyptian government, opened a girl-friendly school and welcomed her; she flourished. Wafa’a graduated in June. In her spare time, she teaches her older sister how to read; tells people in her village about the dangers of polluting the river; and promises that her daughters will go to school at an early age. I’d say the investment in that girl-friendly school has already more than paid off.

And, yet, in the continent that has just hosted one of the best World Cups ever, costing $7.3 billion, there’s a funding gap in development aid for education to sub-Saharan Africa totaling little more than that. The financing gap to provide a basic education to Africa’s children is almost $11 billion annually. Instead, in 2008, the continent received less than $2 billion.

In other words, the world can find financing for a month of football, but not for the future of Africa’s most precious citizens. That sounds like an own goal to me.

So, as the 2015 deadline looms large and the goal-gap grows; at a time when we should be stepping up funding and accelerating efforts, we’re facing a financing chasm, waning political will, and a lack of creativity about how we’re going to overcome it all.

This is more than a financial failure, this is a moral failure, one that echoes the words of Martin Luther King:

“If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values - that all reality hinges on moral foundations.”

I believe that King was talking of values like compassion, forgiveness, peace, justice, honor, and equality. I believe he was telling us that every human has value and deserves respect, dignity and opportunity. I believe that if we strengthened our value-base, we would find the resolve and the resources to hold fast on our promises to care for the vulnerable.

Yet when it comes to educating the world’s children, we are not honoring our instincts with our actions.

This has to change. At all levels. But particularly at the level of those attending this MDG Summit: the decision makers…the budget holders…those who make bold promises to the media and raise the hopes of the hopeless. Over 13 million people who signed 1GOAL’s online petition (www.join1goal.com) expect decisive action this month.

Bottom line? We need more funds and we need to use them more effectively. And in this economic climate, we need to be innovative about how we raise them.

We need a creative, “business unusual” approach if we are to meet the MDGs, keep our promises, and not break the hearts of already broken people.  Here’s 2+3 ideas to think about:

• Important as it is - it is not enough for donors just to follow through on existing pledges. We need to hear new and binding pledges to increase aid to basic education. Special attention needs to be given to financing basic education in low income countries, especially those affected by conflict.

• New and emerging donors (like Brazil or South Africa), philanthropic foundations, and the private sector need to be more effectively engaged, coordinated, and encouraged to get children into school.

• To complement official development assistance, we need innovative financing for education. Issuing global education bonds on capital markets is one inventive approach that I’ve seen work well in the health sector. 

• The global financing architecture for education needs to be reformed to take into account the changing financing landscape of traditional donors, new partners and innovative financing approaches. The Fast Track Initiative (FTI) is the only global financing mechanism and the FTI’s ongoing reform needs to transform it into a more ambitious global education initiative.

• We need to shift our measurement metric from inputs to results. What counts is what children get out of education systems, not simply the number of children – or the amount of money – that is put in. Innovative approaches that encourage increased aid effectiveness are vital.

You don’t need to be good at math to understand that those ideas add up to 8.

Rania Al Abdullah, Queen of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
Co-Founder of 1GOAL (www.join1goal.com)
Eminent Advocate for UNICEF

** As published in “This is Africa” supplement of the Financial Times, September 2010