The social and economic gap between the world’s richest 1 billion people and its poorest 1 billion has no historical precedent. Not only is this gap wide, it is widening. The poorest billion are trapped at subsistence level and the richest billion are becoming wealthier with each passing year.
One way of narrowing the gap between rich and poor segments of society is by ensuring universal education. This means making sure that the 72 million children not enrolled in school are able to attend. Children without any formal education are starting life with a severe handicap, one that almost ensures they will remain in abject poverty and that the gap between the poor and the rich will continue to widen. In an increasingly integrated world, this widening gap itself becomes a source of instability. Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen focuses the point: “Illiteracy and innumeracy are a greater threat to humanity than terrorism.”
In the effort to achieve universal primary education, the World Bank has taken the lead with its Education for All plan, where any country with a well-designed plan to achieve this goal is eligible for Bank financial support. The three principal requirements are that a country submit a sensible plan to reach universal basic education, commit a meaningful share of its own resources to the plan, and have transparent budgeting and accounting practices. If fully implemented, all children in poor countries would get a primary school education by 2015, helping them to break out of poverty.
Some progress toward this goal has been made. In 2000, some 78 percent of children were completing primary school, while by 2005 this figure reached 83 percent. Gains have been strong but uneven, leaving the World Bank to conclude that only 95 of the 152 developing countries for which data are available will reach the goal of universal primary school education by 2015.
Poverty is largely inherited. The overwhelming majority of those living in poverty today are the children of people who lived in poverty. The key to breaking out of the culture of poverty is education—particularly the education of girls. As female educational levels rise, fertility falls. And mothers with at least five years of school lose fewer infants during childbirth or to early illnesses than their less educated peers do. Economist Gene Sperling concluded in a 2001 study of 72 countries that “the expansion of female secondary education may be the single best lever for achieving substantial reductions in fertility.”
Basic education tends to increase agricultural productivity. Agricultural extension services that can use printed materials to disseminate information have an obvious advantage. So too do farmers who can read the instructions on a bag of fertilizer. The ability to read instructions on a pesticide container can be life-saving.
At a time when HIV is spreading, schools provide the institutional means to educate young people about the risks of infection. The time to inform and educate children about the virus and about the lifestyles that foster its spread is when they are young, not when they are already infected. Young people can also be mobilized to conduct educational campaigns among their peers.
One great need in developing countries, particularly those where the ranks of teachers are being decimated by AIDS, is more teacher training. Providing scholarships for promising students from poor families to attend training institutes in exchange for a commitment to teach for, say, five years, could be a highly profitable investment. It would help ensure that the teaching resources are available to reach universal primary education, and it would also foster an upwelling of talent from the poorest segments of society.
Gene Sperling believes that every plan should provide for getting to the hardest-to-reach segments of society, especially poor girls in rural areas. He notes that Ethiopia has pioneered this with Girls Advisory Committees. Representatives of these groups go to the parents who are seeking early marriage for their daughters and encourage them to keep their girls in school. Some countries, Brazil and Bangladesh among them, actually provide small scholarships for girls or stipends to their parents where needed, thus helping those from poor families get a basic education.
As the world becomes ever more integrated economically, its nearly 800 million illiterate adults are severely handicapped. This deficit can best be overcome by launching adult literacy programs, relying heavily on volunteers. The international community could offer seed money to provide educational materials and outside advisors where needed. Bangladesh and Iran, both of which have successful adult literacy programs, can serve as models.
An estimated $10 billion in external funding, beyond what is being spent today, is needed for the world to achieve universal primary education. At a time when education gives children access not only to books but also to personal computers and the Internet, having children who never go to school is no longer acceptable.
Few incentives to get children in school are as effective as a school lunch program, especially in the poorest countries. Since 1946, every American child in public school has had access to a school lunch program, ensuring at least one good meal each day. There is no denying the benefits of this national program.
Children who are ill or hungry miss many days of school. And even when they can attend, they do not learn as well. Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University notes, “Sick children often face a lifetime of diminished productivity because of interruptions in schooling together with cognitive and physical impairment.” But when school lunch programs are launched in low-income countries, school enrollment jumps, the children’s academic performance goes up, and children spend more years in school. Girls benefit especially. Drawn to school by the lunch, they stay in school longer, marry later, and have fewer children. This is a win-win-win situation. Launching school lunch programs in the 44 lowest-income countries would cost an estimated $6 billion per year beyond what the United Nations is now spending to reduce hunger.
Greater efforts are also needed to improve nutrition before children even get to school age, so they can benefit from school lunches later. Former Senator George McGovern notes that “a women, infants and children (WIC) program, which offers nutritious food supplements to needy pregnant and nursing mothers,” should also be available in the poor countries. Based on 33 years of experience, it is clear that the U.S. WIC program has been enormously successful in improving nutrition, health, and the development of preschool children from low-income families. If this were expanded to reach pregnant women, nursing mothers, and small children in the 44 poorest countries, it would help eradicate hunger among millions of small children at a time when it could make a huge difference.
These efforts, though costly, are not expensive compared with the annual losses in productivity from hunger. McGovern thinks that this initiative can help “dry up the swamplands of hunger and despair that serve as potential recruiting grounds for terrorists.” In a world where vast wealth is accumulating among the rich, it makes little sense for children to go to school hungry.
Adapted from Chapter 7, “Eradicating Povery, Stabilizing Population,” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), available for free downloading and purchase at www.earth-policy.org/books/pb3.