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Failing grade on education worldwide

For some reason, the critical role of education as a means to ‘sustainably’ reduce poverty and increase opportunity worldwide seldom gets the same attention as fighting diseases of poverty, technological innovation or efforts aimed at fostering healthier markets.

Maybe that explains the depressing – mostly ignored – findings in a report issued this week by UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Or maybe it’s because the report was so damn long and buried all the fun graphics. Seriously, a 300-page report in this day and age (with more than 100 pages of footnotes and appendices)?

So here’s an illustration from page 87 that shows, perhaps surprisingly, that India and China lead the world in illiteracy:

IlliteracyWill China and India be able to sustain their economic progress with so many of their citizens failing to obtain the very basics of an education? And if China, with its economic progress over the past decade or so largely driving most of the celebrated decline in global poverty, is doing so badly on education one can only wonder how the truly poor countries are doing.

Putting UNESCO’s ‘state of global education’ report findings more succinctly, here are some of the main points:

  • One in four young people in poor countries (many of them technically students in school, or some 175 million young people) can’t put a sentence together.
  • Most poor countries will fail to achieve the international goal for 2015 (Millennium Development Goal #2) of ensuring every child worldwide has access to primary education. Some 50 million children today never see a school.
  • Enrollment statistics are suspect in many countries. And even promising numbers of students enrolled fail to reflect the poor quality of the teacher training and lack of resources for education. Simply placing children inside a building is not education.
  • Sub-Saharan African countries generally do the worst, accounting for 22 percent of the world’s unschooled children.
  • The economic loss from having no or poor education in the developing world is estimated to be $129 billion per year.
  • The number of literate adults wordwide has not increased much (about 1 percent) in the last 15 years.
  • Girls are most likely to suffer from lack of education. The report contends improving girls education would reduce maternal mortality by two-thirds.

It doesn’t take a highly educated rocket scientist to conclude that we are unlikely to make much progress against poverty and inequity if so many hundreds of millions of people around the world lack even the most rudimentary education. There’s a reason why expanding access to basic education was made one of the international community’s eight main (MDG) goals for 2015.

As Voice of America reported (and good for them, one of the few in the media to take note of this report!), to improve on these sorry statistics governments need to invest more in hiring well-trained teachers and generally bolstering their funding for education.

One way to do this, UNESCO noted, is for governments to close all those tax loopholes and special favors to international corporations (aka ‘corruption’) that today divert funding away from public needs. The UN agency noted that even just adding one more year of education to those living in the developing world can boost the economy by two percent GDP.

No brainer.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.