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Private Sector, U.N. Unite to Bring Millions into Classrooms

Primary school children in class, in Harar, Ethiopia. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Primary school children in class, in Harar, Ethiopia. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 26 2012 (IPS) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Wednesday launched a new initiative aimed at giving education the highest political priority in the global agenda and ensuring progress towards the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Titled ‘Education First’, the new programme has already secured over 1.5 billion dollars in financial commitments from several countries, including Australia, Bangladesh, Denmark, South Africa and Timor-Leste.

The initiative was launched in the sidelines of the annual high-level debate of the General Assembly which concludes next week.

“I am encouraged and grateful for all the generous commitments made today, which gives Education First a boost towards achieving its goals,” the secretary-general said, immediately after the launch.

“Our shared goals are simple. We want children to attend primary school and to progress toward higher education that will help them to succeed in life,” he added.

One of the U.N.’s eight MDGs is the achievement of universal primary education – along with the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, gender empowerment, reduction in child mortality, reduction and elimination of HIV/AIDS and improving maternal health.

Ban said Education First seeks to make a breakthrough to mobilise all partners, both traditional and new, to achieve universal primary education ahead of the 2015 target date for the MDGs.

An additional 24 billion dollars is needed annually to cover the shortfall for children out of primary and lower secondary school, he added.

At the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in the Qatari capital Doha last November, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown proposed the creation of a Global Fund for Education “in the same way we have a global fund for health, that has made enormous advances in tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, polio and malaria.”

Brown is currently the special envoy of the secretary-general for global education.

In addition to the five donors, dozens of corporations and private foundations have mobilised over 1.5 billion dollars in new financing “to ensure all children and young people have a quality, relevant and transformative education”, according to the United Nations.

Western Union Foundation and the MasterCard Foundation were among the first to solidify their support for the initiative.

Western Union has pledged to directly move over one billion dollars for education globally, providing 10,000 dollars per day in grants for one million days of school.

Under MasterCard’s Scholars Programme, the 500-million-dollar education initiative will allow 15,000 talented yet economically disadvantaged students, particularly from the African region, to access and complete their secondary and university education.

“We stand on the verge of breaking the promise we made to children in 2000. It is true that we have enrolled more children in primary school than ever before,” said Ban.

At the end of the 1990s, there were 108 million children of primary school age not enrolled. That number has fallen to 61 million.

“We have also reduced gender disparities. This is due in large part to national and international resolve to act on shared goals for education. Yet, this global expansion has stalled, and some regions are now losing ground.

“If current trends continue, we could have more children out of school in 2015 than today,” he warned.

Anthony Lake, executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, said children are often denied the right to an education because, through no fault of their own, they are hard to reach.

“Those in impoverished communities…where too often, even the youngest children must work to help their families survive. Those in conflict-torn countries…where parents are afraid to send their children to class because schools may, unpardonably, come under attack.

“Those wrongfully hidden behind closed doors…living with disabilities… and denied the opportunity to contribute their talents to their communities,” Lake said. “And those in remote areas…where too many young girls spend their days fetching water when we know that educated girls are a key to changing the trajectory of these communities.”

“It is wrong that my grandchildren go to great schools, while those children cannot,” he said. “It is because of these children that UNICEF is committed to this cause – not only in the work of our headquarters but through our nearly 600 education officers on the ground, working in almost 130 countries all over the world.”

Speaking at the launch, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the first lady of Qatar, called on world leaders to act to bring quality primary education to young children living in conflict zones and other challenging environments.

“The world is coming together to put education back in its rightful place on the agenda – first. Yes we will need funds, yes we will need resources, but most of all we need real understanding, genuine resolve, and action,” she said.

“The loss of an education is a real and life-threatening tragedy to the victims whose voices right now are simply not being heard. It can mean the loss of a future,” said Sheikha Moza, who will take an advisory role on the U.N.’s Steering Committee on Education First.

She said she would announce in November her own “significant new initiative that will be a practical and powerful step towards getting those 61 million children into school.”

Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan said that education is a human right, “yet we continue to treat it as a privilege.”

“We need political will at all levels to put our priorities in place – sometimes that’s missing. We need to work collaboratively, in order to reach our objective, we can’t work in isolation.”

“Today we have new tools we can use – new funding mechanisms, be it debt conversion, development bonds, all these all are new tools we have that we can leverage to reach our objective,” she declared.

 
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