Last week, millions of parents, teachers and children across the globe called on their governments to provide free, high-quality, basic education for all the world's children. They are part of the Global Campaign for Education; we add our voice to their call.
We know first-hand what education can mean to a child: In our own lifetimes, we have seen a generation of children armed with education lift up a nation. Our educations were a foundation from which we were able to take part in the historic events of our countries -- the liberation of our peoples from colonialism and apartheid.
Education can be the difference between a life of grinding poverty and the potential for a full and secure one; between a child dying from preventable disease, and families raised in healthy environments; between orphans growing up in isolation, and the community having the means to protect them; between countries ripped apart by poverty and conflict, and access to secure and sustainable development.
Education is one of the most effective tools we have to promote the prevention of HIV/AIDS and stop the spread of the pandemic. In times of peace, education can offer children ways to protect themselves -- in times of war, it can literally save their lives.
Yet there is an education crisis in the world today: 120 million children -- two-thirds of them girls -- do not have access to basic schooling. One out of every five children will never see the inside of a classroom. By allowing this, we exclude these children from meaningful participation in society.
In many developing countries, school fees are the barrier to getting children in school. Even in countries where primary education is meant to be free, the cost of buying books and uniforms means that many poor families simply cannot afford to educate their children. In Zambia, sending one child to primary school can cost a family one-fifth of its household income. It is not surprising then that more than 500,000 children in Zambia are not in school.
Governments must do much more to make schooling accessible for all children. On our own continent, Africa, national budgets often do not prioritize the basic needs of children: access to school, health care and clean water. Yet when our priorities and commitments are clear, the response can be tremendous.
In Malawi, primary school enrollment soared by 50 per cent following the government's decision to eliminate school fees and mandatory uniforms in 1994. Malawi has now achieved gender parity in primary school enrollment Yet these achievements have put added strain on the country's education system as schools are now overwhelmed with pupils.
At the 2000 World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, governments and donor organizations reaffirmed their commitment to achieving universal primary education by 2015. Developing countries promised to establish Education For All (EFA) plans that would include provisions for free schooling for primary-school children. The international community promised that "no country seriously committed to education for all will be thwarted in their achievement of this goal by lack of resources."
Two years on, many countries that have drawn up education plans are not receiving the support promised. Pakistan's education minister, Zobeida Jalal, cites a lack of resources as an "insurmountable barrier to EFA throughout the South Asia region."
The decision by the Netherlands government to commit 135 million euros to finance education initiatives in developing countries is encouraging, but it is one of far too few attempts to truly implement the EFA commitment. The World Bank recently called for the elimination of school fees, immediate action to increase resources to countries that have education plans and a three- to five-fold increase of donor funding for primary education. We must ensure that these policies are acted on.
We live in a $30-trillion plus (U.S.) global economy -- we have the resources. Last year, the world spent almost twice as much on defense as on education -- in some regions, four times as much. An estimated $1-billion is being spent each month on the military actions in Afghanistan alone. To meet global targets for universal access to education, a gap of $5-billion to $10-billion per year must be filled. If we are serious about fighting ignorance, disease and poverty, we must be as diligent about finding the resources to fund the educational, health and social well-being of our children as we are about finding resources to defend our nations in other ways.
Next week, world leaders will be gathering at the UN Special Session for Children. In June, leaders from the richest industrialized countries will meet at the G8 Summit in Canada. Both these events are opportunities to act on commitments already made -- to ensure not another moment passes without taking swift and clear action. We must not allow our promises to ring empty.
Nelson Mandela is former president of South Africa and founder of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Nelson Mandela Children's Fund. His wife, Graca Machel, is a former education minister in Mozambique and founder of FDC, a community-development foundation. They are leading the Global Leadership Initiative, part of the Global Movement for Children.
© 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc