Against overwhelming odds, the efforts of countries and donors to pursue the Education for All  (EFA) goals over the last decade have paid off. The number of out of school children has dropped by the tens of millions, enrollment rates have surged, first grade entry has jumped substantially, completion rates have shot up, gender disparities have diminished, and other types of equity have improved in many countries, including in very large countries like China, Brazil, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. Of course the six EFA goals and Millennium Development Goals 2 and 3 still remain to be achieved so we are anything but complacent. Nonetheless, we have seen substantial progress.
It is really important to recognize that in education we are talking about broad, system-wide outcomes – not just narrowly defined (albeit incredibly important) specific outcomes – for example in the health sector, improved outcomes on a few diseases. Scores of countries around the world have made great leaps forward on education results, despite poverty, despite the fact that many donors did not meet their funding targets, and despite the fact that EFA doesn't have a Bono, a Bill Gates, or an Angelina Jolie to promote its importance.
The fact is, the crippling effect of disease on human lives is easy to understand by policy-makers, the media, and citizens - in rich and poor countries alike. It is all too easy to portray a diseased child, a sick mother or infant, or a family wracked by AIDS or TB, or Malaria. Showing a child suffering from a devastating illness tugs on the heartstrings of all but the most selfish individuals that exist. But it is nearly impossible to portray a child suffering from not having learned in school, an adolescent girl who has not developed mathematical reasoning skills, or a family ravaged by not being able to read. Citizens and policy makers are unable to make the same kind of direct emotional connection as with health.
Despite the fact that education has been flying under the radar, over the last decade or two, country after country has made the difficult choice of sustaining or increasing its funding for education in the face of a huge number of other pressing needs and even during economic crisis! And these countries have seen the results of these efforts pay off in countless ways. In fact, for anyone who has taken the time to understand the relationship between education and poverty reduction, or between education and economic growth, or between education and countless other private and social returns, the logic of these investments, of these fiscal efforts, of these policy efforts, is obvious:
That's because, as our forthcoming Education Strategy  emphasizes, a country’s wealth and its prospects for development depends on the quality of its people— the skills and creativity of its workers, the capability of its leaders to govern well and to manage resources, and the ability of its adult generation to raise healthy, educated and happy children and develop citizens well prepared with relevant workforce competencies to contribute to their nation's success, and their own well-being.
So who are the biggest advocates for education? They are the political and civil society leaders of countries across the world who make the political decisions to invest in people. They are the mothers and fathers in countries everywhere who demand a quality education for their children. There is a long way to go to ensure learning for all and it will require everyone’s involvement.
For these reasons -- and a million others -- we should all be advocates.
Photo credit: Image of Bono comes from Wikimedia Commons.