Collaboration key if target of education for all is to be met
Cornelia Meyer
Education should be an inalienable right for every child and adult. So says the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, which stipulates that countries must “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” It stands alongside other SDGs such as ending poverty and hunger, and promoting good health and gender equality. All in all, they are 17 core goals, underlined by a universal set of values, which aim to make the world a better place for everybody. The UN’s target for achieving the 17 SDGs is 2030 — a tall order indeed.
The UN General Assembly proclaimed Jan. 24 as the International Day of Education. To mark that day, the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) held a half-day conference at its headquarters in Jeddah. The gathering highlighted the role education plays in achieving peace and development. The author of this column had the honor of chairing a panel at the event that was entitled “Challenges Towards Achieving SDG 4.”
The IsDB is dedicated to improving the status of education in its 56 member countries, alongside other multilateral development banks (MDBs), development institutions, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector.
Two things highlight the IsDB’s commitment to education. For one, the IsDB is, with $5 billion, the second-largest funder of education projects among its sister institutions. The only MDB contributing more is the International Development Association, which is the World Bank’s arm for concessional financing earmarked for the world’s poorest countries. Money is one thing the IsDB offers, leadership is the other. IsDB President Dr. Bandar Al-Hajjar, a former educator and professor himself, gave the opening remarks at the conference.
The nexus between lack of education and poverty has been widely discussed and is self-evident. Not all uneducated people are poor, but the vast majority of poor people in the developing world are uneducated, as one panelist pointed out. There is a clear relationship between human capital development, eradicating poverty, and addressing environmental and health issues in a society. The education of women particularly matters in terms of lowering birth rates, which is crucial to ending the cycle of poverty in many developing countries.
The statistics say it all: 264 million children globally have inadequate access to education, with two-thirds of these being in IsDB member countries. A further breakdown of this statistic is disconcerting: 39 percent of these children will attend school late, 20 percent will drop out, and 41 percent will never attend school at all. Girls are particularly affected. An estimated 131 million girls remain out of school worldwide. They face multiple barriers to education. Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia have the worst track record in education for girls, with 41 percent and 34 percent, respectively.
Many countries lack both the hard and soft infrastructure and funding to provide education for all. The challenges include conflict, rural access, poverty, and gender inequality. These challenges are particularly evident in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which is a laggard in education indicators. UNESCO produced a chart that highlights the degree to which SDG 4 has been achieved so far, with the degree of compliance illustrated in a sliding color scale starting from green, which denotes that SDG 4 has been achieved, to yellow, orange and dark red, with the last denoting a complete failure of the education system. MENA is a sea of orange and red, with only two exceptions in yellow. The only other region that is painted in similar colors is Sub-Saharan Africa.
Education really matters and the task of achieving SDG 4 cannot be left to development banks alone. Governments need to be engaged if they want to break the vicious cycle of poverty and conflict. This is particularly important now that a technological revolution is bringing us industry 4.0, artificial intelligence and other innovations.
The jobs of tomorrow will require an educated workforce. Those without education will be left behind, as will countries that cannot provide adequate education systems for their people. An adequate system does not only consist of primary, secondary and university education. Good, integrated systems for vocational training are important too. The dual education systems in Germany and Switzerland can serve as good examples for developing countries. Vocational training is a very effective tool for professional development — a country’s economy needs carpenters, plumbers and people who can fix things just as much as it needs expensive, highly trained doctors and lawyers.
Looking at the challenges ahead, it is vital that MDBs work with other development institutions, NGOs and the private sector to build the hard and soft infrastructure required to achieve education for all. Co-financing has a multiplier effect. A good example is the cooperation between the IsDB and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which have collaborated on a program aimed at eradicating polio in Pakistan. While this is a project in the health sector, it can serve as an example in other sectors too.
International bodies like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation can support the IsDB’s goal of achieving the SDGs by 2030 by working with governments at the political level, which is where they set their priorities.
SDG 4 has to be a top priority in places as riddled with conflict and afflicted by poverty as many of the OIC’s member countries are. This underscores the importance of collaboration between governments, developmental institutions, civil society and the private sector.
Uneducated, unemployed young men roaming the streets do not make for stable societies. The IsDB has its work cut out and it knows it.

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