Developing world - 'It ought to be a wake-up moment for all of us'

17th January 2014 at 00:00
Aid organisation chief says fall in funding threatens security

Alice Albright is a woman with a tough job. As chief executive of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), she is responsible for raising billions of pounds in education aid funding from the West and distributing this money among developing nations in need of help to improve their school systems.

On both counts, the job is getting even tougher. According to Ms Albright, funding commitments for education in the developing world plummeted by 36 per cent between 2009 and 2011. "It's a jaw-dropping number," she said. "It ought to be a wake-up moment for all of us."

Without extra education funding, the security situation in many parts of the world already affected by war and conflict could deteriorate dramatically, Ms Albright told TES.

Ongoing austerity measures on the part of many Western governments, plus a series of devastating natural disasters that have caused aid to be diverted to affected nations such as India and the Philippines, have created what a GPE report published in December describes as a "learning crisis".

In spite of the United Nations' global campaign to achieve universal free primary education by next year, the latest figures show that 57 million children were still out of school in 2011.

For Ms Albright and the GPE, crunch time is fast approaching. Come June, the organisation will make the case to its donor countries - including the UK, Australia and Canada - that a significant round of contributions is needed to continue its work.

But Ms Albright insisted that the figures, although "substantial", would be "minimal in the context of moneys that are spent by donor governments".

"This is an opportunity to reverse some of these negative trends," she said. "[Developing] countries are showing remarkably heroic leadership around education. They're saying, `Education is a priority for us.' The international community is saying, `Not so sure.'

"Education is hugely foundational to all other (aspects of) development: health and neonatal care, climate change, economic growth, security. In order to be effective as a society to deal with any of those challenges, you have to be able to read and write and do maths. People are beginning to realise that not educating their societies creates permanent problems.

"We can't signal to these countries that education is not important and just let them deal with it."

Ms Albright's own country, the US, exemplifies this worrying trend. As of 2013, it had donated just $2.3 million (pound;1.4 million) to the GPE - barely a third of Luxembourg's contribution.

The daughter of former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and, until last year, chief operating officer of the US's Export-Import Bank under the Obama administration, Ms Albright is acutely aware of the challenge faced by the GPE.

"Domestic economic weakness is beginning to turn around in some countries but it's very slow and incredibly uneven," she said. "Parliaments have grown very wary and sceptical of international things."

But she insisted that the benefits of investing in education were myriad. She cited the example of war-torn South Sudan, with its literacy rate of just 27 per cent.

"This is a symptom of five decades of war with the North," Ms Albright said. "It's terribly sad.You drive around that country and you see a lot of young teenage boys and girls who are out in the middle of the day, not in school.

"You can easily see how they could be captivated to join militias to do bad things. Security situations can deteriorate very, very rapidly if you've not educated your society because there's a hopelessness that sets in that can go bad very quickly. There's a huge security benefit to educating."

Ms Albright also defended the GPE's decision to reject a controversial application for $50 million in education aid from Uzbekistan, a country accused of using large-scale forced child labour during the cotton-picking season.

"What we did in that case was set aside the technical plusses and minuses. We went back to the government and said, `We can't continue.until we have received some assurances that the child labour issues have been avoided or resolved.'

"Philosophically, we view our clients to be on the one hand the governments, but on the other hand the children. If a government is really doing something that is harmful, we have no choice but to step in," she said.

But Ms Albright did not rule out a change of heart on the GPE's part. "It would be a mistake for us to say to the Uzbek government that we don't want to deal with them, period. We said, `Come back to us and convince us these things aren't issues any more and then we'll talk.' So we're waiting."

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