Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been a major proponent for global education since his tenure ended. He has made a number of announcements and proclamations in favor of increasing global literacy, yet recently his proposals have gained more steam. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has agreed to follow through with Brown’s mission statement to put 57 million children in school worldwide by next year. This falls short of the Millennium Goals that were meant to be reached by 2015.

A report from January of 2014 brought on this concern towards the Millennial Education Goals. The UNESCO report said that the goals would not be met until 2086 under current projections. While striving towards these goals 70 years in advance may seem a little optimistic, the statistics used from 2011 showed a 50% drop in out-of-school children since the beginning of the new millennium. This gives hope for a renewed commitment to make an immediate impact.

The most recent statistics on the issue come from that 2011 study, but those numbers showed 123 million young adults (15-24) lacked basic reading and writing skills. The most progress for universal primary education has been in Southeast Asia, in South Korea, India and Vietnam. Afghanistan shows the most immediate promise for the future, even with troops potentially leaving the nation at the end of the year.

The nations struggling the most to achieve universal primary education are those of Western Africa. Senegal, Mauritania, Nigeria and a number of other sub-Saharan countries still lag behind most of the developed world. Particularly for women, there remain few options and little hope for advancement. West Africa will likely be where UNESCO efforts have to focus.

Gordon Brown, as the United Nation’s Special envoy for global education, called these struggles unacceptable. He said in a recent interview, “the inequality of opportunity that they face is unfair… we have seen the makings of a civil rights struggle amongst young people.” Brown hopes that drawing on grassroots campaigns for education around the world will help bring the world closer to universal primary education.

The fight to achieve universal primary education will take on multiple fronts and be supported by different leaders. Malala Yousafzai has become a global celebrity thanks to her courage in the face of opponents of this mission. Yousafzai and Brown have begun work in Lebanon to educate the thousands of school-age children living in Syrian refugee camps. Given the ongoing Syrian conflict it is unknown how long those kids will be living in the camps, and the need is there for education to prevent a “lost generation” of kids.

The Millennium education efforts may have missed their goals by a long shot. However, the emphasis that people like Brown and Yousafzai have placed on primary education brings hope for the near future. Organizations like The Borgen Project support this passion and hope it will be shared by more people around the world. The first step toward ending global poverty will be reaching children as early as possible, and universal primary education is a key method of doing so.

– Eric Gustafsson

Photo: Globalization101
United Nations, PBS, BBC