UNIVERSAL EDUCATION UN’s Millennium effort likely to fall far short

Universal education is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals established by the United Nations in 2000. The aim is that by 2015, every boy and girl around the world will have access to a full course of primary school education. But recent reports indicate that this goal won’t be achieved in the three years that remain.

In 2000, the United Nations (UN) member states agreed that ensuring every child on Earth access to a full course of primary education was vital to the organization’s goal of lifting 500 million people out of poverty by 2015. Today that education goal, one of eight Millennium Development Goals set by the UN, is in jeopardy.

In the early going, progress was encouraging. The number of primary school-aged children worldwide who were not being educated fell from 108 million in 1999 to 61 million in 2008, a decrease of nearly 44%. But in 2012, with just three years left to meet the goal, the tenth Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report found that progress has stalled at 61 million. What’s more, millions of children who do attend school are not learning due to too few teachers and poorly trained ones.


One reason progress stalled is that the easiest groups to help have all been reached. “It is now the most vulnerable and marginalized that are most at risk of not getting into school or not completing primary school,” said Pauline Rose, director of the EFA Global Monitoring Report for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). “They could include migrant children who move around with their families and need a school that moves with them. A large number of the children out of school are likely to be children with disabilities. The school environment in many countries is just not accessible in many ways to those children, and that needs to be addressed.”

61 million

The number of primary school-aged children worldwide who receive no education.


Reaching such populations with education is possible. Rose points to successful initiatives from government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For example, in East Africa, NGOs Camfed and BRAC, (which formerly stood for Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), are working to educate rural girls, then help them to start businesses. In Bangladesh, a project by non-profit organization Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha is providing solar-powered floating schools to reach children from flood-prone river communities. “But initiatives like these are not happening on a large enough scale,” Rose said.


Since 2000, abolishing school fees has been particularly successful in increasing the number of children in school. “Over 55 million more children are in school today, and one of the main reasons for this is that user fees have been abolished in many countries,” said David Archer, head of Program Development at international anti-poverty NGO ActionAid. “In the past, children in 92 countries had to pay to go to primary school, but in the last decade these fees have been removed. In Tanzania and Kenya alone, 4 million more children enrolled in school since the fees were abolished.”

If the money to fund education doesn’t come from school fees, however, who will cover the gap? Not international aid donors, it seems. Rose noted that stagnation has coincided with freezes or cutbacks in education funding from international aid donors. “This has a massive impact on some of the poorer countries whose governments are the primary funders of education but who have needed aid support,” Rose said. “And where fees have been abolished, they need even more financing.”

In addition, Archer said, more funds are needed to ensure that universal education is not just available, but of high quality. “If you have millions more children enrolling in school you need to employ more trained teachers – otherwise the quality of learning outcomes will fall,” he said. “Today, 250 million children who are in school are not learning because of large class sizes and under-trained teachers working in impossible conditions.”


The EFA Global Monitoring Report identifies a key role for the private sector in helping governments fund education. “Increasing private-sector support for education could make a big difference,” Rose said. “In health, for example, Bill Gates – Microsoft founder and co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – has had a massive impact. But we don’t have a Bill Gates in education, so we need the private sector to champion our goals.”

The private sector does help, but it’s not enough, Rose said. “Some private-sector organizations already provide funding, whether through a foundation such as the MasterCard Foundation or through IT support such as Intel and Cisco. But overall it’s a very small part of what’s given to education in developing countries; it’s around 5% of what aid donors give.”

Like Gates, private donors tend to favor health at the expense of education, but the two issues are closely related. “If all children are in school and learning, the impact is dramatic in terms of improved health for this and future generations, increased women’s empowerment, improved productivity, reduced rates of HIV, greater active citizenship and democratic accountability,” Archer said.


The outlook for achieving universal primary education is still an open question, but new efforts are being made to regain momentum. For example, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s recently launched Education First initiative aims to rally nations, private companies and foundations worldwide for a final “big push” towards 2015 and beyond. Over the next five years, the initiative aims to put every child in school, both by ensuring that quality, relevant and transformative education is at the heart of social, political and development agendas worldwide, and by generating funding for education through sustained global advocacy efforts.

The next annual EFA Global Monitoring Report, due in late 2013, will look at past trends, particularly in terms of the most vulnerable groups, to suggest a viable date for achieving the Millennium education goals. “We need to start planning for what comes after 2015, but that shouldn’t mean that we take our foot off the accelerator now,” Rose said. “We need people to step up to the mark of supporting education.”


Education for All is a global movement to ensure quality basic education for all children, youths and adults. It was launched in 1990 at the World Conference on Education for All by 155 countries and international organizations. To meet these commitments by 2015, six key education goals were identified at the World Education Forum in 2000. UNESCO currently leads global efforts to achieve these goals.

by Jacqui Griffiths Back to top