As the world’s education ministers gathered in New York at the Transforming Education Summit they took stock of progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4): equitable quality education for all. It’s understood that achieving this Goal will require intensified efforts, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
In sub-Saharan Africa, one-fifth of primary-aged children are not in school. COVID-19 related school closures have exacerbated a problem that was already worsening before the pandemic. Sadly, despite the Millennium Development Goals and then the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) announced with great fanfare, according to the World Bank, the number of out-of-school children in sub-Saharan Africa has actually been steadily rising since 2010.
The global challenges of recent years taught us that large-scale, complex and seemingly intractable problems require a systemic approach to solving them. They can often only be tackled by stakeholders across sectors working together.
Creating COVID-19 vaccines, for example, required the closest partnerships across private and public sectors, as well as knowledge-sharing on the virus, coordinating vaccine trials and distributing vaccine doses around the world. Similarly, a coalition of creative philanthropists, working closely with national governments and NGOs on the ground, contributed to a 37% fall in malaria deaths between 2000-20.
Collaboration also played a key role in the creation of international pledges like the Paris Agreement to combat climate change. It also helps fight climate change locally: for example, many clean energy projects in Africa are being delivered through partnerships between international development agencies and a large number of financial institutions, recipient countries, and private sector companies.
The collaborative approach is no less applicable and no less urgent in education. An example of this is the recent launch of the Child Learning and Education Facility (CLEF) – a new funding coalition across public and private sectors to improve access to and enhance the quality of education for millions of children in Côte D’Ivoire.
CLEF brings together an unprecedented coalition of visionary leaders from the Government of Côte d’Ivoire, 16 global cocoa and chocolate companies, the Jacobs Foundation and UBS Optimus Foundation. The partners have pooled resources and knowledge to achieve key Government objectives to improve access to quality education in underserved remote rural areas, and to make sure that children are learning. Getting to this point has required building trust among very different stakeholders and shifting mindsets to acknowledge that achieving sustainable impact at scale involves working together and leveraging evidence-based solutions.
Crucially, CLEF, in providing access to quality education, will also contribute to efforts against the wider pressing problem of child labour in the country. Analysis by UNESCO has shown that a lack of education is a root cause of child labour. According to a study by the National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago, 38% of 5- to 17-year-olds in agricultural households in cocoa-growing areas of Côte d’Ivoire are engaged in child labour, and 37% are engaged in hazardous child labour in cocoa production. In Africa as a whole, nearly 1 out of every 5 children is involved in child labour.
This serves to prove why SDG4 – the goal of providing 12 years of quality free education for every child worldwide by 2030 – is so vital as it touches upon so many aspects of society. Education has repeatedly proven to be the first step to solving many wider challenges. For example, according to the Brookings Institution, global studies show that more education – particularly for girls – leads to fewer infant deaths, lower maternal mortality, and fewer infections from viruses like HIV. It can also empower communities to address environmental damage and climate change. Not only does education enable greater resilience to a changing environment, but it is also estimated that better education for women could result in an 85 gigaton reduction of carbon dioxide by 2050.
The challenge for those of us trying to promote education, though, is that unlike public health emergencies, its effects are not always immediately visible – partly because the impact often lies in the future. It’s impossible to capture the corrosive impact of a lack of quality education in a similarly neat picture or to broadcast it with compelling visuals on the nightly news.
However, the simple truth is that education does not just play a vital role in achieving SDG4. We must train tomorrow’s scientists and doctors who will be at the forefront of global health; that’s education. We must train future leaders who will think up and action bold ideas to solve the climate crisis; that’s also education. We must equip teachers with the relevant skills to nurture the talents of tomorrow’s fulfilled adults. It’s all about education, and we are well advised to give it utmost attention so that all SDGs can be met.
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Fabio Segura is Co-CEO of the Jacobs Foundation.