“Everyone has the right to education,” asserts Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the general assembly of the United Nations in 1948. Shortly after the occasion of International Literacy Day on September 8, 2010, Dr. Mmantsetsa Marope, director of the Division of Basic Education at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris, shared her views with Brain World on the right to education. UNESCO is a specialized UN agency for education and a lead agency for the Education For All (EFA) movement.
Brain World: What is the Education For All (EFA) movement?
Dr. Mmantsetsa Marope: It started in with the first world conference on EFA in 1990 at Jomtien, Thailand, where the world undertook to provide good quality basic education to all. A review of progress in Dakar, Senegal, in 2000, articulated a coherent framework — the Dakar Framework of Action — comprising six key EFA goals covering early childhood education, primary education, adult learning and life skills, adult and youth literacy, gender parity leading to equality, and quality and relevance.
BW: What is International Literacy Day, held on September 8, 2010 at the United Nations?
MM: For most developing countries, the two EFA goals that are lagging behind pertain to early childhood care in education, adult and youth literacy — EFA goal 4 — and education quality and relevance. The equity and inclusion implied in all EFA goals also remains a critical challenge. As I already noted, the ILD is a powerful advocacy tool for reminding ourselves that against the expressed global commitments, and indeed genuine efforts, close to 800 million youth and adults worldwide still lack sufficient and sustainable literacy skills. About two-thirds of these are women and girls.
BW: What is a successful creative partnership for accelerating progress towards achieving the fourth EFA goal? Do you have examples of a successful creative partnership?
MM: Let’s not talk about successful partnerships, because to me success should be measured by impact. Let’s talk about promising partnerships. The first example of a promising partnership is that of the UN family which is articulated within the framework of the United Nations Literacy Decade. An overriding goal of this partnership is to accelerate the achievement of EFA goal 4 by 2015. Specific objectives are mobilizing stronger commitment for literacy, reinforcing effective literacy delivery, and harnessing new resources for literacy.
The second example is a partnership of governments of the E-9 — Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Brazil, Mexico, China, Egypt, and Nigeria — which collectively host about 65 percent of non-literates. These countries have come together, with the support of UNESCO, to share promising practices and pool resources toward scaling up the redress of illiteracy in their respective countries. The E-9 has also committed to use their pooled political, technical, intellectual, financial, and other resources in support of other countries with high proportions of non-literates.
The third example is the strengthening private sector/UNESCO partnership for addressing illiteracy. Examples include Microsoft, Verizon and, lately, Procter & Gamble. These partners support diverse aspects of efforts to redress illiteracy, including strengthening and sharing the knowledge base required to inform policies, strategies, and programs; scaling up development of relevant programs for women and girls; and providing rich resources bases.
BW: Where do you think that the most progress has been made, and which area needs the most attention to achieve the six EFA goals set for 2015?
MM: If you take any global report you will see that the best achievement has been in the expansion of access to primary education. However, quality, effectiveness, relevance, and internal efficiency remain stubbornly challenging. Primary school enrollments substantially increased, but a good majority of children, especially children of the poor, do not acquire the skills and competencies commensurate to their educational attainment levels. A high proportion of children have symbolic but not substantive access to education. Going forward, concerted effort needs to be made to address these persisting challenges. The success in opening up access to primary education has also not been accompanied by comparable opening of access at the secondary and higher levels. Yet, as we all know, the D in the MDGs, cannot be delivered on the technical strength of primary school graduates!
We now live in the 21st century, where development is technology-driven, and technology in the 21st century is very skill-intensive. Technology demands very high skills, so for countries to have a competitive edge they must build a high threshold of a highly-skilled human capital base. For that, we need a high-quality and broad-based or inclusive education. You cannot succeed in the 21st century when it is only the country’s small minority of affluent children who are being educated; you can’t count on a small minority to develop entire countries.
BW: What is the link between enhancing education and eradicating poverty? What is the sustainability of financing basic education?
MM: You can’t eradicate poverty without creating growth. As noted, education creates the skill base required to support productivity, which is a key source of sustainable growth. Broad-based high-quality education also has an indispensable redistributive effect. Labor is perhaps the best asset of the poor. Increasing the quality and therefore earning power of labor through education puts income in the pockets of the poor, enables their absorptive capacity for diverse social services, including education and health, among others, while affording them a higher quality of life.
Education is also important because development is not just economic growth; education equips people with the values that make it possible for us to peacefully and respectfully coexist in our diversity, and it actually enables us to live peacefully together. As you may know, UNESCO truly holds that “peace is made in the minds of men (and women of course).” Education is a key tool for promoting peace. Peace is a critical enabler for development. Show me one country that is at war or is in internal scuffle and is at the same time developing!
Education also produces the regenerative capacity required to propel development in ever changing and unpredictable environments, where the agility to adapt is a critical asset.
BW: What influence does neuroscience have on policy reform, curriculum development, and education systems?
MM: This type of research is very fundamental to UNESCO’s work on quality education. Current research on brain development and neuroscience informs us that while people are born with a near full development of their brains, the highest pace of building brain circuits critical for learning occurs within the first five years of life. The child’s environment can stimulate or retard the use of these circuits, and this affects the efficiency of their learning throughout life. This research informs us of the importance of early childhood care and education as an indispensable base for efficient and effective lifelong learning. UNESCO utilizes the knowledge accumulated from diverse fields of research, including neuroscience, molecular biology, human development and human capital, and developmental and behavioral research.
BW: What motivated you to pursue a career in education?
MM: I never chose education. After my secondary education, I wanted to study commerce, international trade, economics, and development, but sometimes life takes you to places you have not anticipated. At a young age, I had the zest for developmental issues. I was always fascinated by the question of why some countries develop and others are more challenged to make progress. As I grew in this profession, I realized that by being in education I am actually at the very heart of development issues. I have come to really, really appreciate the importance of education, and now I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.