The UN's own goal

An obsession with primary education has backfired
November 14, 2012

Classes at the Behzad Gallery, Herat, Afghanistan (photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Since the launch of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) over a decade ago, education gurus, ministers and aid officials have worked to get every child in the world into primary school. This focus has come at a price. The neglect of secondary and vocational training has translated into millions of people unequipped to participate in the work force. As a consequence, young peoples’ expectations do not match economic reality, leaving them marginalised and unemployed, and societies without the human capital necessary to sustain their own development. This has created a gap in the global agenda. With the MDGs’ term expiring, a revised approach is urgently needed.

The MDGs were launched in 2000, aiming to eliminate global poverty by 2015 through eight goals, from health to the environment. Their record is mixed. Supporters point to their success in building a consensus, in galvanising attention and resources, and in achieving significant gains. Critics point to their failure to have met any single goal completely; dozens of countries have made almost no progress; and most gains are attributable to the rise of India and China.

Universal primary education is the goal closest to being met: approximately 88 per cent of school age children in developing countries were in primary school in 2010, up from 81 per cent in 1999, and only 70m children remain out of primary school. International aid commitments to basic education grew from $2.1bn in 2002 to $4.2bn in 2007. The rationale was driven by analysis—now contested—based on 1967 data that suggested higher returns on investment for primary education relative to other levels. More recent studies covering Indonesia, Brazil, Malaysia and others show that growth is correlated instead to secondary and tertiary education, especially once a critical threshold in primary education is met.

The emphasis on primary education likely had an unintended effect: it diverted focus and resources away from secondary and tertiary education as well as vocational training. The goal, that began as an objective, became a planning tool and even a restriction, preventing resources reaching children over 11. Countries including South Sudan, Kenya, Liberia and Tanzania were encouraged to curb funding of secondary and vocational training in order to focus on meeting the MDGs. I witnessed a meeting in Afghanistan where major donors told the government that until every last child was in primary school, no child should go to secondary school. They insisted on the secondary and post-secondary budget being eliminated. Extraordinary progress has been made with more than 8m children in primary school in Afghanistan by 2011, more than 2m of them girls, up from a few thousand girls in 2001. As these children reach the age of 11 a huge question looms as to what prospects face them as teenagers and young adults. Languishing enrolment in secondary education and vocational training comes as no surprise. In 2010, in Uganda only 28 per cent and in Mozambique 25 per cent of the population were in secondary school, and in Tanzania, Eritrea and Chad only 2 per cent of the population were in tertiary education, as compared with 43 per cent in Peru and 48 per cent in Thailand.

What were the effects of skewing investment away from secondary and vocational training? First, countries have not prepared their next generation of doctors, nurses, engineers, accountants, and project managers. Hundreds of studies, including the Commission for Africa, have pointed to a “capacity gap”: without secondary and tertiary education a country cannot run its health, agricultural and financial systems. Particularly damaging is a shortfall of teachers to train the generation beyond them. Even maintaining primary education services, especially in the countries with growing young populations, requires large numbers to be educated at secondary and vocational levels.

Second, vast sums were spent on external assistance to fill skills gaps. A nurse or engineer’s salary in a developing country is a few thousand dollars, deploying an NGO worker to perform the same tasks can multiply that cost a hundredfold. Moreover, external assistance denies a salary to local employees, or relegates them to subservient positions on lower pay.

Third, high unemployment, leaving teenagers and young people without prospects of productive employment, is an issue for social cohesion and national stability as well as economic growth. This is acute in developing countries with youthful demographics. Studies of several countries have concluded that post-basic education was essential for entrepreneurs to create jobs at scale.

This is not a call to expand secondary and higher education at the expense of the primary sector. It is a call for a balanced approach to developing education and training policies. This requires asking certain questions: what are the skills a society needs to develop and strengthen its public, private and civic sectors? How can a country equip its next generation with the skills to meet these needs? And how can education and training policy balance the imperatives of stability, economics and civil inclusion?

The MDG framework failed to set the foundations for such a balanced approach. As the successor regime to the MDGs is debated in the months ahead, a fresh look at a developmental agenda for education is required. The real work is in updating the education policies of each country to respond to the specific challenges of each context. The work of innovation and implementation should rest not only on ministries and public school systems, but partnerships with universities and foundations, private sector investment in training and apprenticeship schemes and leveraging the power of new technologies. Policy needs to shift to become pro-active, anticipating the future landscape of government and industry and building a workforce equipped to meet its needs.

These policy challenges are not confined to the developing world. The acceleration of technological change and the transformation of increasingly global economic sectors present challenges that are straining educational systems in every country. Countries that have enjoyed success at aligning education and training with employment such as Finland, Sweden, Abu Dhabi, Costa Rica, Singapore and South Korea are adapting with reforms such as lifelong learning, distance education and orienting their curricula to industrial needs. Countries that are failing to invest in their youth and align education policy to employment realities have faced riots and revolutions, most notably in the Middle East where unemployment rates among the youth had reached 25-30 per cent. Countries everywhere are now under an imperative to rethink their education sectors for the 21st century. Now is the time for development leaders and experts to craft an agenda for equipping the next generations with the skills they need to support public services and economic opportunity in the decades to come.