[Image: A School in Timor Leste | © United Nations]
If there's one thing that's been endlessly reinforced during my recent sustainable development work, it's the essential role that education plays in helping people to haul themselves out of poverty.
There is enough theoretical and practical evidence to conclude that improving education is the one absolutely essential action that countries need to take if they are to develop sustainably. Focusing on other areas can provide greater immediate results, but only long–term investments in education can deliver the long–lasting systemic change that underpins a country's move to socio–economic prosperity.
This is particularly true for girls, who often have significantly less access to education than boys and, unsurprisingly, then struggle to achieve their full potential. Given women and girls have been shown to be central to any country's development journey, investing in gender equal education is perhaps the single most effective intervention a country can take when it comes to sustainable development.
The United Nations (UN) reflects the importance of gender–neutral education in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4: 'Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all'.
Unfortunately the UN has recently reported that progress towards SDG 4 has stalled, with refocussed efforts needed if the 2030 goal is to be achieved. They recently estimated that 262 million children and youth aged 6 to 17 were still out of school in 2017, and more than half of children and adolescents are not currently meeting minimum proficiency standards in reading and mathematics.
They also reported that some 750 million adults – two thirds of them women – remained illiterate in 2016. Half of the global illiterate population lives in South Asia, whilst a quarter can be found in sub–Saharan Africa.
Finding solutions to the education gap is clearly not straightforward, with rapidly growing populations in many developing countries soften making it challenging just to hold the level of education where it is now. Yet organisations like the Education Above All Foundation, UNESCO and Plan International continue to look for these solutions and, encouragingly, are also increasingly looking for ways to collaborate and partner with others in the search for models that can be tested and then scaled for impact in as many developing countries as possible.
Thanks to the random fortune of being born in the UK (and the sacrifices of my parents), I was extremely fortunate to get a good education and have been reaping the benefits of it ever since. Hopefully in the not too distant future I'll be able to look back on an 'education explosion' in the developing world, resulting in every single child getting the schooling they deserve – and being taught how to grasp the opportunities in front of them from the very first days of their lives.