The world is in danger of sleepwalking through one of the greatest injustices of our times. Despite all the promises made to the world’s children, nearly 70 million children are denied a place at school.
Even worse is the shocking reality that despite our promise to get every child into basic education by 2015, on current trends the number of children out of school four years from now will have gone up to 75 million.
This assault on opportunity is the second great economic crisis of our generation. The first economic crisis was the failure of our banks and the subsequent impact on world economy.
The second crisis is of millions of young people uneducated not because they are uneducable but because they are unnoticed, joining the biggest ever army of young unemployed in a global epidemic, with the projection that over the years to 2025, nearly 1.5 billion young people will suffer a prolonged period out of work.
The consequences of that profound social failure will make this year’s youth uprising in Egypt and Tunisia look like the opening salvo of a wider generational battle for justice for the world’s young people.
Our failure to meet our promise on education is an immoral neglect of our most vulnerable citizens.
In the course of this campaign I have met young people from the remotest part of Tanzania, to the worst city slum of Delhi, and everywhere they ask me why they cannot go to school: why are there still no teachers, no school buildings, no computers or books? When you break a promise to a child you risk damaging them for ever.
You create a cynicism that is almost impossible to reverse.
India has made extraordinary advances in education in recent years but there is still a long way to go. We will never reach our goals while vast educational inequalities persist within countries. In India, for example, girls make up around two-thirds of the out-of-school population, compared to a global average of 53%, while inequalities of access to education based on wealth are also severe.
We’ve developed some of the talent of some of the children for some of the countries. Now we need to develop all of the talent of all of the children of all of the countries. We spend about $100,000 in Britain and in America to educate a child from their infancy to teenage years.
In Africa, the average spending is $400. In other words, 250 times more is spent on the British child than on the African child. We collude in crippling the life chances of Africa’s children and then blame them for a continent-wide lack of technology, industry and productivity.
The $13 billion extra a year we need to fund education for all is the equivalent of investing less than 5 cents a week in those children.
Those of us engaged in this fight are always prepared to answer the cynics who claim the world has already been overgenerous in aid, or that aid does not work. The fact is that a mere $10 a year goes in aid towards the education of the average child in a poor country: the equivalent of just four cents for every school day.
No one can say that aid does not work when only four cents a day is spent trying to educate an illiterate child. It is not that real aid has been delivered and found wanting; it has not been delivered at all.
Nor do I believe there is a fatigue in giving by the people of the world, or a retreat into individualism because of the recession. The willingness of the public to share has never been stronger.
The British charity Comic Relief, under the leadership of Richard Curtis and Emma Freud, recently held a public appeal that broke all records, proving that the generosity and altruism of ordinary people is often sharpened by a climate where everyone is suffering.
Now is the time for the public to throw down the gauntlet to governments to honour the promises we made at the turn of the new millennium. The leadership on this issue provided by Sheikha Mozah, the UN special envoy for education, has been truly inspirational.
In the coming months my colleagues at the Global Campaign for Education (GCE) and I will be launching a coalition of faith groups, business leaders, civil society organisations and ordinary members of the public to support her — combining fundraising, political action and ways for people to provide education directly.
I am honoured to be working alongside GCE’s president Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian dedicated to improving the lives of children around the world.
We hope you will join us in our campaign, because getting the children of the world into school is not just a noble aim; it’s a deliverable result. The prize of a generation is within our grasp.
(Gordon Brown is former British PM and co-convenor of the Global Campaign for Education’s High Level Panel. The views expressed by the author are personal)