A Global Right to Education

The term "global economy" implies that everyone on earth somehow has a stake - that people in every hemisphere can partake of the world's commerce in ideas, services, and goods. In the abstract, that may be true. Practically, a lofty hurdle stands in the way: Countless millions are still stuck in illiteracy, having no access to education.

Minus the ability to grasp and use words and numbers, people are too often reduced to reliving the poverty of earlier generations. Women, particularly, are too often bound by this cycle.

Few organizations are in a better position to recognize this tragedy than Oxfam International, long a leader in private developmental aid. Oxfam last week launched a campaign to close the global educational deficit by encouraging nations to live up to goals they've long avowed. A half century ago the Universal Declaration of Human Rights named education a fundamental right. The 1990 World Conference on Education called for universal access to primary education within a decade. The Social Development Summit in 1995 set the same goal and a new target date: 2015.

Oxfam has adopted the latter target date and proposed a Global Action Plan. Its essence:

*Mobilize new resources through increased aid, debt reduction, and private sources;

*Provide a framework to help developing nations meet the goal. It must include assessment of how things stand, local action plans that identify major obstacles like discrimination against women, and sharing strategies that have worked elsewhere;

*Focus special attention on the most difficult region, sub-Saharan Africa.

All this could seem incredibly idealistic. But Oxfam's representatives share examples of what's possible. Uganda, in the heart of sub-Saharan African, has doubled the youngsters attending primary grades over the last two years. Fees for schooling have been removed and public spending on schools expanded. A group called the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee has brought large increases in the enrollment of girls in that country's schools.

The key to multiplying such stories is a wider political will. Oxfam says that should start with the developed world redirecting aid flows toward education - to the point where an extra $7 billion to 8 billion a year are devoted to the 2015 goal. That's roughly 0.1 percent of global GNP, according to Oxfam.

There may be some snorted dismissals of this plea. But that's shortsighted. More education would mean more prosperity worldwide, and that's only a start. It would also mean better health, slower population growth, enhanced democratic participation. Also, in the long run, less fodder for demagogic appeals and violence.

Oxfam estimates that if all the primary schoolchildren in Europe and North America were multiplied by two, that would roughly equal the number of children in the rest of the world deprived of schooling. That's an extraordinary waste. Everyone should appreciate being reminded of it, and listen closely to ideas for stopping it.

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