Historians will look back on the Arab revolutions as the first stirrings of a movement for change that will eventually transform political, economic, and social rights around the globe. The recent anti-Western demonstrations take protest to a new, dangerous level, but the popular mood may be far less about hostility to America and Europe – or support for religious extremism – and far more about a loss of hope.
Having visited countries in the Middle East and North Africa recently, I can see how the uprisings of 2010 and 2011, born out of growing optimism about the dawn of new opportunities, have now morphed into angry protests fueled by frustration and despair. Eighty million young people are now formally registered as unemployed. In some countries the majority of young people are out of work, and I found young people – more connected than ever to what is happening in the outside world, yet hanging around local street corners with nothing to do – increasingly questioning the justice of their fate.
Discontent is rising not just because of the lack of jobs but because of the lack of opportunity. In South Sudan, the world’s newest state, there are more than 100,000 girls aged 14, 15, and 16, but only 400 of them are in school. New figures show that a total of 61 million girls and boys around the world are not even reaching education’s first base by going to primary school. For the first time in decades, progress has stalled, and despite the promises made in the UN's second Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015, Africa is sliding backward. Its out-of-school numbers will have worsened by 2 million in 2015 if nothing changes.
If current global trends continue, 50 million children will still be out of school in 2025, and 50 years from now education for all will still be a distant dream. Contrary to accepted wisdom, the world is not on a smooth, irreversible upward path to universal education, and, for millions, equality of opportunity will remain a hollow promise, its absence a growing source of unrest.
I have never thought that for the poor to do well, the wealthy should do badly. I don’t subscribe to the politics of envy. If there is one idea that inspires our modern world, it is that every child should have the opportunity to rise as far as their talents can take them. But if there is one reality that exposes our failure to deliver, it is that where you come from still matters much more than where you are going.
In fact, 80 percent of global income inequalities can be explained by who your parents are and where you live. Yet instead of tackling the disadvantages that come from birth and background, we continue to invest just $400 in the primary and secondary schooling of the typical African child, while we spend upwards of $100,000 – 250 times more – on her Western counterpart. And it is this gulf between our grand ideals and children’s experiences that makes the cause of educational opportunity, in the words of former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the civil rights issue of our generation.
Of course it is essential to expose and blame extremists for inciting the young, and it is vital to support those moderate leaders attempting to assuage the growing anger of the crowds. But if countries do not address fundamental inequalities in opportunity, then unrest will grow – not because young people are anti-American but because they have lost hope.
Extending educational opportunity is thus an urgent moral, economic, and security imperative. Fortunately, there are good grounds for believing that we can move quickly to deliver new and better chances for young people. Everywhere I go, from Africa’s biggest slum in Kibera, Kenya, to the Dalit “untouchable” communities outside Delhi in India, I meet parents who understand the power of education. The mothers who had just crossed as refugees from Sudan into South Sudan told me that their children certainly needed food, shelter, and security, but what these mothers wanted most for them was education.
This week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the Education First initiative that unites businesses, foundations, nongovernmental organizations, governments, teachers, parents, and pupils in a 1,000-day campaign to get every child into quality education by the end of 2015. As the new UN special envoy for global education, I know that this big push has to be bolder than ever before in battling prejudice, discrimination, and exploitation.
We have to tackle the culture that takes 10 million girls out of school to become child brides; outlaw the forced employment of 15 million children under 12 who are never allowed to enter a classroom; end the brutalization of untold numbers forcibly conscripted into armed groups, used by criminal gangs to perform illicit activities or sold into prostitution; and give hope to the 25 million out-of-school children living in conflict areas.
We do not have to rely on a scientific breakthrough or a transformation in technology – only a revolution in political willpower – to train the 2 million more teachers and build the 4 million extra classrooms that the world needs. No parent I know would consider the $13.50 a year we give an African child in educational aid too generous.
Tragically, even that meager amount – just 25 cents for a week’s schooling – is falling. Yet we can persuade both governments and publics that a few dollars more from the citizens of a rich country for the education of a child in a poor country is a worthwhile investment. With support of just a dollar a year from the world’s 1 billion members of the middle class, we could start to honor the Millennium promise we made to every child that they would be at school.
This year at the London Olympics, we have seen what investment in young people and their potential can achieve. When we are also starting to understand the damage done by the absence of opportunity, can we afford to refuse the next generation its chance?