I'd like to teach the worldEducation is a universal human right
Monday January 31, 2000
One of the defining political moments of 1999 came in April, when Tony Blair travelled to Chicago to deliver a speech articulating a new doctrine of "international community." It was the prime minister's bid for a major part on the global stage, and it was used to justify his passionate advocacy of military intervention in Kosovo, at a cost of some £5bn. Now a test looms, determining whether that was simply battle-rallying rhetoric or the first sketch of a consistent political vision. The test in question is the Dacca conference on education due to be held in Bangladesh this April. That gathering should prove whether Mr Blair's commitment to global human rights extends to one of the most basic - the right to learn to read and write.
In Dacca the international community - three UN organisations and the World Bank - will review their collective failure. In 1990, an international agreement set 2000 as the target date for universal primary education. That time has now arrived and yet 125m children are currently not getting any education. The target date has now been postponed to 2015, but at current projections we have already failed that too. What makes this failure devastating is that education is probably the single most important factor in determining human development - affecting infant mortality, economic growth and population control - yet it is being tragically ill-served by a shaming absence of political commitment and the most ineffective and corrupt UN organisation, Unesco.
So here is Mr Blair's opportunity to develop his concept of international community. He can export his domestic preoccupation with education, education, education to the world. Before Christmas, he made a powerful speech explaining how 150 years of political neglect had crippled Britain's education system, and insisting that this had to change if Britain was to prosper. This is just as relevant in Guatemala or Tanzania as it is in England or Scotland.
Last week, Clare Short trailed a white paper on how globalisation can improve the lot of the world's poor rather than relegate them to permanent deprivation. The key to that laudable goal could well be April's deliberations in Dacca. But it will need determined political leadership to avoid failure. If Mr Blair took this issue up the way his chancellor championed debt relief, he could make all the difference, generating resources and international motivation. What is needed, Oxfam argues, is $8bn a year for the next decade to get every child into school by 2015. If developing countries contributed half, the rich north would only be increasing their $50bn annual aid bill by a mere $4 billion. Given the potential benefits, it's a small investment. One note of caution: the magic solution cannot be distance-learning on the internet. School children in India, Nepal and Zambia need chalk, blackboards and exercise books; they don't have electricity in their villages, let alone a computer.
Hardened political strategists may wonder how this will deliver the votes of Mondeo man and Worcester Woman. But international commitment does pay domestic political dividends, as Gordon Brown learned through his astute advocacy of the debt issue. That won the iron chancellor admirers in all quarters, and especially among the activists of the Labour party. These are the people who remain sceptical of Mr Blair - and who he needs to win over if they are to help him win the next election. A moral lead on universal education would send the clear message that this government is not just about spin and image, but purpose.
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