By Tom Shacklock (First appeared in Current Affairs, Issue 26 of March 2018)
The great inequalities in education between rich and poor countries have been termed the “global learning crisis”. Above all, girls receive less or poorer education than boys in low-income countries. In September 2017, UNESCO published estimations that 130 million girls aged 6 to 17 were out of school, while 15 million girls of primary-school age will never attend school. Half of this number live in sub-Saharan Africa. Another serious problem caused by low education in poor countries is crime, radicalisation and extremism. Countries such as Nigeria, Iraq and Afghanistan are home to some of the most threatening terrorist groups, Boko Haram, Daesh and the Taliban respectively. According to UNESCO’s report, it is the “frustrated expectations of individuals for economic improvement and social mobility” that leads many into a lifestyle of violence and terrorism. Given the severity and urgency of this crisis, it can only truly be solved by a major, global, political initiative to improve education.
On Friday 2 February, this need for such an initiative was met. Dakar, capital of Senegal, hosted a conference for the increase of worldwide education funding. Leaders of developing countries expressed their commitment to improving education, while world leaders pledged a total of $2.3bn in aid to the cause over the next three years. Senegal’s geographical location in sub-Saharan Africa makes it a particularly important host country for the conference, taking into account the figures on education inequality for this region. Its President, Macky Sall, pledged $2m, making Senegal the first recipient of funding to contribute to the cause.
As for the principal world leader taking a stance on this pressing global issue, French President Emmanuel Macron jumped into the limelight once again. He has already established himself as the most vocal figure on the world stage in urging countries to persevere with the fight against climate change, after Trump withdrew from the 2015 Paris Agreement. Now, he has taken the lead on this more social issue of education, co-hosting the conference with Macky Sall. If international respect is the real motive behind his initiative, then let him have his motives, for his pledged $200m from France this year is a significant increase from $1m pledged in 2015.
Macron was not alone leading the conference. He was accompanied by Popstar Rihanna, who was representing numerous NGOs for better education, including her own organisation, The Clara Lionel Foundation. Not only did the singer boost Macron’s image as a celebrity companion, she also originally tweeted the French President and other world leaders, urging them to increase funding for education.
The UK received slightly less praise for its contribution. It pledged £224m in funding, a 50% increase per year from the amount pledged in 2014, yet was criticised because it was expected to pledge £381m this year. Although international development secretary Penny Mordaunt managed to defend this contribution, there are reasons to be sceptical about the UK’s commitment to foreign aid in general. In January, Penny Mordaunt warned that the UK could cut foreign aid to developing countries, expecting their leaders to “step up and take responsibility”. Nonetheless, she has not stopped Britain from participating in this major global commitment to improve education. The promises made at this conference are historic. If the results of this funding are positive, millions of impoverished children worldwide can look to a brighter future. Yet, this does not just mark a great socio-economic change throughout the developing world. It is also yet another example of the shift in international political leadership, with France taking the Anglo-Saxon world’s place in solving global crises.