Mixed Results for UN Millenium Goal 2: Achieving Universal Primary Education

joelkatz's picture

While considerable progress has been made in the rapidly developing emerging markets, other poorer regions aren't doing so well.

As we hit the midway point to the 2015 deadline for the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), for MDG 2, the results are patchy. While considerable progress has been made in the rapidly developing emerging markets, such as Latin America and Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Central Asia and East Asia, other poorer regions aren't doing so well. Sub-Sahara Africa lags far behind other developing countries in its efforts to achieve universal primary education, and South Asia is also seriously off track to meet its target before 2015. Also, there's a disturbing trend, particularly in Sub-Sahara Africa and India, where boys have much higher enrolment rates than girls. 

According to the UN Development Group, "...education is fundamental to the prospects for economic and social development and the end of world poverty[1]." Based on this principle and all children's inalienable right to education, as stated in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child[2], world leaders gathered in September 2000 to sign the UN Millennium Declaration. Eight MDGs were established, including MDG 2, ensuring all children completed school at least to the primary school level.

But setting targets is a lot easier than actually meeting them. As we rapidly approach the 2015 deadline, it's time for a reality check. A new World Bank-IMF report, called the Global Monitoring Report[3], does just that, assessing how close governments, NGOs, communities and other stakeholders are to achieving the eight MDGs.

On MDG 2, the report's findings are mixed. True, many parts of the developing world are on course to meeting the target of universal primary education, with 90-100% of kids successfully completing primary school in Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and Central and East Asia. But in the poorer regions of Sub-Sahara Africa and South Asia there's less grounds for optimism.

Although completion rates have risen steadily over the last eighteen years in Sub-Sahara Africa, the report reveals they are still low, with only 55% of girls and 65% of boys successfully finishing primary school.

In South Asia, the situation is better, but there's still a lot of room for improvement. In 1990 just over 50% of South Asia's female population completed primary school, while the male population was around the 75% mark. By 2005, the completion rates had jumped to 77% for girls, but nudged only slightly higher for boys, at 83%.

These figures reflect a myriad of complex issues that can hamper efforts to reach MDG 2 in seven years. Tackling these issues head on, bodies such as the UN mandated Millennium Project Task Force on Education and Gender Equality, government, NGOs and community activists are adopting innovative approaches to deal with issues that can slow down progress. How, for instance, do these players convince South Asia and Sub- Sahara Africa's patriarchal societies to break with age-old customs that discriminate against girls, keeping them out of school?[4]

Other obstacles also loom large. There's a deep-seated belief in many rural communities across the developing world, especially Sub-Sahara Africa and South Asia, that sending kids to school is of little benefit, depriving struggling families of an income. According to the New Delhi-based, National Sample Survey Organisation, India has the largest number of child labourers in the world.[5] Despite government claims that they have launched a massive campaign to eradicate child labour and are on track to reach MDG 2 by 2015, statistics reveal that the number of child labourers is actually increasing, largely fuelled by the insatiable global demand for cheap primary resources and manufactured products.

On a more upbeat note, however, emerging market regions such as Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Central Asia and East Asia are already close to meeting MDG 2 targets. Better still, there are encouraging reports that more children are going on to secondary school, with two-thirds of Latin American children spending some time in high school.[6] Arguably this is where MDG 2 falls short - a primary school education, although much better than nothing, can't provide the necessary skills and knowledge that high school does. Without these skills, do these children really have a chance at a brighter future that helps lift them out of poverty?

Joel Katz

[1] See: http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/reports/tf_education.htm

[2] See: http://www.unicef.org/crc/

[3] See World Bank website: http://go.worldbank.org/UVQMEYED00.

[4] Birdsall, N et al (2005) "Toward universal primary education: investments, incentives, and institutions." UN Millennium Project, EarthScan, London.

[5] Chopra, Anuj (2006) "India's Latest Move To Stop Child Labor", The Christian Science Monitor

[6] The Economist (2002), "Education in Latin America"