Education for All

An Imperative for Reducing Poverty


Address for correspondence: Nicholas Burnett, Education for All Global Monitoring Report Office, 3114 UNESCO, 7 place de Fontenoy 75352, Paris, France. Voice: (33) (0)1 45 68 08 56; fax +33 1 45 68 56 41.,


In the year 2000, more than 160 governments adopted six goals aimed at vastly improving learning opportunities for children, youth, and adults by 2015. This article, based on an annual international report that tracks progress toward these goals and levels of aid to basic education, analyzes the significance of expanding learning opportunities for human, social, and economic development. It assesses where the world stands on meeting its commitments—developing nations and donors included. The picture is mixed, with considerable progress in some cases, especially toward universal primary education and gender parity at the primary level. Much less attention is being given to other age groups, notably through early childhood care and education programs and adult literacy—a global scourge affecting 781 million adults. Low education quality, lack of learning opportunities for the most disadvantaged groups, and insufficient aid to basic education are holding many countries back. The article outlines some of the greatest challenges for decision makers: holistic early childhood programs that target the most disadvantaged children; policies to make school free, accessible, and safe for girls and boys; and scaling up adult literacy programs. Education quality—from the recruitment and training of teachers to textbooks, sufficient instructional time, and initial instruction in the mother tongue—has a documented influence on learning outcomes. Increased domestic and international spending on education is essential. Such an agenda requires long-term vision and strong political commitment at the highest level.

Reducing poverty is the driving motive behind a set of commitments adopted by nearly every country at the turn of the century. We can measure this overarching aim not only by the number of people living on less than US$1 dollar a day but also against multiple dimensions of human well-being. These dimensions range from child and maternal health, combating disease, and ensuring environmental sustainability to achieving universal primary education and gender equality. Therefore, several of the eight goals in the United Nations Millennium Declaration are about sheer survival. Others concern development and empowerment.

Development simply does not happen without long-term investment in education. Achieving universal primary education and gender equality at all levels of education by 2015 are among the UN Millennium Declaration targets adopted in 2000. The Education for All (EFA) goals, adopted the same year in Dakar, Senegal, by 164 countries, take a more comprehensive approach to learning by also including early childhood care and education (ECCE), literacy, life skills, and a focus on better education quality (see Table 1). Donor nations also promised that “no countries seriously committed to education for all will be thwarted in their achievement of this goal by a lack of resources.”

Table 1.  The EFA Goals
 1.To expand early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children
 2.To ensure that all children have access to and complete free and compulsory primary education of good quality
 3.To ensure equitable access of all young people to appropriate learning and life skills programs
 4.To achieve a 50% improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all adults
 5.To eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005 and achieve gender equality in education by 2015
 6.To improve all aspects of the quality of education so that recognized and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy, and essential life skills

Education gives people the knowledge and tools to break the cycle of poverty. Although there has been progress since 2000 on several fronts, there is a long way to go. One in five adults in today's global knowledge economy—781 million—cannot read a simple sentence with understanding. Two-thirds of these illiterate adults are women. Illiteracy tends to prevail in low-income countries where severe poverty is widespread. Some 77 million children of primary school age are not in school. Household surveys show that those most likely never to enter a classroom or to drop out early belong to the poorest income groups. This finding shows why expanding learning opportunities for all—children, youth, and adults—systematically involves leveling the playing field through targeted strategies that address disadvantage, be it due to wealth, gender, disability, ethnicity, or place of residence.

Significance of These Goals

There is a solid international consensus around education's crucial role, grounded in both human rights and economic and social development. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) affirmed that elementary education “shall be free and compulsory” (Article 26). With 192 signatories, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world. As a legally binding instrument, the CRC marks the beginning of a new stage for children's rights during which new international standards need to be translated into domestic laws and practices. The CRC emphasizes the right of all children to education and calls for primary education to be made compulsory and freely available to all (Article 28).

These treaties carry legal authority. Alongside them, initiatives, such as the Millennium Development Goals and the EFA goals, carry political weight. They commit governments to a set of time-bound targets requiring specific policy measures. When countries comply with these goals, they are also acting in their own economic and social interest. There is a powerful developmental case for achieving education for all. Study after study demonstrates the positive effect of education on economic growth and poverty reduction. Education has been consistently shown to be a major determinant of individual income, with each extra year of schooling resulting in a 10% increase in earnings. Although the number of schooling years remains the most frequently used variable, recent studies tend also to analyze assessments of cognitive skills, typically literacy and numeracy test scores. These studies show that literacy positively affects earnings, beyond the sheer amount of schooling.

Investment in girls' education yields some of the highest development returns. Girls' education translates into lower fertility, later marriage, and better health. An educated woman is also more likely to send both her sons and daughters to school. Recent research suggests that the cognitive skills required to make informed choices about the HIV/AIDS risk are closely tied to levels of education.

In recent years, the capability approach has also gained ground, chiefly through the work of Nobel Economics laureate Amartya Sen. One cannot judge a country's economic success on income growth alone. Development, argues Sen, is a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy and value. As such, a basic education has intrinsic value—education is a constituent component of development. This is why extending learning opportunities to all children, youth, and adults is not only a right but also a development imperative that enhances people's ability to make informed choices and to participate in their societies. Evidence shows that participation in literacy programs increases civic engagement, notably in local politics.

Where Do We Stand?

Time-bound targets like those set in Dakar require regular monitoring, both to assess progress and to inform and influence policy. Each year since 2002, the Education for All Global Monitoring Report has analyzed progress toward the six goals and the levels of aid to basic education, focusing on a specific theme in each edition.1 The publication, funded by 11 bilateral donors and UNESCO, brings together an extensive body of evidence collected from research institutions, consultations, academic literature, and specially commissioned background articles.

The overall picture in 2007 is mixed: Countries are definitely taking education more seriously, with considerable progress in some cases, especially toward universal primary education and gender parity at this level. But low education quality, lack of learning opportunities for the most disadvantaged groups, and insufficient aid to basic education are holding many countries back. This article summarizes progress toward each of the six EFA goals and levels of international aid to education and then outlines a few key challenges for accelerating progress.

ECCE: Foundation of Learning

If countries are serious about making primary education universal by 2015, public policy must pay heed to what happens before a child walks through the primary school door. It is no coincidence that ECCE is the first EFA goal. ECCE can improve the well-being of young children, especially in the developing world, where a child has a 40% chance of living in extreme poverty and 10.5 million children a year die from preventable diseases before age 5 years.

Children who participate in early childhood programs, particularly when they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, are more likely to make the transition to primary school and to complete the primary cycle. Older sisters or other female kin are relieved of care responsibilities, a common barrier to girls' enrollment in primary school. Programs can work closely with adults to improve their parenting and other skills and to integrate these into literacy programs. Finally, ECCE is linked to future academic achievement and contributes to the overall efficiency of education systems. The Economics Nobel laureate James Heckman has repeatedly demonstrated that investing in disadvantaged young children is good economics and good public policy.2

Despite these multiple benefits, ECCE programs are not a priority across most of the developing world. Children younger than 5 years account for 11% of the world population—some 738 million—and their number is expected to reach 776 million by 2020, driven by growth in sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab states.

The youngest children are the most neglected: Almost half the world's countries offer no formal programs for children younger than 3 years, a time of remarkable potential and extreme vulnerability. At this age, interventions that combine health, nutrition, and cognitive stimulation can have a determining effect especially for children from highly disadvantaged backgrounds.

Enrollment in preprimary education has tripled since 1970, though coverage remains low in most of the developing world. Among developing regions, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific have the highest preprimary gross enrollment ratios; far behind come East Asia, South and West Asia, the Arab states, and sub-Saharan Africa. With a few notable exceptions, children from poorer and rural households and those socially excluded (e.g., lacking birth certificates) have significantly less access to ECCE than those from richer and urban households. Yet they are those who could benefit relatively the most from ECCE programs.

Universal Primary Education: Fast Progress in Access to First Grade

The encouraging news is that more and more children go to school every year. Primary school enrollments increased most rapidly between 1999 and 2004 in two of the three regions farthest from achieving universal primary education: up 27% in sub-Saharan Africa and 19% in South and West Asia but up by only 6% in the Arab states. This trend has been partly driven by the abolition of school fees in more than a dozen countries, leading to steep enrollment increases.

Over the same period, the number of primary school–age children not enrolled in school fell by around 21 million to 77 million. This figure is still unacceptably high. Sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia are home to more than three-quarters of these children, although the latter region halved its number between 1999 and 2004 due mainly to reductions to out of school children in India. The global estimate, high though it is, understates the problem: Data from household surveys show that many children enrolled in school do not attend regularly. The children most likely to be out of school or to drop out live in rural areas or urban slums. Children from the poorest income group are three times more likely to be out of school than those from the wealthiest category. Fees remain the major barrier, especially for poorer families, along with other charges, including transportation, uniforms, textbooks (when available), and payments to parent–teacher associations.

On average, a child whose mother has no education is twice as likely to be out of school as one whose mother has some education, highlighting the relevance of gender-sensitive policies that encourage girls' access to school and offer literacy and life skills programs to women.

Gender: Despite Progress, 2005 Target Missed

Some countries have missed the 2005 target date for achieving gender parity in primary and secondary education. Although two-thirds of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education, disparities at the expense of girls remain significant at this level in many countries, often those with the lowest enrollment ratios. Gaps are concentrated in the Arab states, South and West Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, where overall about 90 girls are enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys. For these three regions, gender parity in education is part of an overall challenge involving dismantling of gender discrimination and of the economic and political disadvantages confronting girls and women. Gender disparities in primary education often stem from difficulties girls face in obtaining access to school, including the cost of education, distance to school, language and ethnicity, social exclusion, and the school environment. Girls also face cultural barriers concerning their roles in the home and in society.

The picture is different at the secondary level: Only one-third of the 177 countries with data available have achieved gender parity. The disparities are, however, in favor of girls as often as of boys. Failing to achieve gender parity in education is a major obstacle to development, making girls more vulnerable to poverty, hunger, and exploitation.

Learning and Life Skills

Essentially, EFA goal 3 is about providing learning opportunities to young people and adults who are excluded from the formal system. A diverse range of providers falls under the umbrella of learning and life skills, rendering monitoring difficult. Some countries are making serious efforts to track learning activities outside the formal system, but reliable data are difficult to obtain.

Literacy: A Global Scourge

Worldwide, 781 million adults—one in five—lack the basic literacy skills necessary to make informed choices and to improve their livelihoods. Women constitute most of the world's illiterates: 64%. Adult literacy rates remain below 70% in South and West Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Arab states. Three-quarters of the world's illiterates live in just 12 countries. In some (Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali), the adult literacy rate is abysmally low—less than 20%—severely limiting opportunities for most of the adult population. At current trends, this global figure will decrease by only about 100 million by 2015.

Illiteracy tends to prevail in low-income countries where severe poverty prevails. In Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mozambique, and Nepal, for example, where more than 75% of the population lives on less than US$2 per day, adult literacy rates are below 63% and the number of adult illiterates exceeds 5 million in each country. Illiteracy is higher among rural populations, indigenous peoples, migrants, and people with disabilities.

Conventional literacy data are inherently flawed because they rely on official national census figures, based on indirect assessments. These methods assess literacy levels through self-declaration, reporting by the household head, or years of schooling completed. Alternative measures using direct testing of literacy skills are gaining ground. These tests typically show that conventional evaluation methods overstate literacy levels—in short, that the already unacceptable figure of 781 million illiterate adults in fact underestimates the true scale of the global problem.

Educational Quality: From Access to Success?

Quality is emerging as a major concern to governments. Simply put: Too many children who start school fail to reach the last grade of primary—fewer than two-thirds in half the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Household poverty, the need for domestic child labor, and losing parents to HIV/AIDS represents one side of the problem. The other is the poor quality of teaching and learning, overcrowded classes, lack of learning materials, insufficient instructional time, and inadequately trained teachers.

Studies often use the number of students per teacher as an indication of education quality. Pupil–teacher ratios declined only slightly between 1999 and 2004. Pupil–teacher ratios were higher than 40:1 in about 30 countries, most in sub-Saharan Africa. In the Congo, Ethiopia, and Malawi, the norm is 70 pupils per teacher, a ratio that tends to be higher in countries where enrollments are increasing.

Teacher recruitment and training are basic concerns: Sub-Saharan Africa alone needs at least 1.6 million teachers to achieve universal primary education by 2015. In some African countries, about 60% of teachers have no formal training. Furthermore, teacher earnings are often too low to provide an acceptable standard of living. Countries that have achieved high learning standards—the Republic of Korea and Cuba are two striking examples—have invested steadily in the teaching profession.

Since the 1990s, more and more governments have committed themselves to assessing student learning, as witnessed by the steady growth in the number of national assessments. Such tests are meant to provide decision makers with systematic information about the status of students' learning outcomes and the extent to which students attain nationally defined standards or proficiencies. Developing countries are also increasingly taking part in international and regional assessments (e.g., LLECE in Latin America, SACMEQ and PASEC in sub-Saharan Africa, PILL in the Pacific Islands, and PISA for OECD countries). These assessments provide considerable evidence of low achievement both within and across countries. In nearly all, a positive relationship exists between higher socioeconomic status (parents' education, job, household wealth) and student achievement. African and Latin American assessments find strong disparities between urban and rural students, reflecting both higher household incomes and better school provision in urban areas.

What Are the Greatest Challenges?

Progress toward education for all requires a comprehensive and inclusive approach. “Comprehensive” means not focusing on just one or two goals (e.g., universal primary education) but grasping the dynamic connections between different stages and ages of learning. “Inclusive” means a systematic policy effort to reach marginalized children, youth, and adults and to integrate a gender-sensitive approach in all dimensions of education policy. This approach is proactive, aimed at countering the trend toward rising inequality within countries.

Many governments are not taking responsibility for the whole EFA agenda, especially adult literacy and ECCE. We need urgent action now on all fronts. If all children are to complete their primary education by 2015, they must be enrolled in school by 2009. One of the greatest challenges facing many developing countries is both to expand education systems and to improve their quality. Doing so involves implementing policies that address why children—in particular, girls—are denied their right to education, as well as why learning achievement remains so low after several years in school.

Access: Incentives and Promoting Inclusion

Poorer countries need to enact policies that will make school free, accessible, and safe for girls and boys, whereas rich countries must live up to promises repeatedly made, and still not fulfilled, to increase aid in support of these policies.

The decision to send a child to school is made in the home. Traditions, poverty, and power sharing in the family can seal a girl's fate. Early marriage, whether to lighten a family's burden or to secure a daughter's future, often cuts schooling short. Conflict, HIV/AIDS, disability, conflict, and child labor practices put millions of children at an extreme disadvantage.

The overriding priority is to eliminate school fees. Countries that have done so in past years (e.g., Burundi, Cambodia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Uganda, Vietnam, Tanzania) have witnessed a surge in enrollments. In Kenya, 1.2 million more students entered the school system after the measure took effect.

For children from the poorest families, removing fees may not suffice. Given the links between low educational outcomes and poverty, providing financial incentives to families is an excellent strategy to increase access for the marginalized. Scholarships, school-feeding programs, and cash transfers to families to cover the forgone wage of a working child have a documented effect on schooling. Brazil's Bolsa Familia program, for example, provides income support to some 10 million children from poor families on the basis of conditions, such as school attendance. The Baljothi program in Andhra Pradesh, the state with the most working children in India, runs 250 schools (31,000 students) located in slums. The Gambia Girls' Scholarship Trust Fund provides full scholarships for tuition, books, and examination fees to one-third of girls in schools with low enrollment and to 10% of girls excelling in science, mathematics, and technology; more than 16,000 girls are taking part.

Quality: Attention to Teachers

Governments of low-income countries face difficult choices in their effort to expand access and provide decent learning conditions. Such governments can achieve much, however, by making better use of existing resources and focusing on several essential dimensions.

Investment in teachers is critical. Balancing time and money spent on initial training and on-the job support for newly qualified teachers is a critical policy question. More countries are moving toward shorter and more school-based training. In Cuba, all preservice training is school based. Such a system requires enough schools to serve as training environments and enough teachers to act as mentors.

Attracting new teachers alone is a concern in many countries. A recent research project3 on teacher motivation in several countries of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia concluded that most school systems in low-income countries were facing a teacher motivation crisis. The study identified key strategies to increase teacher commitment, noting that good housing with running water and electricity is probably the most cost-effective way to attract and retain teachers in rural schools.

Teachers are the most critical influence on learning, but several other factors are important. First, students are not spending enough time learning: Many countries do not reach the broadly agreed benchmark of 850–1,000 hours of instruction per year for primary school pupils. Second, the quality of learning materials strongly affects what teachers can do: National book policies can encourage the development of local publishing and enable schools to choose which books they use. Third, the choice of language of instruction used in school is of utmost importance. About 20% of the world's population has a “local language” as a mother tongue. Initial instruction in the learner's first language improves learning outcomes and reduces subsequent grade repetition and dropout rates. Papua New Guinea, a linguistic mosaic of more than 800 languages, uses more than 400 languages for initial instruction in schools.

Gender-sensitive policies in education and more broadly based gender reforms in society directly improve the quality of education and its outcomes. Strategies to improve the quality of learning must ensure that schools are places where stereotypes are undermined through gender-aware curricula and teacher training. Locating schools closer to home, providing sanitary facilities, and addressing the reality of gender-based violence are all investments that encourage parents to send their daughters to school.

Targeting the Poorest in ECCE

Improving education quality does not happen in isolation. Early childhood programs that integrate health, nutrition, care, and education can offset disadvantage caused by poverty and help with later achievement in school. Literacy improves adults' commitment to their children's education. Even in tight budgets and competing priorities, there is a strong case for increasing investment in ECCE programs.

Such programs yield impressive educational and economic returns, especially for children from poor families. Landmark studies in developed countries stand as proof while growing evidence from developing countries also points to high returns. ECCE must be recognized as essential to children's present welfare and future development. This concept implies financing choices. Spending on preprimary education is less than 10% of public spending on education as a whole. The burden often falls on parents. This untenable situation automatically excludes children from the poorest families. In contexts where the private sector plays a prominent role—as in sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab states, the Caribbean, and East Asia—public policy must ensure that regulations exist that apply to all settings.

Scaling Up Adult Literacy Programs and Building Literate Environments

Adult literacy is crucial for spurring greater economic, social, and political participation in development. The literacy challenge can be met only if countries adopt explicit policies to scale up youth and adult literacy programs and develop rich literate environments. Relatively few governments have coherent, long-term national literacy policies. Governments must clearly define responsibilities for adult literacy, which is often diffused across several ministries. Partnerships are vital but are all too often threatened by fragmentation or even competition. Finally, programs themselves must draw on good practice. A cardinal rule is to start with learners' demands: Why and what are they interested in learning? In what language? Are programs sensitive to the reality of learners' lives, to social norms, and to the demands of agricultural cycles?

The status of literacy educators is cause for serious concern. Good educators are the crux of success, but they are paid little, lack job security, have few training opportunities, and rarely benefit from ongoing professional support. According to a survey of 67 programs around the world conducted for the Report by the Global Campaign for Education and Action Aid, most literacy educators earn between one-fourth and one-half of a basic primary-school teacher's salary.

We must promote literate environments—societies that encourage individuals to use their literacy skills. Positive correlations exist between reading materials in the home and reading achievement at school. Many countries harness the potential of the print and broadcast media to promote literacy; several have developed special publications to promote reading. Broader policies on book publishing, the media, access to information, school textbooks, and public libraries are building blocks for nurturing learning and must feature in any comprehensive national literacy strategy.

Spending on Education: Domestic and International

That a child in sub-Saharan Africa can expect to receive, on average, 5–6 fewer years of schooling than one in Western Europe and the Americas is a clarion call for rich and poor countries alike.

On average, public spending on education as a share of the gross domestic product is increasing but remains inadequate in countries with huge EFA challenges: Niger and Pakistan, for example, spend less than 3% of the gross domestic product on education. Financial resources should focus on key requirements for achieving EFA: more and better-trained teachers, incentives to teach in rural areas, inclusion policies, and expansion of ECCE and adult literacy programs.

The international community must pull its weight if countries most in need are to expand learning opportunities for the millions of children and adults deprived of basic education opportunities. These countries require predictable, long-term aid to carry through essential policy reforms. Total aid commitments to basic education in low-income countries almost doubled between 2000 and 2004 (from US$1.9 billion to US$3.9 billion). This figure is insufficient: External funding requirements for EFA are now estimated at US$11 billion per year, more than three times the current level. Aid is not adequately targeted: Countries with high proportions of out-of-school children receive relatively low amounts of aid to basic education per child. Too much goes to the postprimary level: More than one-third of bilateral aid for education goes for scholarships for developing world students studying in donor countries. Alongside the expansion of primary education, donors must reassess the place of ECCE and literacy in their policies—usually there is minimal attention to these two fields—and in discussions with governments. It is also crucial for aid to be better coordinated and used effectively to help countries better manage key education reforms.

Political Will to Keep the Promises

EFA is a foundation for personal, social, and economic development. There has been progress since 2000 particularly at the primary level, testifying that we can accomplish much when countries and the international community join forces. Countries can do nothing without political commitment at the highest level—the belief that a country's greatest potential lies with its people and the knowledge and opportunities they have to make choices and contribute to their societies. Failing the youngest generation today not only violates their rights but also sows the seeds of deeper poverty and inequalities tomorrow. This is why the time for action is now. As Nelson Mandela recently stated, speaking about the right to education, “promises to children should never be broken.”