UNESCO reports on education: 73 million children out of school!

  • Date / 11 March 2010

UNESCO has recently published a series of reports on education[1] for the year 2010. All reports warn: Education is at risk worldwide as a result of armed conflicts and the financial crisis.

Children played no part in the financial crisis

“Children living in the urban slums and rural villages of the world’s poorest countries played no part in the reckless banking practices and regulatory failures that caused the economic crisis. Yet they stand to suffer for the gambling that took place on Wall Street and other financial centres by losing their chance for an education that could lift them out of poverty. The guiding principle for international action should be a commitment to ensure that the developing world’s children do not pay for the excesses of the rich world’s bankers,” one report says, highlighting the impact of the financial crisis on education in the poorest countries and the “developing world” but ignoring the “developed” or “rich” countries in the Western hemisphere.

As the crisis is affecting the economy at an international level, the impact on Education is global. In France for instance, the Ministry of National Education is planning to shed 16,000 teachers’ jobs for the school-year starting in September, 2010.

In the USA, the situation is even worse. Robert Bobb, the emergency financial manager of Detroit’s public school system, has recently announced the closing of about 40 more schools. He has also promised a new round of layoffs and wage and benefit cuts on teachers over the year in a bid to close an estimated $200 million deficit. The State of California is the eighth richest economic power in the world, and yet, one Californian school board has recently authorized the sending out of 755 layoff notices, or “pink slips,” to teachers, counsellors, and administrative staff. This school board’s move was part of the implementation of $32.6 million in cuts slated for the 2010-11 fiscal year. Students and teachers throughout California are planning strike actions in response to tuition hikes of up to 33 percent, the firing of thousands of staff and more generally in defence of public Education.

Child labour

According to UNESCO, 73 million children are currently deprived of the right to education across the world. The major part of those 73 million children who are denied the right to attend school go to work in sweatshops for starving wages, in violation of ILO conventions prohibiting child labor.

Education at Risk: No protection for schools in armed conflicts

A second report called Education under attack shows that in situations of armed conflict and insecurity, deliberate attacks against schoolchildren, students and teachers are “both a barrier to the right to Education and a serious protection issue.” Educators and learners risk their lives in environments that should be secure and protective.

Besides, international conventions[2] provide schools and Education facilities with a less privileged status than they afford to hospitals and religious buildings.

Article 1 of the international convention “On the Protection of cCultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflicts” (The Hague, 1954) provides a legal “definition of cultural property” which includes “movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular; archaeological sites; groups of buildings which, as a whole, are of historical or artistic interest; works of art; manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest; as well as scientific collections and important collections of books or archives or of reproductions of the property defined above; (b) buildings…. such as museums, large libraries and depositories of archives…; (c) centers containing a large amount of cultural property… to be known as ‘centers containing monuments’.”

Schools are not included in the “definition of cultural property”!

The current school privilege “prohibits” armed forces from targeting these buildings and yet, international conventions fail to prevent or discourage military use, which converts school buildings into justifiable targets for opposing forces.

“States… have inconsistent policies concerning military use of school buildings during armed conflicts. There is a logical circumstantial link between military use of schools and the fact that in war-torn areas, large percentages of schools were destroyed in recent conflicts despite precision targeting methods and efforts to avoid damage to civilian sites. Moreover, military use of schools endangers lives by increasing the likelihood that military forces will target an unconverted school filled with children. The current privilege for schools is untenable and must be remedied,” the report says.

One should wonder whether there is any difference between “precision targeting methods” and deliberate targeting of schools by drones and other sophisticated weapons. “Motives for targeting schools, students and educational personnel and the tactics used to carry out attacks on education change from context to context, and perhaps even within the same affected area”, the report says and yet, the results are the same: in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza, hundreds of schools have been destroyed as “military targets”.

Here is what UNESCO published[3]:

“War keeps children out of school in the Philippines and in Gaza

“In the Mindanao region of the Philippines, ongoing conflict hits education twice over.

“Mohammed’s new home is a tent on the grounds of a school, yet he has little time to attend class. For him and many other children in an evacuation camp, helping his parents supplement meager food rations is now his priority. ‘I can only go to classes in the morning because I have to look for vegetables and firewood outside the camp and return before dark,’ he said. Mohammed, 13, is the eldest of five children who are taking refuge with their parents and grandparents in a camp in the Datu Gumbay Piang Elementary School in Maguindanao. Heavy clashes between the military and separatist rebels in the Mindanao region of the Philippines have left hundreds of thousands of civilians stranded in government evacuation camps, often set up in schools….

Catch‐up classes help children in Gaza recover from a terrifying conflict.

“Esra El‐hello, 17, saw her father and brother killed in the war in Gaza in January 2009 and had to flee the house with the rest of the family. While she was in hiding, her 1-year-old niece died from her injuries. The experience still gives her nightmares, she says, and could easily have jeopardized her promising academic future. ‘I was an excellent student and the best in my class. With the war, everything changed. They encouraged us to go back to school afterwards, but I could not concentrate. I could not talk or interact with anyone.

“‘How could I study?’ Esra says.”

That is the cost of war for Palestinians. But what about the Israeli population? Here is an article from Haaretz, an Israeli daily newspaper:

Israel set to become OECD’s poorest member.

“If the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development accepts Israel in its vote this May, it will be its poorest member with the widest social gaps, a report by the organization shows. The OECD’s chairman, Jose Angel Gurria, submitted the report to the Israeli government Tuesday. … Although the report’s conclusions are nothing new for many Israelis, the country is still at the bottom of the rankings. Every fifth Israeli is twice as poor as the average person in OECD member states. Most of the poor come from Arab and ultra-orthodox communities, where poverty rises to 50 percent and 60 percent, respectively. More than half of Israelis are paid less than NIS 4,000 a month, while only a very few make many times as much. … Minister Herzog said Israel’s main weakness in applying for the organization was poverty, citing a 20 percent gap with the OECD.” — Liel Kyzer, Haaretz, January 20, 2010

Solutions could be put forward by UNESCO

  • SZOP

The first emergency program was set up in Nepal in 2004. It is called Schools as Zones of Peace (SZOP) and involved UNICEF as well as international and national NGOs. The SZOP campaign was to promote schools as neutral zones of peace. They lobbied both the army and the Maoist groups, and eventually negotiated codes of conduct with political parties and the government representatives in several areas that respected schools as neutral, conflict-free zones. The codes of conduct included such terms as banning arms from schools and prohibiting political activity on school grounds, among other things. In conclusion one should note that the SZOP campaign was able to encourage dialogue and negotiations mainly because political parties and government forces agreed to end the conflict.

  • Depoliticizing the school environment

In order for schools to be recognized as politically neutral and thus more likely to be accepted and recognized as conflict-free zones, the physical space should not be perceived as a politicized space. Ending the practice of using schools for political purposes was a component of the codes of conduct signed during the SZOP campaign in Nepal. This issue is currently being raised in Afghanistan, where NGOs have expressed concerns over using schools and medical facilities for voter registration and polling stations. During the recent elections on 20 August, 2009, dozens of schools being used as polling stations were attacked.

Not locating polling stations in schools during armed conflicts could minimize damage to school infrastructure and time lost to making repairs so that buildings are safe again for students.

Schools and university buildings should be recognize as politically neutral and conflict-free in international conventions.

  • Religion?

UNESCO is also promoting a very controversial “solution” as religious leaders are asked to promote the right to education in Afghanistan!

“In some areas, the government is working with local religious leaders to promote girls’ education based on the Islamic principle that education is a must for all children, and to mobilize communities to protect schools, students and teachers. Local mullahs have also been invited to teach the Qur’an as part of the government school curriculum and to be a part of school governance. In 2007, in the Western Region, the Governor involved religious leaders and tribal elders in meetings with technical departments with the aim of reopening six schools and one health centre” one report says.

How can UNESCO propose religion as a solution to protect Education and at the same time demand political neutrality for schools? How can schools be neutral and conflict-free if the school curriculum is based on religions and dogmas?

This contradiction is at the core of UNESCO’s dilemma concerning Education.

–Sam Ayache

IHEU delegation to UNESCO

[1] Reaching the Marginalized (525 pages), Protecting Education from Attack (309 pages) and Education under Attack (243 pages).
[2] Such as the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War in armed conflicts (1949), or the International Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property (The Hague, 1954) which is part of UNESCO’s commitment.
[3] Reaching the Marginalized, “Stories from the Classroom” -UNESCO, 2010

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