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Education is key to easing poverty

Associated Press

As a matter of public policy, this is a no-brainer: Education is a significant factor in the development of children, communities and countries.

Yet, 75 million elementary school-age children worldwide do not attend school. Fifty-five percent of them are girls. Most of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia. Some 40 million of these children live in conflict-affected countries.

Not surprisingly, most of these children live in nations that are impoverished.

Recently, three recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom — Desmond Tutu, former Anglican archbishop of Capetown, South Africa; economics professor Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank and the father of microcredit (both men are winners of the Nobel peace prize); and Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland — called on Group of 8 nations to redouble their efforts to provide a basic education to 75 million children worldwide.

In a letter to G-8 leaders, Robinson, Tutu and Yunus wrote that education needs to be an integral part of the global response to the current economic crisis. "Without skills such as literacy, numeracy and problem-solving, million of children and adults are trapped in poverty. Education is the key to unlocking inter-generational deprivation as it offers the knowledge people need to live healthy, happy lives," they wrote.

These world leaders' efforts are also aimed at President Barack Obama who, during his presidential campaign, pledged at least $2 billion to set up a Global Education Fund. Hillary Clinton reiterated Obama's commitment to educating the world's children during her confirmation hearing for Secretary of State.

These promises piggyback on a 2000 United Nations Millennium Development goal to cut extreme poverty worldwide by half by 2015. The Education for All compact, which stems back to the 1990 World Conference on Education for All, is one component of achieving that end.

In some cases, providing primary education would be as simple as providing stipends to attend schools. But in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda, there are steep obstacles to establishing schools and ensuring the safety of students and teachers from extremist elements. In Pakistan's Swat Valley, for instance, Taliban hard-liners have blown up or burned some 170 schools, most of them for girls.

Despite these challenges, the world needs to consider education as a human right and an investment in human capital. Studies show that higher levels of education help to reduce the incidence of disease and lower the risk of dying of preventable causes such as illness or injuries sustained in unsafe working conditions.

Obama needs to keep his commitment to a Global Education Fund as do other world partners who recognize that investments in education are critical to mitigate the impacts of the global economic crisis and to ensure forward momentum in achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals to reduce global poverty.