Last week in Incheon, in the Republic of Korea, government ministers from more than 100 countries, along with representatives of non-governmental organizations and youth groups met at the World Education Forum. The focus of discussions at this meeting was for the most part upon how the right to free and quality education can be provided for all the world’s children, including the 58 million who currently have no access to school.
Speakers representing august organisations such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Bank Group took to the stage to assert their commitment to improving the lives of children and keeping education high on the world development agenda, until such time as all children have gained the right to go to school. The sentiments expressed were sincere and I have no doubt that the conference delegates will have returned home fired with a new determination to bring about change. Ringing in their ears will be the latest declaration asserting the intention to ensure “equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning for all by 2030”.
I describe this Incheon Declaration as the “latest” as it follows hot on the heels of previous such statements including Jomtien, Thailand (1990), Salamanca, Spain (1994) and Dakar, Senegal (2000), all of which have been signed with due solemnity and good intentions by world leaders with the intention of improving the plight of the world’s children. The Education for All goals, with clearly defined targets towards achieving universal primary education have provided an important focus for education policy makers, children’s rights activists and politicians around the world. But I can well understand those who on reading the Incheon Declaration will ask whether by simply writing yet another aspirational document progress will be assured.
One delegate at the Incheon forum who has greeted the new declaration with words of both encouragement and caution is the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and children’s rights campaigner Kailash Satyarthi from India. Speaking to the gathered audience he reminded them that when they met in Dakar fifteen years ago they established goals that were then seen as attainable, but he reflects upon the intervening period with mixed feelings. Satyarthi described how new opportunities for education has transformed the lives of some individuals in his own country, but he also reflected on the fact that it is already too late to transform the lives of many children who are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and gruelling child labour. One of the most powerful statements that Satyarthi made to the forum was that he refuses to accept any of the excuses that continue to be made in defence of denying children access to school and that others should do the same.
Whilst Kailash Satyarthi demonstrated a great deal of frustration at the failure to deliver on previously expressed goals, which should by now have benefited millions of excluded children, he still believes that a concerted effort on the part of those who are concerned could result in educational opportunities for all. Whilst praising the intentions of those world leaders who have supported this latest international declaration, Satyarthi leads by example through his recognition that if progress is to be made it will be on the basis of actions taken by individuals as much as through legislation. We could all do worse than follow in his footsteps.
When reading about events such as that held in Incheon it is easy to become cynical and to believe that this is yet one more talking shop from which little of substance will emerge. However, if just a few individuals are inspired by the words expressed with such passion by Kailash Satyarthi, and decide to take affirmative action on behalf of children, the World Education Forum will have been worthwhile.
You can hear the presentation given to the World Education Forum by Kailash Satyarthi here