What could be achieved with four and a half day’s military spending?

It should surely be obvious!

It should surely be obvious!

Twenty two billion US dollars sounds like a vast sum of money to me; such figures are quite frankly beyond my understanding. But this apparently is the sum that it is estimated would need to be spent annually for the next few years in order to achieve the Education for All goals. This amount of money, so it is reported, would ensure global provision for universal primary education, would see more girls attending and completing school, and would increase educational opportunities for children living in some of the world’s poorest countries. Such a figure could help to achieve a goal to which governments all around the world subscribed in 2000, but one that continues to cause concern and which in some countries is nowhere near being accomplished.

If twenty two billion US dollars per annum is what is required, it is hardly surprising that it so difficult to make progress in this area. After all, such a huge sum of money needs to be provided by wealthier countries, many of whom declare that they are currently facing their own economic challenges. And for those of us who deal with sums of money seldom exceeding the equivalent a few hundred US dollars, twenty two billion is largely beyond our comprehension. I was therefore amazed yesterday when reading a report from the recently held Oslo Summit on Education for Development, which quoted a speech by the Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi in which he states that twenty two billion US dollars is the equivalent of just 4 ½ days of the level of current military spending around the globe.

This statistics seemed to me quite astounding. Surely Kailash Satyarthi, for all of his authority and despite being a man held in such international respect, must have made a mistake. Could this figure be a true representation of the gulf between spending to improve the lives of children, and the development and deployment of weaponry aimed at destruction? Well yes, it turns out, his figures are correct. A search of official international government spending sources reveals that around twenty two billion US dollars is spent on armaments and other military spending every four and a half days.

Kailash Satyarthi in a statement to the Oslo meeting stated that:-

“The best defence is investment in education. If we had invested in education, the world would be much safer today. Education is not only the key to sustainable development, but also the best shield to defend against terrorism, insurgencies and other obstacles that impede the progress of humankind.”

I find myself, not for the first time, largely in agreement with views expressed by this great children’s rights activist.

Of course, it would be naïve to believe that countries will give up their focus upon spending on military equipment and armaments, particularly at what is seen as a dangerous time in many parts of the world. But Kailash Satyarthi makes a valid point when he suggests that should more of this money be directed at education, it might address some of the issues of poverty, greed, envy and deprivation which are the source of many of the conflicts which currently form a blight on a number of societies.

It can be argued with a degree of confidence,  that significant progress has been made towards achieving the Education for All goals in some parts of the world. India, is an example of one country where the educational opportunities for many, though not all children, have certainly increased. However it might be worth asking questions about why international aid to basic education was cut by almost 10% between 2010 and 2012, yet there has been a steady increase in military spending over the same period. Whilst some countries have benefited significantly from support to improve schooling, others, such as Burkina Faso have lost more than 50% of the aid provided for basic education. Other regions of the world are currently being devastated , and schools destroyed in part through use of the many billions of US dollars being allocated for military purposes.

Satyarthi points out that at this time only 4 per cent of all Overseas Development Assistance is targeted at education. He makes a good case for this being increased to a minimum of 15 per cent. However, he is realistic enough to know that this is not going to happen overnight.

I was motivated to write this piece partly because of my own appalling levels of ignorance in respect of the figures above related to educational aid and military spending. I found myself asking the question, If I am so lacking in appreciation of this situation, how can I expect others who are not so directly involved in education to know what is going on in the world?

The scientists William Moerner, Brian Schmidt and Elizabeth Blackburn, who are also Nobel Prize winners, along with a number of other eminent individuals wrote an open letter to the Oslo Summit  in which they pleaded for a change in this situation. In this letter they say:-

“We urge the international community to loosen the purse strings for the future of our children, to protect them from exploitation and violence, and to invest in their education.”

Does it really demand the learning and intelligence of Nobel Prize winners to make us understand that spending so little on providing basic education  when compared to that spent on military development is a denial of the basic human needs of so many children and future generations? If this really is the case, then those of us who consider ourselves to be “educated” are destined to continue to demonstrate our ignorance.


Hoping for more than a declaration of intent.

Expressions of good intent. Let's hope they come to fruition

Expressions of good intent. Let’s hope they come to fruition

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


No longer any reason to remain ignorant.

This SOMO Report provides harrowing examples of the exploitation of children

This SOMO Report provides harrowing examples of the exploitation of children

I had a conversation this morning with one of my PhD students, a young man from India who is nearing completion of his studies. During the course of our meeting we were reflecting on the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the India child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, about whom I wrote on this blog yesterday, and why it was that neither of us, prior to this award had encountered this man and his work. Of the possible reasons we discussed, having read much about him over the past week, two seem to have some currency. Firstly, he appears to be a modest man who is immersed in his work and has not sought the publicity that might have followed his actions. Secondly, and much more disturbing, that the problems associated with child labour and trafficking are so great that his efforts to challenge these have been lost in the enormity of the task.

The humble nature of Kailash Satyarthi is apparent in the many recent interviews that have inevitably followed the Nobel prize announcement, but I would venture that the second factor that we considered, that of the extent of child labour is far more significant. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates, that all work done by children under the age of 15, and all hazardous work done by children under the age of 18 is illegal. Yet there are many reports of the abuse of this aspect of the Convention and these include estimates that there may be as many as 200 million children illegally employed around the world.

Since 1973, SOMO an independent, not-for-profit organisation working on social, ecological and economic issues has investigated multinational corporations and the consequences of their activities for people and the environment around the world.  A recent report published by this organisation highlights the extent of the problem and provides case examples from several countries.

An example from India presented in the report describes how girls are deployed in the yarn and textile spinning mills in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. They are apparently contracted for periods of up to five years in a scheme known as ‘Sumangali’  which means ‘happily married bride’ in Tamil. The promise being that they will earn enough money after a period of time to provide a good dowry for their marriage. However, the SOMO report found that the girls, who live in appalling conditions, are forbidden phone calls home and are not allowed unaccompanied visitors to their hostels. They earn barely enough money to survive.

When reading details such as this from the SOMO report one realises the enormity of the challenge that Bachpan Bachao Andolan, the organisation founded by Kailash Satyarthi faces in making progress towards the eradication of this problem. It takes little imagination to understand that there are many with vested interests in maintaining the status quo who will do all that they can to oppose the implementation of the law and the upholding of children’s rights. The actions that unscrupulous employers and business men are prepared to take to uphold their illegal regimes are possibly another reason for Kailash Satyarthi to maintain a low profile. He has already survived a number of brutal attacks during his efforts to defend children and expose child labour. These included an assault on himself and his associates at a Delhi garment sweatshop in 2011 and several raids upon his offices by people intent on halting his activities.

So, returning to our previous ignorance of the activities of Kailash Satyarthi, I suspect that our theories related to his personal modesty and the overwhelming nature of the atrocities of child labour both have an element of truth. Sadly for many children the interventions of campaigners such as Kailash Satyarthi have had insufficient impact, but others have benefited from his determined interventions, and hopefully the publicity that his work is now receiving will make the life of ruthless employers and child traffickers that much more difficult in the future.