Peter Smith: “We’re building a world of learning for all."

29 May 2006

UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Education, Peter Smith, speaks out on the need for greater harmonization and alignment of multilateral organizations participating in the Education for All (EFA) movement in an article published in Embassy, a Canadian foreign policy newsweekly on 22 February.

UNESCO is currently coordinating a consultative process on a Global Action Plan to achieve the EFA goals. The plan will build on each EFA partner’s competitive advantage, avoid duplication of efforts and identify the gaps that need to be filled.

“We have already missed the first EFA target—gender parity by 2005,” says Smith. “If we are to reach EFA by 2015, we must radically change our plan of action,” he adds.Building a world of learning for all

by Dr Peter Smith

Imagine if you wanted to build your dream house. You could hire the most famous architect in the world to draw up complex plans. But the house would remain a paper fantasy without the hard work of specialized craftspeople--painters, plumbers, electricians and carpenters. These people--each bringing his or her special expertise--would have to work closely together to make your dream a reality.

Education for All (EFA) should not remain an unrealized architectural fantasy. Nor can we afford to build it as a house of cards. It is an ambitious plan to provide learning opportunities to every man, woman and child throughout the world by the year 2015. But it is a plan that we will turn into reality if we can effectively harness together the necessary political will and efficiently make use of the existing skills that are already present in the international community.

In 2000, five multi-lateral agencies and over 160 countries came to the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal to draw up plans for the most ambitious educational promise ever made. EFA is based on the fundamental premise that education is central to the promotion of human rights, social equality, democracy and economic growth in each and every country. The building blocks of EFA are six goals that are central to the pursuit of sustainable human development: early learning, universal primary education, life skills, literacy, girls' education, and quality education.

We have already made significant progress in building a learning world. There is more awareness than ever among governments as to the central role that education plays in development and a much greater willingness to invest in this sector. Sharp increases in school enrolment in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia--to the tune of 20 million additional students per continent--have occurred in the past five years, and 47 countries worldwide have already achieved universal primary education.

But our edifice is not complete. Many external factors, including civil conflict, natural disasters, HIV/AIDS and high fertility rates impede progress towards EFA. We have already missed the first EFA target--gender parity by 2005--and many countries remain off-track for reaching the rest of the goals by 2015. As the most recent EFA Global Monitoring Report demonstrates, over 100 million children are not in school. Sixty-seven countries are at risk of missing the goal of universal primary education by 2015. And over 771 million adults--two thirds of them women--do not have the basic literacy skills to survive in today's world.

For the EFA movement to advance, the international community, donors and national governments need to make concerted efforts both to increase funding for education and institutionalize the policy reforms needed for quality education systems to thrive.

But this is not enough. We face a situation in which using the same techniques is not going to be sufficient for the challenges that we face. If we are to reach EFA by 2015, we must radically change our plan of action and pick up the pace of our construction schedule. The first step is to clearly map the role of each EFA partner--to build on each institution's competitive advantage, avoid duplication of efforts and identify gaps that need to be filled.

Last year, UNESCO's Executive Board asked the Director-General to "intensify consultations and high-level dialogue with key international stakeholders, particularly the World Bank, UNICEF, and UNFPA, to agree on the specific roles, responsibilities and contributions of each stakeholder for the period 2005-2015 in achieving the EFA Goals." By improving coordination at the international level, we will achieve more effective and targeted action on the ground at the country level.

To do this, UNESCO is coordinating a consultative process aimed at developing a Global Action Plan to achieve the EFA goals. This plan is aimed at greater harmonization and alignment in the approaches of multi-lateral organizations towards EFA. Five key themes serve as the mortar for our project:

Mobilizing additional financial resources; Ensuring the effective use of development aid for EFA; Developing capacity at the country level; Communicating the critical role of education in sustainable development; and Strengthening mutual accountability through monitoring and transparency. The key arena for EFA action is, of course, at the country level. If EFA is the overall blueprint, then each country must develop its own floor-plan according to its contextual needs including methods, approaches, timing, costing and allocation of resources. To develop these educational policies and plans, each country needs regular, focused and high quality support from the international community.

Since its creation in the aftermath of the Second World War, UNESCO has stood proud in its commitment to education and advocated for effective national educational strategies and plans. As the financial, economic and social aspects of sustainable development and educational strategies become increasingly intertwined, UNESCO must continue to act as an intellectual leader, an honest broker, and clearinghouse for ideas, propelling both countries and the international community in the right direction.

We are standing on a threshold, where our current actions will shape the world for centuries to come. In creating a sustainable future, countries cannot forget that the primary building block for change is learning. Frank Lloyd Wright once said, "Noble life demands a noble architecture for noble uses of noble men." With Education for All, we can construct the most ambitious and noblest work of architecture that humanity has ever seen. We cannot allow this opportunity slip from our fingers.

Dr. Peter Smith is the Assistant Director-General for Education at the United Nations Education, Scientific and Culture Organization (UNESCO). He is founding president of California State University-Monterey Bay and a former member of the United States Congress.

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