For far too long, the cause of universal education has taken a back seat to other great international movements for change. Now, for two new reasons that lie at the heart of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s launch of the “Education First” initiative, education has returned to its rightful place atop the global policy agenda.
First and foremost, young people have themselves become the biggest advocates of universal education for girls and boys. Refusing to remain silent while denied opportunity, young people—particularly girls—have launched one of the great civil-rights struggles of our time.
Few could remain unmoved by the brave fight of the young Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai after the Taliban shot her in the head because she insisted on the right of young girls to an education. Few have failed to notice the massive public outpouring of support in Pakistan and elsewhere for the cause that she is championing.
Likewise, we have also seen in recent months the creation by schoolgirls in Bangladesh of child-marriage-free zones, aimed at defending the right of girls to stay in school instead of being married off as teenage brides against their will. In India, the Global March Against Child Labor, led by the children’s rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi, has rescued thousands of young boys and girls from a life of slavery in factories, workshops, and domestic service, and has ensured that they return to school.
These demonstrations by girls and boys demanding their right to education have made the fight for basic schooling impossible to ignore. Consequently, every government now feels under even greater pressure to deliver the second of the global Millennium Development Goals (“achieve universal primary education”) by the end of 2015.
But a second worldwide force also has propelled education to the centre of the policy agenda in most countries: the increased recognition of the importance of education by those who examine why countries succeed or fail. For years, academics have debated whether culture, institutions, ideology, or resources cause some countries to lag behind. Today, a growing number of writers, researchers, and policymakers see the crucial link between education and national economic success.
The deployment of human capital has become an important factor in explaining why some countries remain stuck in a “middle-income trap” and why others cannot break out of low-income status. And research assessing a country’s human capital now focuses on the quantity and quality of basic skills, qualified graduate manpower, and expertise in research