The economic crisis should not erode important education gains made in Latin America and the Caribbean said the Deputy-Director General of UNESCO, Marcio Barbosa speaking at the annual meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) held in Medellin, Colombia on 30 March.
Addressing the Board of Governors at a meeting which marked the 50th anniversary of the bank, Mr Barbosa said education was key to development and that the most vulnerable sections of society, those hit hardest by the crisis, were more than ever in need of protection.
“Against the backdrop of the most severe financial crisis since the 1929 crash, UNESCO wishes to stress the centrality of education for development, and the need to sustain, and if possible increase, investment in education during these difficult times,” he said.
In the 50 years since the bank’s foundation the region has witnessed remarkable economic and social development, to which the IDB has contributed in no small measure, he said.
“The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have invested strongly in education over the past decades, and our societies and economies are benefiting today from this investment. Enrolment has increased spectacularly in primary and secondary education. Investment in tertiary education has also increased. Yet, while we emphasise progress, it should not be forgotten that there are many school-age children who have never seen the inside of a school.
“In my own country, Brazil, it is estimated that, in 2007 some 600,000 school-age children never made it to school. Thirty million adults in the region lack basic literacy skills, so important in today’s knowledge-driven society. Education quality also remains a challenge; low levels of learning achievement mirror and exacerbate socio-economic disparities.”
Mr Barbosa said in times of crisis, it was imperative that governments at a minimum maintained and, if possible, increased, their political commitment to and investment in education to uphold and safeguard the gains of the past.
“The crisis is also an opportunity for leaders and policy-makers to implement policies that open up opportunities, and to break away from doing ‘business as usual’,” he said.
He singled out successful targeted approaches to addressing inequalities such as Mexico’s Progresa/Oportunidades or Brazil’s Bolsa Escola saying such programmes had to be maintained and expanded, with safeguards to ensure they reached more beneficiaries faster.
He also stressed the need to improve education quality in the region especially when compared to outcomes in OECD countries and to provide a new deal for teachers.
“UNESCO is also concerned by the teaching shortages if Universal Primary Education is to be achieved. In the region alone, it is estimated that 1.6 million additional teachers will be needed by 2015. Teachers are fundamental to any education system; for this reason UNESCO has recently launched an International Task Force on Teachers for Education for All Programme.”
In addition a rethink was needed in regard to technical and vocational education and skills training for youth and adults, to help stem unemployment. A more flexible relationship between the world of work and that of learning was needed.