Dr Khudair Al-Khuza’i, the Minister of Education of Iraq, and Baroness Emma Nicholson de Winterbourne, Member of the European Parliament and Chair of the AMAR International Charitable Foundation, also addressed the opening ceremony of the Conference, which brought together over 200 participants from multilateral organizations, NGOs, and members of the academic community in Iraq and worldwide.
The Director-General first paid tribute to Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned of Qatar, UNESCO Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education, for her generous support to the Conference. “Her Highness has been an inspiring spokesperson for the right to education, in particular in countries affected by conflict. Like all of us here today, she understands the critical need to assist Iraq through this difficult period until it can once again stand on its own as a leader in education and innovation”, Mr Matsuura said.
Turning to the challenges facing the Iraqi education system, the Director-General argued that factors such as insecurity, discrimination and the lack of adequate learning facilities had led to declining enrolments rates at every level, in particular among girls. He underscored the pressing need to provide education services to the nearly two million internally displaced Iraqis and the large numbers of Iraqi refugees living in neighbouring countries. Mr Matsuura also drew attention to the direct attacks against educators and educational institutions in the country, which have caused much loss of life and suffering and led some 6,700 educators to flee Iraq in search of better conditions. “Recent improvements in security do provide grounds for cautious optimism with respect to future reconstruction and development. However, lessening violence alone will not resolve the situation, nor remedy the psychological and institutional trauma endured in recent years”, he said.
“Much more must be done urgently to mobilize international support for the rehabilitation of the education system in Iraq. I hope that this Conference will play an important role in raising awareness of the key challenges and needs, and in defining the way forward”, the Director-General stated in conclusion: “We have to do our utmost to make schools and universities safe and to protect the lives of students and educational personnel. We have to help out-of-school children, both girls and boys, find their way back to school and to stay there. We must ensure that education promotes the skills and values needed to rebuild a peaceful, inclusive and democratic Iraq. Above all, we must restore hope and confidence in the future”.
On the margins of the Conference the Director-General met with the Minister of Education of Iraq, the Ministers of Education and of Higher Education and Research of the Kurdistan Regional Government, as well as the Head of the latter’s Office of Coordination for UN Affairs, to discuss UNESCO’s action in the country. The Director-General said that such high-level participation was very important to ensuring that the Conference addressed real needs and priorities on the ground. Special reference was made to the recent launch by UNESCO and the Iraqi Ministry of Education of a Distance Learning Project, which will give children and students who cannot attend school the opportunity to receive education services by television. All agreed on the importance not to let the current financial crisis draw attention and resources away from the urgent educational needs facing Iraq and other crisis-affected countries.
The Director-General received several delegates of the Iraqi Parliamentary Committee for Education, including the President Dr Alaa Makki, to address further the educational priorities of Iraq. Emphasis was placed on literacy, teacher salaries and school reconstruction, as well as the importance of establishing a national strategy for philosophy to help foster dialogue between different ideas and perspectives.
Mr Matsuura also met with Baroness Nicholson to discuss UNESCO’s collaboration with the AMAR International Charitable Foundation, in particular joint initiatives underway in the areas of peace education and adult literacy. Both pledged to maintain and strengthen the partnership.