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Home > Education, an essencial human right - Updated: 10-09-2002 8:06 am
It is now over two years since the World Education Forum took place in Dakar on the initiative of UNESCO. The date was April 2000. The time has come to take tentative stock of its results.  
To be sure, much remains to be done to attain the objectives we set ourselves on that occasion. The Dakar Framework for Action assigned to the international community six goals, two of which are particularly relevant. The first commits us to “ensuring that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to and complete free and compulsory primary education of good quality”. The second involves “achieving a 50 per cent improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all adults”.

Yet today the number of adult illiterates worldwide still stands at 868 million. True, illiteracy has significantly diminished in relative terms and should continue to decline. The percentage of illiterates fell from 30.8% in 1980 to 22.8% in 1995 and should drop to 16.6% in 2010. But because of the increase in world population, the actual number of illiterates remained astonishingly stable between 1980 and 1995 – around 890 million – even if it has declined since then, albeit too slowly. And over 100 million children of primary school age still do not attend school or simply have no possibility of doing so.

Thus the scale of the task before us is clear. In the course of generations to come, we shall have to take up the unmet challenges of the 20th century – education for all – and those of the 21st century – lifelong education for all and the construction of knowledge societies. And these challenges concern all societies: even in the richest nations education systems cannot ensure sustainable literacy among the population. Studies show that over one-tenth, and more often than not one-fifth, of the population of the industrialized countries is affected by illiteracy – defined as the inability to read and write with understanding a short simple statement in relation to everyday life.

It is more than ever necessary, then, for us to rouse ourselves and take action. For education for all will only be effectively ‘for all’ when it becomes the active concern of all. Dakar must not be “yet another conference”, and Education for all must not forever remain an “unfulfilled promise”.

This is for UNESCO a key task, and I have personally committed myself to making it a priority, for education is a fundamental human right, set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Human Rights Covenants, which have force of international law. To pursue the aim of education for all is therefore an obligation for States.

Education for all is more than an ambitious objective: it is an ambitious ethic – predicated on human dignity. Today the notion of literacy is no longer restricted to reading, writing and numeracy: education must also offer access to skills and know-how that enable the individual to take his or her place in society. It must also be a school of democracy, for the surest defence of the City is an educated and responsible citizenry. Education must also be accessible at all stages of life, so as to give a “second chance” to the excluded and enable every individual to adapt to a changing world and work environment. It must give access in the first instance to necessary knowledge, and then make available throughout life - not only in school but also through non-formal and informal education - what Robert Carneiro, in Keys to the 21st Century, calls “antidotes to unlearning”.

We are convinced that this effort will only bear fruit if education for all is integrated in national development and poverty-reduction programmes. For today the essential link between education, development and poverty-reduction is universally recognized. This is why the poor and the excluded – particularly women and girls, too often deprived of education, and marginalized groups – should be the main targets of Education for all.

We must stop betraying hope, stop postponing action. In this respect, there are some heartening signs: I am thinking in particular of the publication by the World Bank a few weeks ago of the list of the first 23 countries to benefit from a fast-track ‘education for all’ programme – these countries alone comprising over half the children worldwide not attending school. I am also thinking of the encouraging pledges made at the recent G8 Summit in Canada, particularly concerning the funding of education for all. For investing in education is investing in success, it is building our future. Governments, international institutions, social agencies, NGOs, associations, the private sector and citizens must join forces in carrying through this undertaking.

In the aftermath of 11 September we should also reflect on the fact that investing in education means investing in national and international security. For education, as Jacques Delors has stressed, is founded on four pillars: learning to know, learning to do, learning to be, and learning to live together. Education for all is the best cement of peace, both between and within nations. But are we ready to pay the price of peace? To those who complained about the cost of education, Abraham Lincoln was in the habit of replying: “Very well, gentlemen, then try ignorance!”.


Author(s) Koïchiro Matsuura
Periodical Name Le Figaro
Publication date 02/09/2002
Publication Location Paris, France
Periodical Website http://www.lefigaro.fr


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