BLANTYRE, MALAWI – In September, I was among a group of world leaders who gathered in New York City to discuss ways to improve access to quality education. Around the world, hundreds of millions of children are either not receiving basic schooling, or are attending schools but not learning. We gathered to devise a way forward.
The crisis that I discussed with heads of state from France, Senegal, and Norway, along with leaders from the United Nations and global education advocates, is not an abstract problem unfolding in a distant land. It is a crisis that has reached my doorstep in Malawi. The challenge of education is one that my government, like many in developing countries, grapples with every day.
As one of the co-conveners of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity – which brings together world leaders to mobilize support for solutions to the education crisis – I have long focused on how to improve educational access. Quality schooling is key to helping people contribute to the development of their communities and their countries. Without a properly educated populace, it would take decades for developing countries like mine to overcome the profound economic, social, and health challenges that we face.
To ensure that we do not fail our children, or our country, my government is investing heavily to build a strong and sustainable education system. We have steadily increased education spending, which has risen from 12.5% of the total domestic budget in 2010 to 21% in 2015. This represents one of the highest percentages among developing countries anywhere, and I hope that our example will encourage leaders elsewhere to devote at least 20% of their national budgets to education.
But there is a limit to what economically struggling countries like Malawi can do alone. To make real progress in education, the generous support of wealthier partner countries and global institutions is essential. The momentum we have generated can be sustained only if donor support remains strong.
Malawi’s education sector has benefited greatly from balancing increased domestic investment with external support. For example, more Malawian children are enrolled in primary school than ever before, and the rate of boys and girls completing primary education has increased dramatically, from 59% in 2007 to 80% in 2014. Adult literacy has also improved, albeit more modestly, from 61% in 2010 to 66% in 2015.
Still, Malawi falls far behind the rest of the world on a several key education indicators. Among the list of challenges we face are derelict schools, high pupil-to-teacher ratios, and significant gaps in inspection and oversight capabilities. These and other issues make it hard for teachers to teach and for students to learn.
When Rihanna, the pop artist and ambassador of the Global Partnership for Education, visited Malawi in January and met with students and teachers, she put a spotlight on the promise of education. Our country has been fortunate to receive funding in recent years from bilateral donors and international organizations like GPE, which helps countries like mine increase educational quality and broaden access.
Since 2009, GPE funding has enabled Malawi to conduct long-term planning and data collection, and has brought domestic and international partners together for a common cause. GPE’s support has helped us build more facilities, overhaul our curriculum, improve access for girls, and train more educators.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Malawi’s partnership with GPE has been transformative, which is why I am urging donor countries around the world to contribute generously to GPE at its upcoming financing conference in Senegal. By 2020, GPE aims to distribute more than $2 billion annually to help improve education in developing countries around the world.
Without GPE’s support, some 825 million young people risk being left behind without the education or skills to perform well in the workplace of the future. That could lead to growing unemployment, poverty, inequality, instability, and other factors that threaten not just individual countries or regions, but the entire international community.
Educating every child is a moral imperative and thus a universal responsibility. In today’s interconnected world, challenges and gains in low-income countries do not remain local.
When my colleagues and I met in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we recommitted to solving the challenges of educational quality and access. We now need the rest of the world to join us in addressing this global crisis head-on.
Note: Peter Mutharika is the current State President of the Republic of Malawi