Educating All: Progress of Millennium Development Goal 2 (Universal Primary Education)

Bro. Steven O’Neil, SM[1]

The target for this goal is to ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling. In the developing world as a whole, enrollment in primary education has increased slowly. The net enrollment ratio has gone up by just 7 percentage points since 1999, reaching 89 per cent in 2009. In more recent years, progress has actually slowed, with an increase of just 2 percentage points between 2004 and 2009, dimming prospects for reaching the MDG target of universal primary education by 2015. Current statistics also show that only 87 out of 100 children in the developing regions complete primary education.[2] In half of the least developed countries, at least two out of five children in primary school drop out before reaching the last grade.

Nevertheless, some of the poorest countries have made the greatest strides since 1999. Burundi, Rwanda, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Togo and the United Republic of Tanzania have achieved or are nearing the goal of universal primary education (with an adjusted net enrollment ratio above 95 per cent). Considerable progress was also made in Benin, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique and Niger, where net enrollment ratios increased by more than 25 percentage points from 1999 to 2009. The abolition of school fees is considered an important driver of rapid progress in many of these countries.

In 2009, however, more than 20 per cent of primary-age children in least developed countries were still excluded from education. Of the total number of primary-age children in the world who are not enrolled in school, 42 per cent—28 million—live in poor countries affected by conflict. There has been some improvement in the number of girls attending school. In the decade 1999-2009, the share of girls in the total out-of-school population dropped from 58 per cent to 53 per cent.[3]

At the World Education Forum (Dakar, 2000), 164 governments pledged to achieve Education For All (EFA) and identified six goals to be met by 2015. Governments, development agencies, civil society and the private sector are working together to reach the EFA goals. The Dakar Framework for Action mandated UNESCO to coordinate these partners, in cooperation with the four other conveners of the Dakar Forum (UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF and the World Bank).[4]

Quality of Education

In the last decade, there has been growing international interest and concern regarding the importance of the quality of education. However, indicators useful for measuring progress toward the quality goals remain far more elusive, particularly when it comes to learning outcomes and processes that lead to such outcomes. While some 
of the planning and implementation frameworks (such as EFA-Fast Track Initiative) have defined some indicators for quality—such as pupil-teacher ratios, instructional time and expenditure ratios—they are widely regarded as being proxy indicators at best. There is a need for coordination within the international community to do for the quality goals what has already been done for the access goals: develop indicators that can stimulate investment and policy actions to enable education systems to better assess and improve learning, as well as to set priorities for, and facilitate, capacity building in this area.

Despite the impact of any continuing economic and social constraints, once children are in school the decisions around whether to continue attending and the amount of learning which takes place depends largely on the teachers and the quality of classroom instruction. The rapid acceleration of enrollment in many countries over the past decade has led to several problems regarding the availability of trained teaching forces, in large part due to the investment in time needed to both develop a pool of secondary school graduates from which to recruit for teacher training as well as the training itself. There are also additional financial constraints and budget limitations to invest in teachers’ salaries. In some cases, governments have not been able to increase the number of teachers to compensate for the increase in pupils, leading to explosions in pupil-teacher ratios, including many reports of schools with ratios of over 100:1.[5]

Violence Directed at Educators

Finally, UNESCO has published two reports, the first in 2007 and the latest in 2010, which focus on the abhorrent use of targeted political and military violence against education staff, students, teachers, union and government officials, and institutions. UNESCO is concerned with attacks on education for three reasons: the threat to the right to life, the threat to the right to education which also enables the fulfillment of other basic rights and fundamental freedoms, and the threat to the achievement of the Education for All goals. The first report found that the reported number of targeted attacks on students, educational staff and institutions seemed to have risen dramatically in the three years from 2004 to 2006. Since then there have been thousands more reported cases of students, teachers, academics and other education staff being kidnapped, imprisoned, beaten, tortured, burned alive, shot, or blown up by rebels, armies and repressive regimes; recruited or sexually violated by armed groups or armed forces at school or on their journey to or from school. The effects on education of such incidents will be felt long after the funerals have taken place, through loss of teachers and intellectuals, flight of students and staff, fear of turning up to class, grief and psychological trauma among students and personnel, damage to buildings, materials and resources, and degradation of the education system through staffing recruitment difficulties and halted investment.[6]

How to Help

There are a number of things that individuals and communities can do to help realize the various international education goals. First, help ensure governments of developing countries have the policy space and financial resources to prioritize education in their national development plans. Please help the NGO Committee on Social Development signature campaign asking governments to institute a “Social Protection Floor” guaranteeing at least a minimum level of basic services such as food, water, housing, education and health care for all its people. Second, join with the United Nations, countries of the Leading Group on Innovative Financing for development, and numerous NGOs and civil society organizations calling for a Financial Transaction Tax for Development. At the recent G20 meeting leaders stated: “We agree that, over time, new sources of funding need to be found to address development needs…. We acknowledge the initiatives in some of our countries to tax the financial sector for various purposes, including a financial transaction tax, inter alia to support development.”[7]

The only hope of achieving the education targets of the Millennium Development Goals, and all the other goals as well, will come only if and when the people of the developed nations (wealthy nations) recognize their responsibility, both personally and through their government, to help their brothers and sisters in the developing countries (poorer nations) realize the basic human rights they have the good fortune to enjoy.


[1] Brother Steve O’Neil, SM is the representative of the Marianists NGO at the United Nations.  The International Marianist Family’s main focus at the UN is on issues directly impacting children and youth.

[2] Measured by the gross intake rate to the last grade of primary education.

[3] United Nations, Millennium Development Goals Report 2011, at 17 (Lois Jensen ed., 2011), available at http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/reports.shtml.  The MDG Report 2011 was compiled by an Inter-Agency and Expert Group on MDG Indicators led by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat.

[5] UN Development Group Task Force, Thematic Paper on MDG 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education, 20-21 (2010).

[6] UNESCO, Education Under Attack 2010, at 14, available at http://www.unesco.org/new/en/unesco/themes/pcpd/education-in-emergencies/protecting-education-from-attack/

[7] Final Declaration of G20 Leaders, Paragraph 82 (Nov. 4, 2011), available at http://www.leadinggroup.org/article954.html.

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One Response to Educating All: Progress of Millennium Development Goal 2 (Universal Primary Education)

  1. Pingback: FamilyOnline, Vol. 11, No. 1 » The Marianists - Marianist Province of the United States

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