Commonwealth: We Should Invest in Young People

Published on 16th June 2009

Let us never lose sight of those people on whose behalf we meet- the Commonwealth family – especially its children and young people, both of today and of tomorrow. They are the ones who will inherit this 21st Century and this Commonwealth family of nations; the young people in whom our hope and future rests, and in whom we must invest heavily of our time and wisdom and resources, if they are to rise above the many obstacles that hold them back, and release their full potential in their own, their communities,’and their nations’ lives.

Education is the key that can unlock our future. It is the key to peace and democratic stability, to jobs and economic growth, to good health, to respect and harmony. It is not just a development goal – it is the foundation of society, and a fundamental human right. If it is a right for one, it is a right for all.

I quote from the communiqué of that very first Commonwealth Education Ministers (CCEM) meeting, held in Oxford, exactly 50 years ago: ‘There are no frontiers to human knowledge: knowledge is not the exclusive prerogative of any nation or group of nations …. Our task is to share our resources to ever greater advantage.’

Let me offer the briefest of thoughts on the 17 CCEM theme: ‘Education in the Commonwealth: towards and beyond global goals and targets.’The key words here are, ‘Towards’ and ‘Beyond.’

I alight first on the word ‘Towards’because these Goals represent both our current highest aims and our lowest common denominator. The two out of the eight Millennium Development Goals to which we refer – that we achieve universal primary education by 2015, and that we achieve equal numbers of boys and girls in primary and secondary school by 2015 – are the globally agreed yardsticks by which we measure our success.

They are uniquely important, in that they are embraced by developed and developing countries alike. They are supplemented by the Goals of the ‘EFA’, Education For All, that go beyond the MDGs in addressing issues of quality.

One third of our 53 Commonwealth countries have yet to achieve universal primary education, and about the same number have yet to achieve gender parity, with equal boys and girls in primary school. We have six years left in which to realise these targets: and we need to concentrate our political will and our resources – financial and technical – to the countries, groups and regional pockets where the risk of not meeting them is the highest.

I then alight on the word ‘Beyond’,  because – great though these Goals are – they are not everything. Some even say that the MDGs can divert us from other equally valid goals. But there should be no contradiction, because the immediate and the wider goals are inherently linked. We should see education holistically, and in the round. Education is ‘the key to our future’. For this reason, we can look beyond the Goals in three ways:

First, look beyond Primary Education to Secondary and Tertiary – a continuum, and indeed a circle. We see this, for instance, in the way that tertiary education plays a role in improving primary education, not least by equipping teachers and developing best practice.

Second, look beyond ‘education’ to skills. We fully recognise the value of vocational skills, which are as fundamental for a society’s development as the reading, writing and arithmetic that form the basis of education. Skills, too, are a passport to life, and to growth, investment and job creation. Skills development will be a special focus of the Commonwealth Business Forum, which will convene alongside the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, or CHOGM, in Port of Spain later this year.

Third, look at the role of education in transforming society – in establishing not just the principle but the practice of some of the values that we hold dearest in the Commonwealth. That boys and girls, men and women, are equal, and deserve equal opportunity. That people of every faith, ethnicity, language, of every ability, every level of health, every sexuality, every advantage and disadvantage, are all equal and worthy of the same prospect of fulfillment.

I call upon 17 CCEM to speak loud and clear to CHOGM, about the important role of education, in times of crisis and always, and about the imperative of mainstreaming and empowering our youth – our most priceless asset – giving them self-belief and seeing them as the driving agents of social transformation and the builders of their nations.

The final issue is born of the current combination of – or competition between – crises and challenges, immediate problems and longer-term potential. Its backdrop is a severe economic downturn which may bring short-term pain to the developed world, but which may also bring severe longer-term reversals to a developing world which has little of the necessary resilience or cushions to deal with it.

That downturn has its inevitable effects on the social sector, including education. We are indeed in straitened times, and we are seeing the knock-on ill effects on education. Countries which face the biggest challenges in Commonwealth education if they are even to move ‘towards’ the MDGs, let alone ‘beyond’ them, are having to slash their education and health budgets – and radically. We cannot sacrifice education to expediency, nor our future to our present. Education remains the best investment we can possibly make.

I wish to end by drawing your attention to the Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowships Programme which – 50 glorious years and 25,000 alumni later – is launching an Endowment Fund this year. The fundraising unfolds under the banner line ‘Once in a lifetime’. It is indeed a once in a lifetime opportunity to change not just a young person’s life, but the life of a community to which that person returns.

It is also a once in a lifetime opportunity for all Commonwealth governments, rich and poor, to launch a new stream of scholarships and fellowships, in which the student exchange goes not only from South to North, but from South to South, and North to South. This represents the wisest investment in our future, in our values, and in our networks.

By Kamalesh Sharma,

Commonwealth Secretary-General on the occasion of the 17th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

 


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