Aichetou, a 14-year-old girl, lives on the outskirts of Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, in Africa's Sahel region. Every day, she makes a difficult trek through the sand to get to a school with no drinking water or sanitation, where she barely learns, owing to a lack of textbooks and trained teachers. And she is not alone: tens of millions of schoolchildren worldwide face similar circumstances, while 262 million children and youth are not in school at all.
At a time when we should be progressing rapidly toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring "inclusive and equitable quality education" for all (SDG4), the world is facing a deepening education crisis. True, some countries are making strides: in France, every child receives a compulsory education, which will soon begin at age three.
But millions of children elsewhere will never set foot inside a classroom. If the status quo persists, more than half -- 825 million -- of the 1.6 billion young people alive in 2030 will not have the skills needed to thrive economically. Girls face particularly bleak prospects, owing to factors like cultural norms, gender-based violence, and early marriage.
Conflict and insecurity exacerbate the problem. In the Sahel region alone, attacks on schools and teachers by extremist groups have disrupted the education of more than 400,000 children in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Some 2,000 schools have closed, and more than 10,000 teachers have fled or can't report to work.
The good news is that world leaders increasingly recognize the urgency of addressing the crisis. Education and development ministers from the G7 countries recently met with their counterparts from the Sahel countries in Paris, where they pledged to tackle inequality in developing countries through gender-responsive education and technical and vocational training.
To that end, the G7 representatives announced that they would continue to support 12 years of quality education for all, with a focus on the hardest-to-reach girls. Moreover, they vowed to work to end discriminatory practices like excluding pregnant or married girls from school, and to promote gender-responsive education through the France-led Gender at the Center initiative. And they committed to sustain efforts to help partner countries in the developing world to strengthen their technical and vocational education and training systems.
These laudable efforts will include a special focus on the Sahel. But achieving them will require that countries move beyond vague promises of support and offer concrete commitments that match the scale of the challenge.
The first step is finance. If current funding levels persist, it will take 100 years to reach SDG4 -- far more than the 11 years we have. That is why the world's wealthiest countries must drastically increase their spending on education, particularly for the most marginalized communities in the poorest regions. For starters, G7 members and the European Union should heed France's call to double their education aid to the Sahel. Developing countries should also increase their education spending.
The additional financing should be used to strengthen national education systems, especially in terms of accountability and gender equality. This means making sure that schools have the resources they need, including clean water and sanitation, quality learning materials, and adequately trained (and compensated) teachers. It also means responding to the specific needs of disadvantaged students: for example, girls need to be guaranteed safety not only in school, but also on their daily commute. Governments will need to collect data, monitor outcomes, and make course corrections when appropriate.
Giving girls like Aichetou the chance to fulfill their potential is not only the right thing to do; it is also the smart thing to do. An educated society is a more peaceful and prosperous one, in which people are less likely to take up arms and more likely to participate in democratic processes. And, in today's globalised world, a more peaceful and prosperous society in one region, such as the Sahel, means increased stability and economic growth for all. That is why education belongs at the top of the G7's development agendas.
Alice Albright is CEO of the Global Partnership for Education and serves on the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.