What does the former # 2 United Nations official recommend as the top action to help developing countries?
I picked up Time Magazine this weekend and came across the article “A Glimmer of Hope in Africa”. While it talks about some of the improvements in Congo, the first paragraph of the article lays out some of the common problems in emerging countries such as Congo:
“A region with great natural wealth, riven by war, racked with hunger and traumatized by a long history of colonial abuse, postcolonial kleptocracy and plunder. In the past 10 years alone, millions have died here, and more die each day as a result of the conflict. Most die not from war wounds but from starvation or disease. A lack of infrastructure means there is little medical care in the cities and none in rural communities, so any infection can be a death sentence. The most vulnerable suffer the worst. One in five children in Congo will die before reaching the age of 5″
That paragraph mentions lack of infrastructure, widespread disease, starvation, high infant mortality rates, tribal wars, lack of medical care in rural areas. While war is not amongst the challenges faced by all of the poorer countries in the world, the other challenges mentioned are quite common– along with other issues such as lack of education and illiteracy, gender inequity, child labor/soldiers and many other problems.
When thinking about all of these challenges, the question often comes up what issue is the most important, what issue should be attacked first. You’d like to think that you can’t pick one, that they are all inter-related and dependent and that it is not a practical question. However, I recently came across this passage from Shashi Tharoor, the former undersecretary general of the United Nations. I found this passage from his book ” The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone” to be noteworthy and compelling.
From Shashi Tharoor, The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone
One of the more difficult questions I used to find myself being asked as a United Nations official, especially when I had been addressing a generalist audience, was: What is the single most important thing that can be done to improve the world? It’s the kind of question that tends to bring out the bureaucrat in the most direct of communicators, as one feels obliged to explain how complex the challenges confronting humanity are; how no one task alone can be singled out over other goals; how the struggle for peace, the fight against poverty, the battle to eradicate disease, must all be waged side by side– and so mind-numbingly on. But of late I have cast my caution to the winds and ventured an answer to this most impossible of questions. If I had to pick one thing we must do above all else, I now offer a two-word mantra: “Educate Girls”
It really is that simple. There is no action proven to do more for the the human race than the education of the female child. Scholarly studies and research projects have established what common sense might have already told us; if you educate a boy, you educate a person, but if you educate a girl, you educate a family and benefit an entire community.
The evidence is striking. Increased schooling of mothers has a measurable impact on the health of children, on the future schooling of that child, and on the child’s adult productivity. The children of educated mothers consistently outperform children with educated fathers and illiterate mothers. Given that they spend most of their time with their mothers, this is hardly surprising.
A girl who has had more than six years of education is better equipped to seek and use medical and health care advice, to immunize her children, to be aware of sanitary practices from boiling water to the importance of washing hands. A World Bank project in Africa established that the children of women with just five years of school had a 40 percent better survival rate than the children of women who had less than five years of class. A Yale University study showed that the heights and weights for newborn children of women with a basic education were consistently higher than those of babies born to uneducated women. A UNESCO study demonstrated that giving women just a primary school education decreases child mortality by 5 to 10 percent.
The health advantages of education extend beyond childbirth. The dreaded disease AIDS spreads twice as fast, a Zambian study shows, among uneducated girls than among those who have been to school. Educated girls marry later, and are less susceptible to abuse by older men. And educated women tend to have fewer children, space them more wisely, and so look after them better; women with seven years’ education, according to one study, had two or three fewer children than women with no schooling. The World Bank has estimated that for every four years of education, fertility is reduced by about one birth per mother.
The more girls that go to secondary school, the Bank adds, the higher the country’s per capita income growth. And when girls work in the fields, as so many have to do across the developing world, their schooling translates directly to increased agricultural productivity, which in turn leads to a decline in malnutrition The marvelous thing about women is that they like to learn from other women, so the success of educated women is usually quickly emulated by their uneducated sisters. And women spend increased income on their families, which men do not necessarily do.