Read between the battle lines

As spending on arms looks set to rise, shouldn't we be buying education instead? Paul Vallely reviews Oxfam's latest findings
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The Independent Culture
I have seen the future, and it hurts. I am not, I should say at the outset, gloomy by nature. (The best that can be said of pessimism is that its advocates rarely find themselves disappointed.) So I have never had much truck with modern notions of apocalypse - from the end- of-the-world predictions of the millennial cults to the more mundane political doom-mongers who foresee a century in which globalisation turns life intohamburgered homogeneity.

Such futurology tells us as much about the prejudices of the writer as it does about the way the world is likely to unfold. But what happens if you take known facts and trends and project them a mere 15 years hence? The outcome, I have to tell you, even for an optimist like me, is not reassuring.

The world in 2015 could all too easily be like this: There will be nuclear war between India and Pakistan. Civil wars will have broken out in Brazil, the Philippines and Indonesia. Population pressures will have accelerated desertification throughout the African savannah. Most people in the world will live in rapidly expanding shanty towns.

Wave after wave of economic and environmental refugees will be assailing Europe, stowing away in boats, planes, lorries and containers. In Africa, illiteracy, disease and ignorance will have burgeoned, swamping what little aid the rich world offers. Democracy will be collapsing throughout the continent, plunging it into a chaos of marauding bands of brigands, and leading to tribal violence on a scale that will dwarf events in Rwanda.

This bleak prophecy is not a mere conjuring with possibility. It is based upon an extrapolation of current world trends in a dauntingly impressive collection of statistics put together for Oxfam by Kevin Watkins. Not that Oxfam is politically insensitive enough to predict such events. But they are there, clearly enough, between the lines.

The 200-page report, Education Now, analyses schooling in the world's 104 poorest countries - and then projects forward to the year 2015, by which date the rich nations' club, the OECD, has pledged that world poverty will be halved, and deaths among the under-fives will be cut by two-thirds and among their mothers by 75 per cent. Oh, and all the world's children will be in primary school.

All that, at any rate, was the promise made at the OECD's "Shaping the 21st Century" conference in Copenhagen in 1996. This week's Oxfam report points out, in grave and understated terms, the extent to which those grand promises will be broken if Western governments merely carry on as at present. And, because this is an Information Age, the impact of such apathy will be even greater than in previous decades. For education is - increasingly - the key to wealth, health and democracy.

The wealth part is obvious enough. To get an increased share of trade, Third World countries need a better skill-base; in the past they could rely on raw materials, but today new technologies in polyester, plastics and fibre optics have replaced much of what the poor have to trade. Now they need new skills to add value.

Health is affected, too. The report reveals that a child's chance of dying before the age of five is reduced by 8 per cent for every extra year of education her mother has had. Educated mothers are more likely to go to the clinic, relate to nurses or doctors, demand specific treatment, and return if it doesn't work, as well as be able to read the instructions on medicine packs. Yet the world has 42 million fewer girls in primary school than boys. Universal primary education would prevent two million unnecessary infant deaths a year.

Democracy, too, depends on an educated electorate. It is likely to degenerate as a growing proportion of the population can't read or understand arguments about budgets.

Today, half the children in Africa south of the Sahara don't go to school; by 2015 that will have risen to three-quarters of the child population. Because education helps social cohesion, the prospects for inter-ethnic conflict is likely dramatically to increase.

The West acknowledged these risks in 1990 at the "Education for All" conference held at Jomtien in Thailand. It was to work for universal primary education by 2000. But by the next international jamboree, in 1996, the target had been shifted back to 2015. For, as the Oxfam report shows, the West's policies are pulling in a direction utterly opposed to its bountiful rhetoric.

Today only 10 per cent of aid goes on education - and of that only a sixth goes to primary schools: that's pounds 1.50 for every pounds 100 of aid. Much education aid is spent on training elites through bursaries to Western universities: the individuals helped get better jobs, but often outside their own communities - so that there are now more Ethiopian doctors in Philadelphia than in Addis Ababa, and more Pakistani scientists in California than at home.

Most Third World countries have no national budgets for the grandiose Education for All targets. Indeed, to do so would contravene the terms of the IMF financial rescue packages, which are designed to enable poor countries to cut spending on education and health and pay the interest on their debts to the Western world.

The Education Performance Index which Oxfam has invented to measure the scale of the problem looks at how many kids enrol in school, how many complete the course, and how many girls that includes. The index is predictable enough in one way, with Bahrain and Singapore at the top and Niger and Ethiopia at the bottom. But it has surprises, too. It shows that good policy can partially counteract problems of low incomes. Cuba, Sri Lanka and China punch educationally well above their economic weight. So do Vietnam, Kenya and Zimbabwe, as a result of increased investments, reduced costs and a strong political commitment to education. China has an average income similar to that of Pakistan, but its kids are three times more likely to enrol in school and twice as likely to finish.

Elsewhere education, rather than being a great leveller, is a great divider. Many of the Gulf States show an unwillingness to convert national wealth into education for all. And the myth that economic progress automatically brings universal education is shattered in Colombia, Guatemala, Argentina, Brazil and Chile, where children all do less well than they should according to their parents' income. Latin America has the world's worst public education system, with twice as many pupils dropping out than anywhere else. Others, such as Venezuela - which is 15th in income but 80th in educational outcomes - spends much of its education cash on universities, which are free of charge to the middle classes, while primary schools have fees for the poor. "It is," says Kevin Watkins, "like doing up the top floor when the foundations are crumbling."

There are other problems that are not being tackled. Massive education gaps are being opened up within countries. Brazil has an increasingly wealthy middle-income south, but its north east is one of the poorest places in the world. Similar chasms are widening in the Philippines, Indonesia and India, where Kerala state has almost abolished illiteracy and has a workforce as highly educated as that of South Korea, yet Bihar state is worse than Mozambique or Chad. Potential for inter-regional conflict is growing fast.

In Pakistan, the rural province of Sind is educationally the second worst place in the world, with only Ethiopia below it. Yet Pakistan spends five times as much on arms as on schools; it recently blew $943m on three nuclear submarines from France. The money would have financed the basic education project for seven years. In a country where 11 million children have never been to school, there are 150 soldiers for every 100 teachers. Yet, like its neighbour India, Pakistan is rapidly increasing already-inflated military budgets, following tests of nuclear devices in 1998. India spends four times as much on arms as on schools - and squanders a greater percentage of its earnings on military research than do most developed nations, while a quarter of all the children in the world who do not go to school live in India.

No wonder Oxfam's education action plan - which calls for deeper and quicker debt relief, reforms in IMF policy and an increase in aid for schools - also demands that Third World governments be pressured to re- prioritise and stop spending on arms. Doubtless they will squawk about neo-colonial infringements of sovereignty, says Kevin Watkins, "but it's what the people on the ground tell us they want".

Instead, the rich nations indulge in "high-level meetings to set endless lists of targets which no one has any intention of delivering", says Watkins. "It's a cynical deception."

Doubtless there will be those who will tell him he is being politically unrealistic. But the spectre of the nightmare world of 2015 is more real than they may imagine. And the cost of this ambitious notion of education for all the world's children? The same amount that Europe spends each year on mineral water.