First Lady of the United States of America and UNESCO Director-General stand with World Leaders for quality education

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© UNESCO

On 24 September, the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama and world leaders pledged their commitment to raise the quality of education at an event held in the context of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly in New York.

The high-level event, ‘Quality Education for the World We Want’ was held in support of the Global Education First Initiative (GEFI), a global advocacy effort launched by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for which UNESCO provides the Secretariat. GEFI seeks to accelerate progress towards achieving universal access to basic education, improve the quality of learning and foster new forms of global citizenship. 

In an unprecedented show of support for education, 14 Heads of State/Government and Ministers from all regions of the world, UN principals and leading international advocates stood together to send the same message -- that quality, lifelong learning is the key to building a more equitable, peaceful and sustainable world.

Participating in the event were leaders from GEFI Champion Countries -- including H.E. Ms. Park Geun-Hye, President of the Republic of Korea, H.E Mr. Ivo Josipovic, President of Croatia, H.E. Mr. Donald Ramotar, President of Guyana, H.E Mr. Moncef Marzouki, President of Tunisia, H.E. Mr. Antoni Marti, Head of Government of Andorra, H.E. Ms. Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, H.E. Ms. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Prime Minister of Denmark, H.E. Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, H.E. Ms Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway, H.E. Nassirou Bako Arifari, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Benin, as well as H.E. Ms Bathabile Dlamini, Minister of Social Development of South Africa, H.E. Mr. Hao Ping, Vice Minister of Education of China, H.E. Mr. Carlos Amarante Baret, Minister of Education of the Dominican Republic, and H.E. Mr. Arlindo Chilundo, Deputy Minister of Education of Mozambique. Her Highness Sheikha Moza of Qatar played a prominent role in the event, which was moderated by the journalist, Zeinab Badawi. 

The President of the World Bank, Mr Jim Kim, as well as Mr Gordon Brown, UN Secretary General Special Envoy for Global Education participated in the opening panel. 

The event was held at a critical time. With less than 500 days left to the 2015 target date for achieving the Education for All goals and Millennium Development goals, there are still 58 million children out of school and 250 million children unable to read, write or count, even after four years of schooling. 

The First Lady of the United States of America made a powerful appeal for girls' and women's education as a force to change the world. For this, she underlined the importance of supporting girls making through primary to secondary education. Without this, Ms Obama said girls may be condemned to a "life of dependence, fear and abuse." This requires, she said, new laws as well as shifts in cultural norms at the national level and a strong agenda at the global level.

"We need to fight harder to ensure quality education for all is a dedicated goal in the post 2015 agenda," she said.

To move forward, Ms Obama reminded all participants of the courage shown by millions of girls in such countries as Pakistan and Nigeria and across the world: "If we can show a fraction of their courage, then we can change the world."

Deputy Secretary General, Jan Eliasson, welcomed the political will from the highest levels for the ‘Quality Education for the World We Want’ event, defining quality education as more than just entry to the job market, but the foundation for personal fulfilment, gender equality, global citizenship and a fundamental human right. 

Irina Bokova made the stakes clear about the importance of education:

"This global learning crisis not only undermines social cohesion and threatens stability, it is a violation of basic human rights”, the Director-General told world leaders in her opening address.

“Education must come first, not just any education, but quality education; education to shape the world into a better place,” the Director-General said. 

“The Global Education First Initiative is a call to action; to harness the transformative power of education, to eradicate poverty and hunger, to improve health and to protect our planet. We asserted this message at the Global Education Meeting in Oman this May, at the International Conference on Literacy in Bangladesh this month, and it was sent at the BRICS Summit in Brazil.”

There is strong international consensus that education must feature centrally in the post-2015 development agenda and will be critical to its success. This future agenda will be debated at this year’s UN General Assembly, and the global goal and target for education will be discussed further at the World Education Forum taking place in the Republic of Korea in May 2015.

World leaders speaking at the UN on Wednesday delivered a strong message that in order to unleash education’s transformative impact on development, Governments must redouble efforts to recruit, train and support teachers, without whom, children cannot receive a quality education. This can only be achieved through an increase in funding for basic education, currently underfunded by $26 billion annually.  

“We must do everything we can to ensure every girl and boy can go to school, receive the right learning and contribute fully to society,” the Director-General said. 

The event began with statements from GEFI’s Champion Countries on the transformative role of quality education, particularly for those marginalized by poverty, location, gender, disability or ethnic origin. 

This was followed by remarks from the Initiative’s Steering Committee members, who stressed the importance of addressing the challenges posed by the global learning crisis, which has left 250 million children unable to read, write and count, even after four years of school. 

H.E. Ms. Park Geun-Hye, President of the Republic of Korea, spoke of the importance of education to development: "The secret of Korea's development is its investment in people, in education." 

Reminding all about UNESCO's role in launching Education for All, she drew attention to the World Education Forum that the Republic of Korea will host in 2015. 

Her Highness Sheikha Moza of Qatar, the Secretary General's Advocate for MDG 2, pointed out the shortcomings of progress towards the MDGs, calling for lessons to be leant in moving forward. In this respect, she highlighted the need to protect schools as safe havens in conflict and emergency situations.

World Bank President Jim Kim showed the importance of education for growth, with examples from across the world.

"Education is the foundation of prosperity and a growing economy," he said.

Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown made a powerful case for education as the antidote to early marriage and forced labour.

"We need education first," he said, "education foremost, education forever."

The interventions featured lessons from across the world along with new commitments to action. HE Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh spoke of her country's long-standing commitment to promoting girls' education and the power of sharp policies and adequate resources. H.E. Ms. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Prime Minister of Denmark made a pledge for Denmark to allocate 70 million USD a year to the Global Partnership for Education -- while Norway pledged to double their support to development aid over the next three years. 

These pledges occurred in a discussion that was cold-eyed and realistic in recognising the challenges that remain, as underlined by Ethiopia and South Africa.

The event included also Ms. Gina Casar, Associate Administrator and USG of UNDP, Ms. Susan Hopgood, President of Education International, Ms. Camilla Croso, President of Global Campaign for Education, Ms. Alice Albright, CEO of Global Partnership for Education as well as Ms Sumaya Saluja, Representative of Youth Advocacy Group.

In closing, UNESCO Director-General thanked all participants for the energy and commitment they are bringing to putting education first. 

"We need to bring this same vision, this same commitment, this same energy to completing unfinished business and to shaping the post 2015 global development agenda -- with education at its heart," she said. "Education is a human right, a development and a security imperative."