by Irina Bokova
16 July 2015
If this year is to go down as the one in which the global community set the world on a transformative development path and clinched a deal on climate change, ambitions will have to match means.
This is what is at stake as we meet in Addis Ababa. In one of the most inclusive global exercises ever conducted, we have rallied around a set of proposed sustainable development goals that are universal in scope and aspire to leave no one behind and protect the planet.
When it comes to investment, we should not only focus on price tags and amounts, but rather on how to maximize results by targeting the best returns on investment. As we enter a new era of limits – in terms of resources, the power of States and the boundaries of the planet – I can hardly think of a smarter choice than investing in the ultimate renewable energy we have: human ingenuity, nurtured through education, the sciences and our creative diversity. This is the key driver of innovation and an absolute development multiplier. It fosters ownership and the full empowerment of people to shape their future and craft sustainable solutions.
This begins with education, the ultimate game changer and the most powerful transformative force for beating poverty, improving health, driving growth and shaping equitable, green societies. Early childhood education, especially for the most marginalized, pays lifelong dividends. A primary and secondary education translates into fewer child marriages, lower infant and mortality rates, more effective HIV prevention and higher earnings. When girls are educated, societies are transformed. What is maybe more important is to look at the high price the world is actually paying for underfunding education. According to the Education for all Monitoring report published by UNESCO, the global learning crisis is costing governments US$ 129 billion a year. 10% of global spending on primary education is being lost on poor quality education that is failing to ensure that children learn. By contrast, ensuring an equal, quality education for all can generate huge economic rewards, increasing a country’s gross domestic product per capita by 23% over 40 years.
At the World Education Forum in Incheon (Republic of Korea), 160 countries committed to provide 12 years of publicly funded education, of which at least nine years are compulsory. For this to happen, education has to receive higher billing – domestically and internationally. Today some 124 million children and adolescents are out of school worldwide, and many more are in school without learning. It will cost an extra US$39 billion to realize Education for all in low and lower-middle income countries. Aid for education will need to increase six-fold. In Incheon, leaders also pledged their determination to increase spending on education to at least 15 to 20 percent of total public expenditure and to step up aid where it is needed most. This means a serious reversal in current trends that is a matter of political will and smart choices.
The same holds true for science. Harnessing men and women’s talents in the sciences holds a key to opening the doors of innovation and scientific progress, to writing the next chapter of the scientific revolution we need to foster sustainable development. The Addis preparatory process has acknowledged the key role of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI), and the emerging agreement on a technology facilitation mechanism is encouraging. There is a now a need to set up robust national STI policies and systems to take advantage of countries’ full potential of scientific and technological knowledge as a development multiplier.
The way to sustainability is to invest in human capacities, in everything that can sustain ownership and self-determination. Education, the sciences and cultural diversity represent a wellspring of innovation, creativity and renewal. The importance of culture as an enabler and driver of sustainable development was recognized in the zero draft of the post-2015 development agenda – and this is a historic milestone. New innovative mechanisms of financing and investing in culture are needed to further enhance the vitality of the sector and harness its full potential for sustainable development.
The way to build a truly people-centred development agenda is clear: it is to massively invest in the people, through education, the sciences, and culture. This resonates strongly with UNESCO’s mandate, and I believe it is not only the right thing to do, it is the most effective policy option available.