IT has been almost three months since Islamic militants in northern Nigeria attacked a school that was giving exams and kidnapped more than 250 girls — some of the brightest and most ambitious teenagers in the region.
Their captors have called them slaves and threatened to “sell them in the market.” The girls were last seen, looking terrified, in a video two months ago.
“We are asking for help,” pleaded Lawan Zanah, father of one missing girl, Ayesha, who is 18 and appeared in that video. “America, France, China, they say they are helping, but on the ground we don’t see anything.”
He told me that he and the other parents don’t even know if their daughters are alive. The parents spend their time praying that God will intervene, since the Nigerian government and others don’t seem to be. “We hope God will feel our pain,” he said.
The principal of the school, Asabe Kwambura, told me that 219 girls are still missing and lamented that the international campaign to help — #BringBackOurGirls — is faltering as the world moves on.
“Continue this campaign,” she urged. “Our students are still living in the woods. We want the international community to talk to the government of Nigeria to do something, because they are doing nothing.”
The Nigerian government’s most obvious response has been to hire an American public relations firm for a reported $1.2 million. That money could be better used to pay for security at schools.
Global leaders talk a good game about education, but they don’t deliver. Sad to say, that includes President Obama. When he was running for president in 2008, he announced a plan for a $2 billion global fund for education — and if you’ve forgotten about that, don’t worry, because he seems to have as well. Indeed, Obama is requesting 43 percent less in international aid for basic education in 2015 than the peak that Congress provided in 2010.
Aid to education worldwide from all donor countries has fallen 10 percent since 2010, according to Unesco.
If President Obama wants to support a global fund for education, there is one. It’s called the Global Partnership for Education, and it has offices in Washington. It is strongly supported by other donor countries, but its chairwoman, Julia Gillard, the former prime minister of Australia, notes that the United States has, so far, provided about only 1 percent of the budget for it.
“The United States is not 1 percent of the world’s population,” she said dryly.
To his credit, Obama is upping the sums, offering $40 million this year and more in the future. Representatives Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, and Dave Reichert, a Washington Republican, are also co-sponsoring an Education for All Act that would promote aid for schooling some of the 58 million kids worldwide who aren’t attending primary school.
One group has been responsive: Times readers. After I wrote about the Nigerian girls in May and mentioned a group called Camfed that sends girls to school in Africa, Times readers donated nearly $900,000 to Camfed. Thank you, readers!
Camfed says the money will help 3,000 girls continue in high school across Africa — girls like Katongo, a 16-year-old math whiz in Zambia. Katongo is an orphan who had to drop out of school for lack of money for fees, but she is now on track to become the first person in her family to finish school. She plans to become a nurse.
But while private donations help, they won’t solve the education gap. Neither will aid dollars, although they, too, will help. Ultimately, governments in poor countries need to step up and make education a priority — for what is needed is not just money but also a kick in the pants.
In Mali, 92 percent of children at the end of second grade were unable to read a single word, according to Unesco. In Zambia, 78 percent of third-graders couldn’t read a single word. In Iraq, 61 percent of second-graders couldn’t answer a single subtraction question correctly.
Conditions are often deplorable. Teachers in Africa and Asia often don’t show up at school because they are paid by a government bureaucracy even if they are perennially absent. Of low-income children in Malawi, only 3 percent manage to complete primary school and learn the basics of education — perhaps partly because the average class size in first grade in Malawi is 130 students. In Cameroon, there is only one math book for every 13 second-graders. How can kids possibly learn that way?
Yet we’ve also learned that done right, education changes almost everything. Evidence suggests that educating girls increases productivity, raises health standards, reduces birthrates and undermines extremism.
Drones and missiles can fight terrorism, but an even more transformative weapon is a girl with a book, and it’s one that is remarkably cost-effective. For the price of a single Tomahawk cruise missile, it’s possible to build about 20 schools.
Many of the world’s poor understand the power of education. I’ve seen children in Liberia who lack lights at home do their homework at night under street lamps. I’ve been moved by parents in India and Pakistan going hungry to pay school fees for their children.
A fierce ambition to study explains why those 219 girls in northern Nigeria showed up to take their final exams even though they knew the risks of terrorism. Some of those girls dreamed of becoming teachers, doctors, lawyers — and now they may be enslaved in a forest and perhaps married off to Islamic militants.
I hope we’re doing everything possible to locate and recover those girls: This is a rare case where, if the Nigerian government asked for our help, the world would applaud us for assisting in a raid. So let’s #BringBackOurGirls. But let’s not stop there.
For almost all of history, the great majority of humanity has been illiterate, and now that is changing with stunning rapidity. Lant Pritchett, an education expert at Harvard, notes that schooling has increased much more in the last 60 years than it did in all the centuries from Plato’s Academy until 1950. Education is an escalator that can change the world, and we are now on the cusp of wiping out global illiteracy for good — if we sustain the effort.
Boko Haram is assassinating teachers, attacking schools and kidnapping students because it knows that literacy is the enemy of extremism. Terrorists understand the power of education. Do we?
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