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Education Could Be America's Best Defense

Author: Gene B. Sperling, Senior Fellow for Economic Policy and Director of the Center for Universal Education
June 22, 2004
Financial Times


In the war on terror, the Bush administration has insisted that there is a strong case for a pre-emptive strategy against weapons of mass destruction. It would be wise to extend this doctrine to the equally important battle for hearts and minds in the developing world. Nowhere would such a pre-emptive approach make more sense than in helping countries provide universal basic education.

America's current strategy for supporting education in poor nations is inadequate and fundamentally reactive. Despite overwhelming evidence that education - particularly for girls - can make countries more prosperous, healthy, stable and democratic, the total annual US contribution to education in poor countries would not be enough to build 20 American high schools. The only time the US has taken bold steps on education has been after it has invaded or bombed countries - such as the effort to get girls in Kabul into school for the first time - or has identified a security threat - as in Pakistan, where weak public school funding provided an opening for fundamentalist Islamic schools.

At the recent summit of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations, the Bush administration continued to follow the reactive route. Instead of pushing for a bolder, global effort on education, it backed a relatively modest literacy initiative for the Middle East. Such a reactive approach certainly can do some good, but overall it is likely to prove inadequate.

First, it sends the wrong signal to governments in poor countries that are trying desperately to do the right thing and enrol all their children in school. Substantial support from the US comes not when you take bold steps to promote good basic education, but when you fail so badly that you need funds for reconstruction.

Second, while Americans may see their country's efforts as well- intentioned and generous, others may see them as transparently self-serving, designed purely to meet security goals. On two recent trips to the Middle East, I often heard the same refrain - Americans do not care if children around the world starve or go without basic education, as long as they do not grow up to attack them. I spoke to legislators from Bahrain who told me that recent US initiatives had made their efforts to reform the curriculum more difficult. Where once they might have encountered scepticism, now their motives were questioned. "Why are you tools of the US?" they were asked. "The US never cared about our chil dren before September 11."

Rather than waiting until schools have been subverted by extremists or flattened by bombs, the US would do better to support poor countries' efforts to educate their children before conflicts and imminent threats arise.

No country better exemplifies the need for such a pre-emptive strategy than Kenya. After Daniel arap Moi's 24-year rule ended in 2002, the new government established universal education as a national priority and has made important progress in eliminating school fees and decentralising school management. Yet it now faces significant financial challenges.

A bold commitment to Kenya at this critical moment would not only signal America's support for those promoting democracy and reform in Africa, but would also improve US national security in the long term. Kenya, like other east African countries, is seen by western intelligence agencies as a potential home for al-Qaeda-linked extremists. In North Eastern Province, where the Muslim majority resides, fewer than 20 per cent of primary school-age children are enrolled. Without efforts to expand public education in this region, George Saitoti, Kenya's education minister, fears that schools funded by radical religious groups could flourish.

Taking preventive action to ensure that a viable public education system offers an alternative to extremist schools is precisely what many policymakers now wish America had done in Pakistan years ago. If the US allows Kenya's experiment with democracy and universal education to fail solely because the nation poses no big threat today, it may end up paying a high price tomorrow.

By the time the G8 meets in the UK next year, America should be doing things differently. It needs to work with other donors to spearhead a global push on universal basic education. Such an initiative would cost billions of dollars - but it would be extremely effective in fighting global poverty. It would also go a long way to improving America's image in the Middle East and across the developing world. The best way for America to win the war of hearts and minds is not just to show compassion after war, but to show its heart at all times by giving all children a chance to broaden their minds through education.

The writer, who was national economic adviser to President Bill Clinton, is senior fellow for economic studies and director of the Center for Universal Education at the Council on Foreign Relations

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