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Last week, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released the eleventh edition of its Education for All Global Monitoring Report, an annual update that reviews the status of access to education around the world and highlights the crucial role that education plays in achieving development goals. This year’s report, titled “Teaching and Learning: Equality Achieved for All,” finds that even after a decade of increased resources and commitments dedicated to achieving universal access to education, many—if not all—of UNESCO’s goals will not be met by 2015.
If current trends hold, fewer than half of the 141 countries examined in the report will achieve UNESCO’s goal of 80 percent pre-primary education enrollment rates. As of 2011, there were still 57 million children out of school, with around half of them living in conflict-affected countries and many never expected to re-enroll. In addition, only 20 percent of the world’s low-income countries have achieved gender parity in primary education, and only about 10 percent have equal enrollment for boys and girls in lower secondary school.
The stakes are high: education remains one of the most powerful ways to break the poverty cycle. The report estimates that if all students gained basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty. Education helps inoculate against poverty by providing higher wages and diversifying sources of income. For those already employed, earnings can increase up to 10 percent for each additional year of school. Yet although the number of illiterate adults has fallen 12 percent since 1990, the number has only gone down 1 percent since 2000, leaving 774 million adults without reading and writing skills.
In 2012, the World Literacy Foundation estimated that illiteracy was costing the global economy $1.19 trillion. Women comprise two-thirds of the world’s illiterate, which not only limits the status of women and girls, but also hinders economic growth. The benefits of education extend beyond the individuals: families, communities, and future generations benefit as well. In Senegal, for example, UNESCO found that children with educated parents were more likely to find employment and lift themselves out of poverty. And children of educated mothers are more likely to be well nourished, vaccinated, and educated.
An educated population is also vital to curbing rising unemployment rates. In its recent Global Employment Trends report, the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that unemployment went up by 5 million people in 2013. Young people were disproportionately affected, with youth unemployment reaching 13.1 percent worldwide and over 50 percent in some countries.
Lack of access to education remains a major stumbling block for many young people hoping to enter the labor market. Without proper skills and education, youth are left unemployed or with unreliable jobs in the informal sector. But education, from vocational to university training, can give young people the tools they need to overcome some of these barriers. By prioritizing education at all levels, governments can reduce unemployment rates, inspire entrepreneurship, formalize the job market, and ultimately, build more resilient economies.