As the UN General Assembly begins, education must be top of the agenda

Other issues grab more attention, but education is the key to a better world, says Justin van Fleet, president of Theirworld.

Getty Images
Getty Images

In this cacophonous media age, the demands for our attention never cease. Advertising presents us with the latest face cream to erase our worry lines, the newest phone to replace last year’s relic, or the hippest show to binge watch.

We’re also bombarded with messages about important causes to support: donate to an animal shelter, attend a climate change march, or sign an online petition. With a few simple swipes, we process the information, make a quick decision about the cause’s worthiness, and move on.

Of course, the complexity of many causes is difficult to convey in a few seconds on a small screen. Making these issues easy to understand — while inspiring meaningful action — is a tall order.

In principle, it’s hard to disagree that education is one of the most important of the 17 global aspirations in the United Nations’ 2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

Yet, when we are communicating to advance this cause, it’s a challenge to convey the seriousness of the problem and the immediacy of the need.

Going hungry or fleeing from violent conflict or a natural disaster are such immediate risks to children that anyone can understand the need to act. The visuals tell a clear story.

The concept of a child suffering gravely from a lack of education is far more difficult to communicate. But make no mistake. The suffering is real.

At Theirworld, we’ve grappled with the complexity of the global education crisis for many years. And with the United Nations General Assembly happening this week, it’s crucial to cut through the noise to remind the world’s leaders about the gravity of this issue.

Despite real progress in improving access to education across the globe, there remains a vast education deficit that the public must take as seriously as it does climate change and fight as vocally as it does gun violence.

This morning, 175 million children will not receive the early childhood education they need. Also, 260 million young people will not go to primary or secondary school and 75 million children will miss out on an education because they are fleeing war, violence or are impacted by disaster.

Projections suggest that by 2030, more than half of all the world’s young people — over 800 million — will not be on track to achieve the basic skills needed to enter the workforce.

From 1970 to 2010, it’s estimated that 30 million-plus deaths of children under five years old and 100 million deaths of adults could have been avoided by the wider education of girls alone.

And the benefits of education go far beyond health. Every additional year of schooling reduces an adolescent boy’s risk of becoming involved in conflict by 20%.

The challenge of issue fatigue posed by today’s digital information overload makes strong strategic communications on baseline issues like education more important than ever. The right communications approach has the power to bring the issue to life in new ways, reach a wider audience, and speak to those in power gathering in global forums like the general assembly.

Education provides the building blocks for children everywhere to construct a more secure and prosperous future for us all. We must not forget the millions of young people who long to be in the classroom but are tragically prevented from realizing their full potential.

Whatever the agenda of the moment, we owe it to them to keep up the pressure for education for all.

Justin van Fleet is president of Theirworld and executive director of the Global Business Coalition for Education.

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