April 20th, 2010

Connectivity for All

Economics & Politics

Sustainable Development

NEW YORK – It is not every day that one gets to join two global powerhouses to promote a planetary breakthrough, but that is the reality with Connect to Learn (www.connecttolearn.org), a new worldwide initiative to ensure that all children on the planet can attain at least a secondary education. The telecommunications giant Ericsson and the pop singer Madonna are teaming up to get kids into school and connected worldwide through wireless broadband. My colleagues and I at the Earth Institute and the Millennium Promise Alliance are joining the effort. The stakes could not be higher – or the prospects more exciting.

The information-and-communications-technology (ICT) revolution is surely the most powerful single force for economic development in the world today. It is not just in New York, Shanghai, or Paris that one finds a mobile telephone in the hands of each passerby. These days, one finds mobile phones in Nairobi taxis and among camel-herders in Northern Kenya. There are now 4.6 billion mobile subscribers, and the numbers are soaring. An estimated 250 million subscribers live in Sub-Saharan Africa alone.

The spread of 3G (and soon 4G) offers the prospect of a technological breakthrough in education. Suddenly, even remote schools can connect to the Internet and to other schools through a solar panel, low-cost computers, and wireless access. A school that lacked even rudimentary supplies suddenly can have access to the same global store of information as any other place in the world.

When it happens, the results are galvanizing. Within minutes of going online in a pastoralist community in northeast Kenya, kids were reading about their own community as part of the Africa-wide Millennium Villages Project. Communities that had little school attendance have seen kids stream in as low-cost interventions, starting with Internet connectivity, in-school meals, and a safe water supply, lead to a surge in schools’ quality, performance, and attractiveness to students and parents.

With modest up-front financing, impoverished and traditional rural communities that had not considered educating girls suddenly see the immense value to the community of educating both boys and girls. In a Millennium Village in Ethiopia that I recently visited with the country’s health minister, a local father explained to me how he had decided to keep his daughter in school rather than marrying her at age 12 to a neighbor’s son. “I asked my daughter what she wanted to do,” the father explained, “and she told me that she wants to stay in school, so she is continuing in school.”

The health minister turned to me and said that he had never before heard such a conversation in that region: that the father would not only ask the daughter, but happily heed her decision! We are seeing such rapid changes throughout Africa. Impoverished communities are cheering the prospect of a rapid ramp-up in girls’ education, if meager resources permit.

On a sunny day in Malawi recently, Madonna and the CEO of Ericsson, Hans Vestberg, attended the groundbreaking for a new girls’ school and launched the new global education initiative. On the horizon in two directions, spaced at around four kilometers, were the mobile towers to connect the new school with the world. The promise was not lost on the national government. The education minister committed to scale up education nationally as rapidly as resources would permit.

Universal secondary education, especially for girls, is transformative for societies attempting to escape poverty, because education changes the demographic dynamics of the country as well. In the poorest parts of the world where girls are still not in secondary school, they are married at a young age and have 6-8 children on average. Those who stay in school end up marrying much later, perhaps in their early to mid-twenties, entering the workforce, and having 2-3 children.

The interplay of voluntary fertility reduction and declining poverty are profound and rapid. When poor families have fewer children, they can afford to invest more per child in health, nutrition, and schooling. Mothers can spend more time in the job market, breaking long-standing barriers of gender inequality. Reduced population growth means less pressure on land, water, and biodiversity. In short, the links between education and reduced fertility, faster economic development, and lower environmental degradation are too powerful and obvious to be ignored.

Connecting kids around the world in shared on-line curricula, and facilitating “social networks” of kids around the world at an early age, will yield far-reaching educational benefits. At a recent launch of a “school-to-school” link connecting an elementary school in the United States with one in Kenya, young children across an 8,000-mile divide shared a “read-aloud,” and then reflected in amazement and delight that they could share a story with kids in another part of the world. The Teachers College at Columbia University will watch the school-to-school process carefully, with formal monitoring methods, to assess the value of school experiences in terms of expanded cognitive and ethical learning.

Current estimates suggest that around 300 million school-age children worldwide are deprived of the chance to complete secondary school, largely for economic reasons. That deficit, which threatens the futures of these kids and their societies, can now be closed at low cost. A Global Fund for Education, combined with a global voluntary effort to connect kids around the world, offers the chance for a breakthrough that was not realistic even a few years ago.

Such initiatives are another dramatic example of a basic truth of our time: extreme poverty, illiteracy, and death from preventable diseases are anachronistic scourges when we have the technologies and global goodwill to end them.

This article originally appeared in Project Syndicate.

 

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