Why Education Should Be in the Foreign Policy Debate

As the case of Malala Yousafzai shows, educational inequalities breed conflict and repression and hurt all nations

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At tonight’s presidential debate on foreign policy, the candidates are expected to touch on everything from the rise of China to the situation in Libya. But one subject that you probably won’t hear about is education. After all, we’re used to thinking about education as a domestic policy issue. What does it have to do with foreign policy or the priorities of the global community? In a word, everything.

Education is the most powerful tool countries have for boosting economic growth, increasing prosperity and forging more just, peaceful and equitable societies. Where educational deprivation exists, it breeds conflict and enables repression.

A 14-year-old Pakistani girl named Malala Yousafzai illustrated this for the world two weeks ago when she was shot in the head by members of the Taliban for advocating for the right to get an education. As she watched the Taliban impose their fundamentalism in the Swat Valley and destroy 200 schools, Malala dared to dream and write “of a country where education would prevail.” That idea was threatening enough to make her a marked woman.

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As Malala fights for her life in a British hospital, her bravery has awakened people everywhere to the unparalleled power of education to shape societies for the better. Indeed, education is today’s human rights frontier.

Yet for too long the international community has put education on the backburner. Countries have largely been left alone to handle or ignore their educational problems as they see fit. In part, this was because we assumed that the contexts and challenges were so different from nation to nation that education could not be tackled at the international level.

While there are certainly differences, I’ve seen that similar educational disparities exist all over the world through my work at Teach For All, a global network of 26 countries dedicated to ensuring educational excellence for all. In countries at every stage of development, from Austria to Argentina, there are vast gaps in the quality of education children of different races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds receive. These inequalities affect children for the rest of their lives, and hurt us all by perpetuating poverty and prejudice.

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The problem is strikingly similar from place to place. Across the globe, disadvantaged children are not living up to their potential because if they attend school at all, the schools are usually not designed to meet their extra needs.

But there is good news. The fact that the problem is so similar means that solutions can be shared. Social entrepreneurs are already having an impact by working collaboratively and adapting effective interventions across borders. But world bodies and leaders have an important role to play, too. They can facilitate resource-sharing, convince countries that investing in education is worthwhile, and shine a spotlight on injustices when countries fail to acknowledge or address their gaping educational deficiencies.

It is long past time we addressed education as the global issue it is. Education needs to be the cornerstone of every country, and it belongs at the top of the international agenda. All over the world children like Malala are risking ostracism, harassment and even death to demand an education. We should have their backs.

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In the weeks before Malala’s shooting, there had been signs of progress. Last month, with too little fanfare, the United Nations announced an historic initiative called Education First. Spearheaded by Ban Ki-moon, it marks the first time a U.N. Secretary General has made education a priority. Education First has three goals: to put every child in school, to improve the quality of learning, and to foster global citizenship. Influential global constituencies have been key to eradicating disease and addressing climate change because we understood that these are areas where nations’ welfare is intertwined. The same is true for education.

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At a time when foreign policy is often defined by conflict and divisions, President Obama and Governor Romney can trumpet education as a shared global value — and an issue where countries can work together despite their differences to move forward faster. It’s the single best investment we can make to end strife between and within nations.

We would all be better off in a world where more girls like Malala are allowed to fulfill their dreams and become doctors, social entrepreneurs and future leaders who will continue to champion the change we need.

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