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Wednesday, 15 March 2000
Page: 12894


Senator BOURNE (7:20 PM) —I would like this evening to bring to the attention of senators a very worthy and important campaign being run by Community Aid Abroad. The campaign is an attempt to highlight the problems of mass illiteracy caused by the world's education crisis. I am grateful to CAA for the information they have provided me for this.

Ten years ago at the World Conference on Education for All, governments from 155 countries, including Australia, promised to provide all of the world's children with access to good quality basic education by 2000. Here we are in the year 2000 and it is obvious that the promise has not been fulfilled. The figures are really quite astounding: more than 125 million school-age children have never seen the inside of a school classroom; two-thirds of these are girls. Millions more children drop out of school in the early grades, unable to read or write, and the numbers are growing. There is now an incredible 880 million people around the world who are illiterate. To make it worse, the international community, having failed in its objective, has shifted the goalposts, so the target is now education for all by 2015.

To achieve this, the UN's education for all conference will take place in Dakar, Senegal, next month. The aim of this conference is to formulate a plan to reach education for all by 2015. This conference represents the best opportunity for some time for those of us who care about this issue to exert pressure for a real and measurable outcome over the next 15 years. We have already seen one target date pass without attaining the goal. The fear is that in 15 years time an unacceptably high proportion of the world's population will still be illiterate. It is vital that governments represented at the Dakar conference show real commitment to action so that this conference does not go down in history as yet another talkfest with no real outcome. It is not an impossible task. Community Aid Abroad, together with their Oxfam International colleagues, has developed a global action plan for basic education which outlines how governments at the Dakar conference can achieve universal basic education by 2015.

Before I talk about that plan, I would like to outline why mass illiteracy is such a huge problem in the world today. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the fundamental right to education in its principles. Education is not a luxury; it is a basic human right. The lack of basic education undermines efforts to reduce child and maternal mortality, to improve public health and nutrition and to strengthen opportunities for a secure and productive life. Democracy and good governance are stifled when large sections of the population are excluded from participation as a result of illiteracy, unless extraordinary efforts are taken to include the illiterate. For example, I have seen estimates that in East Timor 95 per cent of the rural population is illiterate. To ensure that they could exercise an informed vote in the ballot in August last year, the ballot paper had on one part a picture of East Timor as part of Indonesia along with an Indonesian flag and a distinctive Indonesian building and on another part a picture where East Timor was clearly separate with a CNRT flag and a distinctively East Timorese building. That was the only way the UN could be sure that people would understand the ballot paper—that, and a lot of personal consultation.

We must also consider education in the age of technology. We cannot avoid the fact that the global economy is knowledge based. Already, the poorer countries in the world are struggling to participate in the global economic system. In a knowledge based global economy, good quality education holds the key to future prosperity. Educational inequalities today will translate into income inequalities tomorrow. The upcoming conference in Dakar provides a great opportunity for governments to really address this problem, to come up with practical and workable solutions and to enact them.

The Oxfam-CAA global action plan estimates the cost of achieving universal basic education to be $US8 billion per annum over the next decade. That sounds expensive. But keep in mind that it is equivalent to just four days of global military spending. One of the appealing aspects of the global action plan is its holistic approach. It cuts across governments, multilateral institutions and NGOs and it suggests the mobilisation of resources through a variety of avenues, including increased aid, faster and deeper debt relief, reforms to IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs and redistribution of public spending in developing countries towards basic education. The global action plan is based on two important principles. First, the plan should support and reinforce existing national strategies. Assistance under the plan should not be used to create yet another layer of conditionality. Second, public participation in developing national education plans will be a key to their success. Governments would seek to establish through active engagement with civil society the financing requirements for getting on track for achieving education for all by 2015. These would be set out in a national education action plan.

The global action plan is attractive because of its simplicity. That is its greatest strength. It addresses key fundamentals and goes straight to the heart of the obstacles to providing education for all. The global action plan is founded on five key principles. Firstly, increased aid for basic education would provide the core of financing of the global action plan. The plan calls for all OECD countries to allocate at least eight per cent of their aid budgets to basic education. That initiative would raise $US4 billion a year. Australia is actually now amongst the leaders in moving towards that target, having boosted basic education spending from less than two per cent to nearly five per cent of our aid budget in recent years. Despite this commendable prioritising of our budget, we must also keep in mind that our aid budget is well below the UN target of 0.7 per cent of GNP. This financial year, after the cost of the East Timor operation and the cost of the Kosovar and East Timorese refugees under the safe haven plan are factored in, our aid budget will be approximately 0.28 per cent of GNP. I would like to see it stay at that level in real terms in this coming budget and increase in future budgets.

Debt relief has the potential to generate significant funds for basic education for many of the world's heavily indebted poor countries. The key is to ensure that debt relief goes to countries which demonstrate a commitment to channelling the moneys freed up into poverty alleviation programs including basic education. Even though I have been a long time supporter of debt relief campaigns such as Jubilee 2000, I was still absolutely shocked to learn recently that Mozambique currently pays around $US1.5 million a week to service its debts. In light of the recent devastating floods in that country, the IMF was negotiating to reduce their payments to $US1.1 million a week. These are outrageous sums of money. I cannot imagine how extremely poor countries will ever be able to provide basics like education while struggling under such huge debt burdens.

Historically, structural adjustment programs of the World Bank and the IMF have had disastrous effects on poor people's ability to access basic education and also other social services. For example, the higher interest rates, government spending cuts and introduction of user-pays principles associated with the recent IMF structural adjustment program in Indonesia saw nearly six million school-age children withdrawn from schools. When I hear these kinds of figures I fail to understand how our world financial system thinks it can divorce economic development from social development. It cannot be done. What will be the long-term effects for Indonesia's economy and development if six million children who would have been educated are now illiterate? Surely, when we address one sector we must keep in mind the flow-on effect of failing to protect poor people's access to basic education and other social services. The global action plan calls for governments in developing countries to allocate at least three per cent of GNP to basic education spending and to redirect spending away from military purposes towards the provision of basic social services.

The global action plan could be used to increase basic education funding from non-government organisations, foundations and other private sources. There is enough money in the world to pay for this. It is just not all in the right places. There is a lot of merit in looking at different ways of funding social programs which would require a rethink on issues such as the ever increasing global capital markets. For instance, the Tobin tax idea, which I know that the Australian Council for Overseas Aid supports, is a great idea. The information I have suggests that just 0.25 per cent tax on the US$1.5 trillion which currency speculators trade daily would raise US$250 billion a year. The UN claims that would be enough to provide basic health care, nutrition, education, clean water and sanitation for everyone on the planet. I hope Mr Downer will personally attend the conference. I also urge members and senators to avail themselves of Community Aid Abroad's excellent information and work—it is available on the Internet—and to throw their support behind an immensely worthwhile and essential cause.