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Opening Speech by Kailash Satyarthi at the World Conference on Education, New Delhi, India

Chairperson! Distinguished Guests! Sisters and Brothers!

It gives me great privilege to welcome leading personalities, organisations and networks engaged in wiping out the scourge of illiteracy from the face of humankind. The capital of ancient civilizations and kingdoms, Delhi, today, is witness to the making of history, as for the first time most of the key civil society actors on education are assembled here from across the globe. The most ancient divine text of the world, the "Vedas", gives a clarion call, "Let us all gather the fire of collective wisdom, compassion and will to march ahead with one voice to ensure universal education."

Today, we have not gathered here to invent, design or build a new model of development or to discuss some impending natural calamity. Nor is this an academic exercise. We are here to question the conspicuous and systematic violation of a fundamental human right, which was promised to us by the international community over half a century ago. The right to free and compulsory education has been guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, it has been only acknowledged and promised time and again, at various UN Summits, in conventions and declarations. We will not only examine the causes and consequences of the callous attitude of the leaders but will also evolve new, effective strategies to change their attitude. We are here to reaffirm our collective commitment to the millions of nameless, faceless exiles of civilization. Let me say at the outset, that our very presence is an open announcement to the world that we are not ready to wait any more. We want education, now!

Education has been perceived in various forms. For centuries, it was considered a charity by the religious institutions and philanthropy for a few, benevolent rich. For the governments, education has only been one of the many welfare schemes like sanitation, vaccination, road construction or water supply. It has been a ‘project’ for many NGOs, a productive investment for economists and a good measure of birth control for demographers. It makes an interesting subject for the academicians and researchers. But let us ask a child who wants to learn from everything - a picture, an object or even a toy. Learning and eventually receiving education is her birthright. Whosoever; his/her parents, the community or the country, deprives him/her of this right, is a criminal.

For Sube Singh and his 14-year-old daughter Gulabo, education meant life and liberty. Sube worked as a bonded labourer at brick kilns and for years was bought and sold like an animal, together with his family. Gulabo was born and brought up as a slave and was afflicted with severe malnutrition and tuberculosis. They were tortured-abused sexually, physically and mentally and were never paid any wages except for some poor quality food to survive. A few years ago, with the help of the Supreme Court of India, I liberated Sube, his family and 27 others in a secret raid. When I brought them to my office, the condition of the girl deteriorated and she breathed her last in my lap. Her last words were, "I want to live, mother." When Sube, accompanied by me, was asked to sign the papers to release the dead body from the mortuary, he said, "If I were literate, my family and I would never be in slavery and I would not have lost my daughter." He explained that his employers took thumb impressions on papers against any amount of money, which he could never read or understand, pushing him into slavery. Sube and Gulabo are just one family amongst the millions, who are trapped into slavery even in the 21st century only because they are illiterate.

The fact that education was taken up as an issue by the international community for the first time only in 1990, at Jomtien, itself speaks volumes of the gross apathy towards the impoverished masses. As we all know, in Jomtien the UN officials and the policy makers of the world patted each others’ backs, smiled, shook hands and coined a new slogan ‘Education for All - by the Year 2000’. They made great promises for resource mobilisation, increased educational spending, designing and implementing effective programmes etc. At that time (in 1990), there were an estimated 750 million illiterate adults, a number which has increased to 880 million today. Another 130 million children in the school-going age are now completely deprived of education as compared to a 100 million at that time. In addition, 150 million children, who enroll into schools, are pushed out even before acquiring basic literacy skills. Two thirds of the world’s illiterates are females. The number of child labourers in the world has also grown to above 250 million. These are official figures and, as we all know, reality could be uglier. These figures fail to capture the agony and plight; the human cost and wasted potential and the endless sagas of exploitation, injustice and slavery caused due to educational deprivation.

Both rich and the poor countries have failed to keep up the promises made in Jomtien. The total budgetary allocation on education in Overseas Development Aid (ODA) is less than 2%. It is a paradox that the bilateral aid on education was only 1% of the total ODA in 1998 while it was 1.3% in early 90s. The percentage of multilateral aid has been reduced from 1.9% to 1.8% during the same period. On the other hand, most developing countries are not prepared to spend even 2% of their GDP on education. India, Pakistan, Mali, Burkina Faso, Zambia and Senegal are among those countries that spend 1% or less on the education of their children. On the other hand, India and Pakistan spend about 14% and 28% in military respectively. All this reflects the inaccessibility, poor quality, lack of necessary infrastructure or facilities, exploitation of teachers which eventually result in disinterest in education. Is it not shameful that 70% of the educators in the world today live on or below poverty line? What can we expect from them if we are not able to give them a decent livelihood?

The international debt cancellation, relief or reduction to mobilise additional resources have been promised time and again by G8 and OECD leaders at World Social Summit and plus five and so on. But, in reality, Sub Sahara Africa spends four times of its education budget on debt services. The same situation prevails in most of the South Asian countries, including India.

Friends! In the post cold war era the world is going through three important trends. The first trend is globalisation of markets and economies, which compel the underdeveloped and the poor to synchronise and compromise with the rules of the game set by the rich. The second is revolution in information technology based on digits and speed that has unfortunately transformed faces and voices into digits only, vanishing the humane soul. The marriage of these trends is a matter of grave concern to preserve the values of sustainable development, human rights and dignity. More importantly, the third trend is a silver lining and that is the emergence of civil society initiatives, organisations and coalitions such as Jubilee 2000, Global March Against Child Labour, Landmine movement and now the Global Campaign for Education (GCE).

GCE has been one of the greatest social miracles of contemporary times as thousands of local groups, NGOs, teachers’ unions, national coalitions and international networks, have geared themselves up in less than six months time. In October 1999, when the four international networks Action Aid, Education International, Global March Against Child Labour and Oxfam International with some of their national partners sat together in Brussels for the first time, we never predicted that GCE will emerge as such a strong civil society movement. The success of the Global Action Week, in April 2000, in highlighting the issue of education in public domain and pressurising the governments is a living example of the initiation of a new culture of active partnership.

The forceful presence of GCE in Dakar last April was overwhelming. The civil society made it clear to the governments and the UN agencies that we are not silent spectators who can believe in hypocrisy, false promises and sweet words. We, the NGOs and teachers, who represent the miseries and silent voices of millions of world’s children, women and men, were not there to applaud the speeches of politicians. The world needs concrete action plan substantiated with adequate monetary allocations and not hollow slogans. We want a time bound framework of action with the civil society involvement in its design, implementation and monitoring in a democratic and transparent manner, and not UNESCO’s slumbering bureaucracy.

This was the most significant difference between 1990 and 2000. The GCE warned the international community that we are not going to sleep and we are not going to let you sleep either until the promises are met. Although, a number of key issues are still unresolved including the issue of a clear financial commitment, but, our accomplishment in bringing perceptional and programmatic difference in Dakar framework of action has been remarkable. Firstly, education has been widely recognised as a fundamental human right. Secondly, there is now, a clear emphasis on quality education. Thirdly, unequivocal commitment has been made for free and compulsory education. Fourthly, the importance and necessity of civil society involvement was admitted. And lastly, there is now a sharper focus on gender balance.

Similarly, three important innovations emerged out of the Dakar framework due to the civil society pressure. Firstly, an agreement to develop a concrete and time bound national action plan by each government at the earliest but not later than 2002 to achieve the goal of EFA 2015. Secondly, forming a "Global Initiative" by international community with immediate effect aiming at developing strategy and mobilising of resources to provide effective support to the national efforts. Lastly, guaranteeing financing by committing that no country seriously committed to EFA will be thwarted in its achievement of this goal by the lack of resources.

GCE, despite just two full time staff and meagre resources but with its strong will and a well planned advocacy strategy and a high morale has carried forward the movement. We never miss an opportunity of high level advocacy or lobbying. The GCE made its presence felt at the Social Summit Plus 5 in Geneva last June. Again, it was a missed opportunity for the world’s governments to come out with a clear commitment on education but the Dakar framework of action has been reaffirmed in the final declaration. Similarly, GCE followed the head of the states of G8 countries in Okinawa in July last year. The emphasis given on the importance of education in the G8 declaration was encouraging. The GCE’s active participation was also evident at the autumn meeting of IMF - World Bank, held at Prague last September. It is also closely and critically following and responding to the developments at UNESCO.

I will not hesitate to say that so far UNESCO’s role has not been satisfactory in terms of democratic involvement of NGOs in any process; speeding up and defining the global initiative; and convening high level meeting and so on. It is also not understandable that when they are going to convene donor meeting why they are keeping the NGOs separate? The most recent financial proposal of UNESCO is highly confusing and vague. Although it includes good intention and fine words for resource mobilisation but how would it be implemented through information technology, debt swaps, increase in budgets and aid, and involvement of public sector and NGOs is not clear.

The governments always find an excuse on the pretext of resource crunch. The ruling elite has been successful in creating a ‘poverty syndrome’, which is an absolute myth. It is not the poverty that causes illiteracy but it is illiteracy that results in poverty. We have to change this existing mindset. I fail to understand why education is portrayed as unachievable with huge financial projections as a prerequisite when it is an agreed fundamental human right. This is not the case with other human rights such as right to life, liberty and equity.

We firmly reject the poverty argument. Is a sum of $8 billion astronomical? It is equal to only four days of world’s military spending. Only one-fifth of what Europeans spend on ice-cream in a year or less than one-fourth of what they spend on cosmetics or one-sixth expenditure of Americans on tobacco. This represents only 0.02% of the Global GDP. Are we really poor, financially? This is nothing but a sheer bankruptcy of global political will and human solidarity. It is a cruel mockery on millions of our children the future of humankind.

I am also not convinced that a small, powerful and educated section is simply ignorant to the importance and power of knowledge. Would it be an exaggeration to say that they want to monopolise education so as to prevent others from entering the competition?

Education is the key to prosperity in a knowledge-based economy for the poor people and countries; decentralization and democratisation bringing about transparency and participation in governance; disaster management; checking economic exploitation; enhancing bargaining power of the working class, and attaining gender equity and social justice. This is one of the most effective means to end child labour and ensure children’s right.

Education empowers people with the requisite skills to work their way out of poverty. In countries like Peru and Vietnam, those without education are twice as likely to live below the poverty line as compared to those with education. It translates into higher wages or, for small farmers, higher level of productivity. Education of the mothers could be the most effective lifesaver of at least 12 million children who die every year before seeing their fifth birthday.

The children who are deprived of education today could be a serious threat to society tomorrow. Similarly, on a larger scale, the countries that could not benefit from the economic globalisation in achieving basic needs and improving quality of life due to widespread illiteracy will definitely be a threat to the world peace tomorrow.

Here comes the historic role of GCE and all other NGOs and stakeholders. The biggest challenge ahead is to galvanise people’s movement in generating a genuine political will. We cannot get rid of our responsibilities by blaming the governments and international community all the time. Some of my colleagues in Dakar were highly frustrated with its result. I told them that if we were unable to achieve we must admit that we, the NGOs, have not been effective enough in building up national urge and a political pressure through people’s movements in our homes.

On the other hand, it is encouraging to see the progress in many countries where the poor are getting sensitized and organised to demand free, compulsory and quality education as their fundamental right. There are a number of significant governmental and non governmental interventions being made in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Central and South America which bring the new hope and assurance that poverty is not an obstacle if you are committed. We should be confident and optimistic to see that education is emerging as a prime concern in the global debate and political agenda.

Its high time to explore commonalties in our thinking and action not only among NGO community but with all possible concerned groups. The present character of GCE is unique as teachers and NGOs are working hand in hand. Now we should expand ourselves by building alliances with Community Based Organisations, Social Action Groups, human right organisations, businesses, women groups, religious institutions, political parties, youth organisations, etc. Deliberate and systematic efforts have to be made at local, national and international level. We must try to find our allies in media and try to explore the possibility of its optimum use. There are concerned individuals in the governments and Inter-Governmental Agencies whom we must identify and seek their co-operation. These 2 years are crucial because the governments have to design their national plan of action.

GCE does not want to bureaucratize or institutionalise itself. We want to be more inclusive, democratic and transparent in our decision making. We want to strengthen the national coalitions that will eventually bring about the change on the ground. I am confident that when we go back home this evening and some of you after three days, we will have emerged stronger, confident and united. History, my friends, has brought us to a point of no return. It has given us an opportunity to meet the challenge of shaping the destiny of present and the future generations. It has given us a definite role, which each one of us, as an individual as well as an organisation, has to play. A bright dawn awaits us where all the children of the world are studying, playing and smiling in schools.

Kailash Satyarthi... the seeker of truth
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