Launch of Education First Initiative

New York, 26 September 2012

Across the world, 61 million children are out of school. That number is greater than all the children enrolled in elementary and secondary school in the United States today. Almost half of them live in conflict zones.

The loss of an education is a real and life-threatening tragedy to the victims whose voices right now are simply not being heard. It can mean the loss of a future. There may be crimes as great as this, but surely there is none greater.

It is the most vicious of circles. No education means no job, no job means no income, and no income means no education. Destroying education in a conflict zone destroys a society’s chances of recovery.

We know that children deprived of an education in conflict zones are far more likely to be drafted into armies or militias of one type or another. This is the logic of violence at its simplest, at its most brutal.

It is time to act, because until we do, perpetrators will continue to victimise the innocent.

I know we can change things. My two decades of involvement in education programs around the world have taught me the power of relatively simple interventions. Such as the provision of scholarships to young people in Gaza to allow them to have a university education. Or the complete redesign we led with UNESCO of the school curricula in Iraq, which we hope and believe will make real progress in reconciling different ethnic and religious groups and healing the scars of war.

What we learn from these and many other examples is that wherever we find children we find hope. Hope is what they teach us, and it’s the most humbling lesson there is.

The world is beginning to take notice. The UN Secretary-General has long been passionately committed to helping this forgotten generation, the out-of-school children that we must now bring out of hiding and back into the classroom. I have witnessed his commitment at first hand, and I warmly commend and thank him for it.

‘Education First’ is just the first step on an arduous journey, but it is the step we are taking together today. The world is coming together to put education back in its rightful place on the agenda: first.

Yes we will need funds, yes we will need resources, but most of all we need real understanding, genuine resolve, and action. For instance, we know that the legal architecture already exists to bring the aggressors against schools in conflict zones to justice. What is needed is a resource that can serve as an instrument of justice and deterrence that will strengthen the world’s resolve. To this end, last week, my Education Above All initiative launched a Handbook that will raise awareness of the preventive and protective potential of international law.

In Doha in November, we will be hosting the fourth annual World Innovation Summit for Education - WISE. There, I will launch a significant new initiative that will be a practical and powerful step towards getting those 61 million children into school. I urge you to join me there.

Here is the stark and immediate challenge to those who have allowed this situation to arise.

Let us make amends to this forgotten generation.

Let us put Education First.