Nicholas Kristof: Terrorists know the power of education. Do we?

Syndicated columnistJuly 20, 2014 

Nigeria Kidnapped School Girl

Malala Yousafzai, right, who survived being shot by the Taliban for advocating education for girls, held a picture of kidnapped schoolgirl Sarah Samuel with Sarah's mother, Rebecca Samuel, left.

OLAMIKAN GBEMIKAN — AP

It has been almost three months since Islamic militants in northern Nigeria attacked a school that was giving exams and kidnapped more than 250 girls — some of the brightest and most ambitious teen-agers in the region.

Their captors have called them slaves and threatened to "sell them in the market." The girls were last seen, looking terrified, in a video two months ago.

"We are asking for help," pleaded Lawan Zanah, father of one missing girl, Ayesha, who is 18 and appeared in that video. "America, France, China, they say they are helping, but on the ground we don't see anything."

He told me that he and the other parents don't even know if their daughters are alive. The parents spend their time praying that God will intervene, since the Nigerian government and others don't seem to be. "We hope God will feel our pain," he said.

The principal of the school, Asabe Kwambura, told me that 219 girls are still missing and lamented that the international campaign to help — .BringBackOurGirls— is faltering as the world moves on.

"Continue this campaign," she urged. "Our students are still living in the woods. We want the international community to talk to the government of Nigeria to do something, because they are doing nothing."

The Nigerian government's most obvious response has been to hire a U.S. public relations firm for a reported $1.2 million. That money could be better used for security at schools.

Global leaders talk a good game about education, but they don't deliver. Sad to say, that includes President Barack Obama. When he was running for president in 2008, he announced a plan for a $2 billion global fund for education — and if you've forgotten about that, don't worry, because he seems to have as well.

Indeed, Obama is requesting 43 percent less in international aid for basic education in 2015 than the peak that Congress provided in 2010.

Aid to education worldwide from all donor countries has fallen 10 percent since 2010, according to UNESCO.

If Obama wants to support a global fund for education, there is one. It's called the Global Partnership for Education, and it has offices in Washington. It is strongly supported by other donor countries, but its chairwoman, Julia Gillard, the former prime minister of Australia, notes that the United States has, so far, provided about only 1 percent of the budget for it.

To his credit, Obama is upping the sums, offering $40 million this year and more in the future. Reps. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Dave Reichert, R-Wash., are also co-sponsoring an Education for All Act that would promote aid for schooling some of the 58 million kids worldwide who aren't attending primary school.

One group has been responsive: Times readers. After I wrote about the Nigerian girls in May and mentioned a group called Camfed that sends girls in Africa to school, Times readers donated nearly $900,000. The money will help 3,000 girls continue in high school across Africa.

But while private donations help, they won't solve the education gap. Neither will aid dollars, although they, too, will help. Ultimately, governments in poor countries need to step up and make education a priority — for what is needed is not just money but also a kick in the pants.

In Mali, 92 percent of children at the end of second grade were unable to read a single word, according to UNESCO. In Zambia, 78 percent of third-graders couldn't read a single word. In Iraq, 61 percent of second-graders couldn't answer a single subtraction question correctly.

Conditions are often deplorable. Teachers in Africa and Asia often don't show up at school because they are paid by a government bureaucracy even if they are perennially absent. Of low-income children in Malawi, only 3 percent manage to complete primary school and learn the basics — perhaps partly because the average class size in first grade in Malawi is 130 students. In Cameroon, there is only one math book for every 13 second-graders. How can kids possibly learn that way?

Yet we've also learned that done right, education changes almost everything. Evidence suggests that educating girls increases productivity, raises health standards, reduces birthrates and undermines extremism.

Drones and missiles can fight terrorism, but an even more transformative weapon is a girl with a book, and it's one that is remarkably cost-effective. For the price of a single Tomahawk cruise missile, it's possible to build about 20 schools.

Many of the world's poor understand the power of education. I've seen children in Liberia who lack lights at home do their homework at night under street lamps. I've been moved by parents in India and Pakistan going hungry to pay school fees for their children.

A fierce ambition to study explains why those 219 girls in northern Nigeria showed up to take their final exams even though they knew the risks of terrorism. Boko Haram is assassinating teachers, attacking schools and kidnapping students because it knows that literacy is the enemy of extremism. Terrorists understand the power of education. Do we?

The New York Times

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service