When it comes to fighting terrorism, extremism, poverty, and violence, the most potent weapon could be as simple as a classroom.
Such was the overarching message at Monday morning's plenary session on the need to establish a global fund for education. 75 million primary school-age children around the world are denied access to an education. The reasons for this are many: some families cannot afford the mandatory school fees; some families require the children to stay home to work or to care for sick parents; some families forbade young girls from receiving an education.
However, the cost of not educating these young people is unacceptable. Julia Bolz, founder of Journey with an Afghan School, addressed the crowd on her decision to leave her lucrative law practice and dedicate her life to building schools in Afghanistan. When she first traveled to the country in January 2002, Afghanistan led the world in such grim indicators as maternal mortality, overall poverty, and illiteracy. Desperate families were selling their children, with the going rate being $14 for a child. When Julia and her teammates traveled to the country after the fall of the Taliban, the primary thing community leaders asked for as a means to rebuild their nation was schools.
With partners in the form of American schools and donors, Julia and her team were able to build 15 new schools and refurbish 15 more. Their schools serve 25,000 children, and impact 150,000 family members. For the first time, the children in these communities -- boys and girls -- were excited about their future, and villages that had warred with each other in the past came together around the common purpose of building the schools. "Instead of carrying AK-47s, these kids were playing soccer," she said.
Franco Mujak, exceutive director of Village Help for South Sudan, Inc., told a similar story of how schools are helping rebuild war-torn areas. For over 20 years, the mainly Muslim, Arabic-speaking north and the Christian and animist, English-speaking southern part of the country have been at war over cultural and governing rights. South Sudan has not fared as well economically as the north, where the government had been historically based. A power-sharing truce in 2005 has held, though it is shaky.
Franco's organization provides not only an education for children who desperately need it, but a sense of community for a population that includes many orphans and refugees. In addition to building schools, his organization carries out projects that foster economic growth in the villages. He said that although there are many crises in his country that are important -- such as the separate issue in the western Sudanese region of Darfur -- long-term crisis zones and their children cannot be forgotten.
Finally, David Gartner of the Brookings Institution spoke about what RESULTS partners could do to help children like those in Afghanistan and Sudan. He reminded the group of the Millennium Development Goal to achieve universal access to primary education by 2015. "The class of 2015 starts this year," he said "We have no time to lose." Education must be free for all people, he said, and teachers must be trained.
To accomplish this, he invoked a promise made by Barack Obama when he was running for president. He vowed to establish a $2 billion Global Fund for Education, which would be supported by many nations and donors. RESULTS has been advocating for President Obama to make good on his promise for several months, and David took it one step further. He asked the partners at the conference to go back to their home countries, and urge their leaders who will be attending the G8 Summit in Italy next month to address the need to establish a Global Fund for Education in the Summit Communique.
All panelists emphasized the same basic point. An education means so much more to a child than knowledge. It means better health, better prosperity, and a better future. The war against poverty and extremism need not only be fought with guns and weapons, but with books and opportunity for a better life.