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Just a Matter of Time: Global Educational Equality

Original illustration by Grace Li '23, an Economics major at Brown.

What would the world look like if we achieved universal education equality? Is this even possible? The United Nations has taken on this seemingly impossible task, and they have put a twist on it: They want to achieve this enormous feat by 2030. Dubbed “Sustainable Development Goal 4” (SDG 4) in 2015, this plan harnesses the power of global partnerships to provide inclusive and equitable education while promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.

But are all countries set to meet the 2030 deadline? Considering that “only 27.3 percent of Malawi’s women above the age of 25 receive some form of secondary education,” the feasibility of the UN’s 2030 deadline may be called into question for some countries. So, what is the way forward? By providing varying timeframes to achieve the SDGs, the UN can ensure low-income countries have the autonomy to analyze and assess the outcomes of their solutions. 

When analyzing the UN’s SDG ranking index, it becomes evident that the top 20 countries (which include places like Finland, Denmark, and Sweden) are starkly distinguished from the bottom 20 countries (of which Malawi is 19th) by a crucial factor: financial resources. As of 2021, while the top 20 countries of the ranking index had an average GDP of $278 trillion, the bottom 20 nations averaged $18.6 billion. In fact, in the Sustainable Development Report of 2022, the UN conceded that “overall, high income countries […] are closer to achieving the targets than any other country […], yet none are on track to achieving all 17 SDGs.”

Even with an average of $278 trillion at their disposal, high-income countries are unable to provide equal educational opportunities for all of their people. Given this fact, is it reasonable and realistic of the UN to expect a country like Malawiwhich has roughly 0.000067 percent of the financial power of an average top 20 country on the SDG Indexto meet the same deadline, within the same time frame, at the same capacity as a country like Finland?

When viewed from this perspective, it becomes clear that the UN’s SDGs, while introduced in good faith, serve to exacerbate the growing disparity between developed and developing countries. The ranking index clearly elucidates the correlation between a country’s access to financial resources and the degree to which it is able to address and resolve inequality and inequity in its social and economic institutions.

Once the 2030 deadline arrives, the UN should consider amending and proposing the implementation of a new set of goals that capitalize on a phased plan. Such a plan should take into consideration the position of a country (including its level of financial resources, political stability, proneness to natural disasters, and more) to assign it a country-specific deadline for each of the SDGs. This would ensure that countries that are better equipped to achieve equality and equity in a particular sector would receive an earlier deadline compared to those that are still accumulating the resources and acquiring the structural and monetary stability necessary to achieve long-lasting change. 

This strategy does, however, beg the question: Will changing the time horizon for a goal really affect a country’s ability to achieve it? I would argue that the answer is yes.

Take Malawi for example. In 2015, Malawi was forced to rely on a “zero-aid” budget because international donors froze their support after realizing that the aid they had provided was subject to theft from “government officials and private business men through dubious contracts.” Given more time, countries like Malawithat have effectively been blacklisted by international donorscan work to improve their reputation on the global stage to regain the trust and confidence of foreign donors and aid programs.

Moreover, by extending the time horizon for achieving educational equality, lower-income countries receive the intrinsic benefit of additional time. This gives them the ability to renegotiate with donors like the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to replace direct monetary aid with tools that serve to make education more accessible in a sustainable manner.

Examples of such tools may include the provision of educational technology, like projectors and interactive whiteboards, which serve to improve the engagement of students in classrooms and, by extension, increase the retention rates for students in educational institutions. Alternatively, in the case of Malawi, where there are 119.4 live births per 1000 girls aged 15–19, foreign monetary donors could channel their funds into establishing educational workshops that enlighten rural communities on the importance of family planning and the use of contraceptives. These measures would help to lower the teenage pregnancy rates in lower-income countries, improving the retention rate for girls and women in educational institutions. 

Arguably, the implementation of such tools would be even more effective than direct monetary aid, which has not always translated into improved outcomes. For example, in the 2020 fiscal year, “US bilateral foreign assistance in Malawi totaled $124.3 million” toward the sectors of health, agriculture, education, environment, and governance, but the number of girls who dropped out of secondary school increased from 6.4 percent in 2020 to 9.5 percent in 2021.

From this point of view, it becomes clear that the proverb “give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime” holds true. 

Without the pressure of an unrealistic deadline looming overhead, developing countries gain the freedom to experiment with a variety of programs and policies to reduce barriers to education. These could help accommodate educational workshops that share novel and engaging teaching methods from teachers across the globe. Such solutions help ensure that the original purpose of the UN’s SDGs–global partnership–is preserved while also allowing for assessments of education inequality on a country-by-country basis. 

For instance, in countries like Malawi, where 42 percent of girls get married before the age of 18, programs that promote the establishment of technical career education centers dedicated to girls with “a focus on career planning, internships and apprenticeship” can further improve the retention of women in higher education as they have in other countries. Meanwhile, policies that raise the minimum legal age for marriage can help to pave the path to a greater percentage of women pursuing post-secondary education.

A phased plan grants developing countries the confidence to identify and strengthen reforms that bring the most promising results while working within their capacity to maintain them sustainably. From this perspective, some may argue that time does, in fact, heal.