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Interview with Gene Sperling from Wide Angle

©Wide Angle
Gene Sperling, Gene Sperling, senior fellow for economic policy and director of the Center for Universal Education at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In 2003, the documentary television series WIDE ANGLE profiled seven children in seven countries-Afghanistan, Benin, Brazil, India, Japan, Kenya, and Romania-as they started their first year of school. Returning in 2006, WIDE ANGLE found that some of these children are already struggling. With over 100 million children around the globe out of school, this 90-minute special, titled Back to School, puts a human face on an issue with profound consequences for global development.

A 45-minute screening of Back to School will take place at the UNGEI Technical Meeting in Cairo, Egypt, 12 November 2006.

5 September 2006: Gene Sperling, senior fellow for economic policy and director of the Center for Universal Education at the Council on Foreign Relations, discusses the global effort to achieve a free education for every child in the world by 2015 with anchor Daljit Dhaliwal in Washington DC.

DALJIT DHALIWAL: Do you remember your first day at school?

GENE SPERLING: I do. I do. I remember my first day at school. But I'll tell you, there was never a moment in my life where I didn't think I was going to go to school everyday. There was never a moment in my life I didn't think I was going to go to college.

And there was never a moment where my parents--no matter what their circumstances are--would have ever had the thought that sending me to
school was going cost them 20 or 30 percent of their income.

DD: What do you make of the film that we just saw?

GS: What's so inspiring and heart breaking about both this film and this issue is that this is a disease with a known cure. I don't think anybody who just watched this show didn't feel that they couldn't just reach out to Neeraj or Nanavi, and with just a little bit of support, a little bit of help for the poverty they're facing, that their family is facing, that each of these children couldn't succeed and couldn't have a far better future. And yet, you see how precarious, in each case, the children in the poorest countries' futures are. 

DD: All right.  Well, let's step back for a moment.  Is there a global crisis in education?

GS: I think this is the silent crisis of developing countries. You know, you never see a child die from education on TV. But make no mistake about it. Children die from lack of education all the time. Children are more likely to grow up to have HIV/AIDS. They're more likely to die in infancy or before the age of five, dependent on their education and particularly the education of their mothers. So this is a life or death issue.

© Hervé Cohen
One of the students featured in the Wide Angle documentary series Back to School: Nanavi Todénou, who lives in a tiny village in Benin, is the first girl from her family to enroll in school.

DD: And talk to us about the numbers.  How many kids around the world are out of school?

GS: There are 100 million children who will not see the inside of a classroom this year, who will not have a teacher wonder whether they did their homework. Today as we sit, there are more children out of school in Africa than there are children in school in the United States. Probably around close to 60 percent of the out-of-school children are girls.

DD: Let's talk in a bit more detail about the obstacles faced by girls, why is it still so much harder for girls to go to school?

GS: There's a terrible expression, horrible expression you hear a lot of places in the world.  Which is that sending your girl to school is like watering your neighbour’s garden. If you remember the mother who passed away from Kenya, she's looking for Joab to be her son who grows up and takes care of her in her old age. But a lot of times people think the girls are going to be married off and part of someone else's family.

DD: That's right. I mean, the evidence is absolutely overwhelming, showing how educating a girl is enormously beneficial, not just to her, to her family, to the GDP of that country. 

GS: Well, the key thing is that there is no question in the world that educating a girl is good for her country and good for her. The challenge is, is it good for her parents who are living in extreme poverty, who need that girl's help to take care of getting firewood, water, taking care of young children? And that is where smart public policy that helps align the incentive of the parent with the incentive of his girl makes a huge difference.

DD: So what kinds of incentives work?

GS: Well, what we've seen works is first of all, making school free. School is not free in most of the poor countries of the world.  And the small fees that are charged to send your child to school can often mean 20, 30, 40 per cent of a very poor family's income. The good news is that all over the world we have found that when you intervene with just small incentives, making schools close by, having female teachers, eliminating fees--in Brazil, as we saw with Bolsa Familia, giving a little bit of funds for sending your kids to school--we see everywhere that when you relieve some of the extreme burdens of poverty, parents will always choose for a better future for their children, including their girls. 

DD: Let's rewind six years. It's 2000, and world leaders are in Dakar, in Senegal. Was this the defining moment to really now do something about education?

GS: Well, I was very proud to lead the U.S. government to Dakar and...

DD: You were representing the Clinton administration, right?

GS: I was representing the Clinton administration, and truly the whole U.S. government in making the commitment, being one of the 180 countries that signed to say that there should be universal primary education by 2015.I always say this is the world's most ambitious and pathetic goal at the same time. 

It is ambitious, because right now, probably 60 or 70 countries are seriously off track to meet this goal. And yet, to some degree, it's a pathetic goal. Because when I go speak to a group of children and I tell them that the U.N. millennium goal is universal primary education by 2015, every single time, the first hand, the first comment from a young child in the U.S. is, why are you waiting till 2015? And why are you only aiming for primary education? And those are great questions.

DD: What's it going to cost to educate every child by 2015?

GS: The estimates range from anywhere from $5 to $10 billion dollars more a year. But remember, that's all the rich countries in the world pooling things up. In that commitment in 2000, it was not a give-away commitment. It was not a handout commitment. It was a compact. The compact was that if poor countries used their resources, their political will to step forward with plans to get all their children in school by 2015, that the richer countries would not let them fail just for lack of resources. And the sad, sad news is that the richest countries in the world are not keeping their promises. And it's a global disgrace. It is just a global disgrace.

©Bruno Sorrentino
One of the students featured in the Wide Angle documentary series Back to School: Raluca Ifrimescu attends an elite public school in Bucharest, Romania.

DD: Well, how much money is in the fund right now, and how much more is needed?

GS: I would say probably the world as a whole spends maybe two and a half billion dollars on primary, basic education for the world's poorest children.

Make no mistake about it. The world, whether it's the Clinton administration, the Bush administration, none of us have done enough, not nearly enough.

We've had now a breakthrough. We've had one government, the UK under Gordon Brown's leadership step up to the plate and actually put in not just a modest, marginal increase, but their share: one and a half billion a year is the UK's share.

If the US were to put up their share, which would be two and a half or three billion, if France and Germany and Italy were to do their share, together we could something very large.

DD: So I have this figure here, $465 million. Isn't that what the United States is giving to global education every year?

GS: That's about what we give. Now, think about that.  Our economy in the United States is six times larger than the UK's. And, yet we're only going to be giving one third as much. I think the heart of the American people is much bigger than that.  We are a people that believe that every child should at least have a fair chance. That's what we believe in the United States. We don't believe in equal outcomes. We don't believe everybody should end up the same. But, we do believe every child should at least have a chance to seek their potential.

DD: Wide Angle plans to keep going back to check in on the progress of the second kids that we saw in the film. What do you predict for their future?

GS: Well one of the things we're going to see, which is very disturbing, is that even in a country like Kenya, where we say education is "free", it's usually just free until primary education. Until fifth, or sixth, or seventh grade. And what you're going to see is that as kids have to go to middle and high school, it's going to be harder and harder.

DD: You think they're all going to get there by 2015?

GS: My guess is that without intervention, that a lot of these children won't. But what motivates me. And what I find so inspiring and heartbreaking is that you can see how easy it would be. How little it would take in terms of a little bit of support.

DD:  Can we afford to give more?

GS: We certainly can afford to, and I would argue we can't afford not to. When you think about the war on terrorism that we face right now. American people understand that the entire war cannot simply be chasing down and killing terrorists.  At some point you have to win hearts and minds.  And what greater way to win hearts and minds than for the United States to be seen as the champion of every child getting a basic, quality education?
I guess the other thing, too, is for someone like myself who worked in the Clinton Administration on the US budget, you see how money is spent. You see it matters. And you realize that for just $2 or $3 billion a year, we could be the leaders in the world. We could be regarded everywhere in the world as the champions of global education.


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Introduction to the Wide   Angle documentary,
Back to School, 2006.

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