Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Week 1 : Right to Education

The following is for an Open Education course on Open Education offered by David Wiley of Utah State University. It is unique (but hopefully not for long!) in that he has made it not only accessible for people throughout the world, but also free – taking “Open” to its extreme.

As a quick introduction for those who are in this course, I’ve just finished my Masters thesis at OISE/UT, Canada, on how civil society networks affect education policy in Tanzania. I’ve got a background in comparative education and critical international development, and have lived/worked in several ‘Southern/developing’ countries. I’m also very involved in the Canadian Global Campaign for Education – which is part of the international GCE – a transnational advocacy network for the right to education. Coming from that perspective....

Week 1's Question of Open Ed Course: In your opinion, is the "right to education" a basic human right? Why or why not? In your opinion, is open *access* to free, high-quality educational opportunity sufficient, or is it necessary to *mandate* education through a certain age or level?

I find the first question, of whether education is a basic human right, as a bit misleading. Human rights are essentially social constructs. The notion of rights itself has only come into common usage in the past 100 years (and the Convention on the Rights of the Child only since 1989!!), although connected ideas like habeas corpus, have existed for several centuries. I think the common denominator for the enactment of human rights, or habeas corpus for that matter, is that societies and/or states agree that these should be the standards from which to conduct themselves, and certain guarantees that all people should enjoy, simply for being human. In other words, if we agree that the right to education is a human right, then it becomes so. Given the number of countries that have agreed that education is a human right, even if they cannot fulfill it (both of which Tomasevski (#2) demonstrates), I think it is safe to say that education is a basic human right.

Finnemore and Sikkink (1998), from the international relations field, have argued that novel and quaint ideas, such as women being equal and having the right to vote, or that slaves are real people, can over time morph into accepted norms of thought and behavior. For the first while, not everyone accepts these principals, and the ‘norm entrepreneurs’ must work very hard to advocate for these ideas. But a critical mass can slowly build around these ideas, which leads to what Finnemore and Sikkink refer to as a ‘norm cascade’, and then finally into a situation where these ideas are internalized and become the default of our thinking. In this way, the right to education, too, has evolved from being a novel idea into a critical mass. As the ideas surrounding it are further worked on, and as more countries get closer to realizing its enactment, ‘education as a human right’ will also become an entrenched internalized idea, an idea that years from now people will look back on and say, “well, of course!”.

A more practical question may be: what is the utility of having education as a human right? What use does it serve, especially if countries cannot even uphold their commitments? In fact, appealing to human rights has allowed civil society organizations (CSOs) and international organizations (such as Unicef and Unesco) an important moral high-ground. Over the past decade, CSOs have tended to shift towards a “rights-based approach”, as opposed to previous approaches that favoured developing human capital (biasing aid towards higher education, at the expense of basic education), or a ‘needs-based’/charity perspective, where Southern/developing countries were seen as incapacitated, poor and helpless (which allowed Northern/richer countries to engage in a ‘holier-than-thou’, ‘white-man’s burden’ relations – which Anto'stuff and Karen rightly criticized by stating that ‘we’ shouldn’t be telling ‘them’ how to do ‘their’ education - whoever we and they are). A rights-based approach, however, allows Southern governments to appeal for aid, not out of charity, but because it is their duty to provide education for their children, and it is the international community’s responsibility to assist. This is incredibly important, especially given the increasing interconnectedness of our world – both through communications and trade.

An example of the utility of education as a human right is pertinent. In about 1998, only 60% of kids in Tanzania went to primary school, only 6% went past Grade 7, and less than 1% went to University. (It is interesting to dwell upon how many doctors/lawyers/engineers/teachers were actually possible with these numbers, particularly when richer countries contributed to a brain-drain, preferring those educated – on another countries dime - to immigrate). Tomasevski (#1) mentions that in 2000, world leaders committed to the Dakar Framework for Education for All. Equally important, world leaders also agreed in 2000 upon the Millennium Development Goals, of which the universal primary education is the second goal. A group of NGOs got together to form the Global Campaign for Education, in order to keep the pressure on governments to fulfill these goals – using the premise that it was the governments’ human rights responsibilities. Oxfam, in particular, connected Southern government’s inability to fund basic education to the high debt payments they owed – i.e. Tanzanian children were not getting their right to education because the money was instead being used to pay interest on debts owed to rich countries. This line of reasoning was really effective in both getting debt-relief for Southern countries, as well as freeing up money in the budget and outside aid for basic education (Mundy & Murphy, 2001). The result? As of this year, Tanzania has close to 100% of primary kids in school (although kids with disabilities and nomadic ethic children still pose challenges) – in fact, when the Tanzanian government announced that primary schooling would be free in 2002, 1.6 million more children got a chance to go to school (UNDP, HDR 2005). (Secondary level is also being expanded to 25%, because of the pressure of parents to have more schooling for their children.)

As to the second question, whether access is enough, or whether it is necessary to mandate education to a certain age or level, I think that Tomasevski would have argued that mandating it to a minimum age or level was important, to ensure that governments fulfill their responsibility to provide education. By mandating some basic education, governments and parents are not able to deny children with disabilities or children who are working some basic knowledge (even if school is confined to only a few hours in the evening a week in the case of children that work, or maybe a few weeks a year, in the case of the Masaii or Lesotho herders). To deny children basic knowledge on nutrition, HIV-AIDS, health, literacy and numeracy is to assume that we now that these children will not need these skills in the next 50 years. It also ignores the fact that individuals have an impact on their communities, that a person who is malnourished cannot work as effectively or one who has HIV-AIDS must be cared for by others. Education has the potential to help prevent some drains, while enhancing other aspects of contributing to a community. Education has also long been known as the great equalizer, and it would be wrong to deny children a part in this. That being said, I agree with Stian and Tomasevski that the type of education, provided by whom, in what language, during what hours and in what building, is very much still an open debate. One that I will leave for another day.

Basic education aside for a moment, it is a more difficult question as to whether higher education should be free and accessible to all. I would love to think it should be, but do believe that basic education should come first. I am, however, grateful to the Canadian government for subsidizing about half of my high education costs, because I see the benefits of having several smart but quite poor friends who are subsequently able to afford to go to University. As well, although this course is provided free, with open access, it is really only accessible to those who already have a certain skill base and access to technology. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to take this course, and I hope to be able to teach the type of course David Wiley advocates for, being open, digital, mobile, connected, personalized, and participatory. But I am also aware that this trend has the potential to further widen the gap between those who have technological access and those that don’t. I believe it is known as the digital divide? Perhaps the $100 laptops that others also mention will make this argument obsolete. I hope so.


David said...

"But I am also aware that this trend has the potential to further widen the gap between those who have technological access and those that don’t."

Does it have to be this way? Is there not some creative way that open access can bridge the gap rather than widen it?

MegsPlanet said...

No, it does not have to be this way. However, the obstacles are numerous, especially when food, shelter, clean water, medicine and electricity are lacking. How could a government fund broad-band, and not be accused of pandering to the elite, when the majority people still lack access to clean water?

There is a wonderful NGO in Tanzania called TanEdu, that strives to "create a knowledge society by providing educational information and services to the public by the most efficient means." They have a great program, where top scoring students from impoverished areas in Tanzania come and learn computers and tech. skills. The NGO has helped several poor Tanzanian students get scholarships into prestigious U.S. Universities.

However, the NGO is inhibited by the infrastructure of ICT and power in the country. Given the power shortages in Tanzania, it needed to buy a generator, so that it could continue to run its programs. No power, no computers. But they could not find international aid for this purpose, because most donors are now concentrating on "democracy", "good governance", "capacity building", "government direct budget support" etc., and for the most part had stopped funding capital projects (I'm glad they have done this, given the horror stories about broken pumps, etc. with local people not trained to fix them that about in S. countries - but in this case, it is unfortunate).

I have great hopes for TanEdu to help close the gap between Tanzania and America in ICT - but realistically, I believe it will take the collective action of governments to address more pressing issues.

MegsPlanet said...

Here's the link to TanEdu, for those interested: