Powering change

Young people want more and better learning opportunities. Theirworld president Justin van Fleet explains how Philanthropy can help them achieve it.

Education has a transformative impact on a country’s economy and future trajectory. It is the very foundation of progress. If every young person in the world were to acquire functional literacy skills by 2030, middle-income countries would achieve economic gains equivalent to more than eight times their current GDP. If every child in low-income countries completed secondary school by 2030, income per capita would increase 75 percent by 2050, according to UNESCO.

Yet, despite these powerful statistics, global education today is in crisis. By 2030, it is estimated that half of the world’s 1.6 billion children will finish their education without the skills needed for employment. This impact is falling disproportionately on the most marginalised: racial and ethnic minorities, traditionally underserved communities, lower-income families, and children caught up in conflict and emergencies. Covid-19 dramatically impaired children’s learning, which is expected to set the next generation back by US$21 trillion in future earnings. 

More than two thirds of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries are unable to understand a simple written text, up from 57 percent before the pandemic, one study shows. Other research in the US indicates that the pandemic has affected youngest students the most, with only one in three currently proficient in reading – the biggest drop since records began.

Policymakers have found it too easy to ignore this creeping education crisis because it is not typically regarded as a priority by voting adults and lacks the powerful imagery of raging forest fires or melting ice caps that have made the climate crisis – rightly – a cause célèbre.

But make no mistake, education systems around the world are in jeopardy and change needs to happen now.

global survey of 10,000 young people carried out by Theirworld last year returned a clear verdict: young people feel they are being let down. Of those surveyed, nearly half said they were disappointed with their education and did not feel equipped for the future; 69 percent said world leaders were not doing enough to ensure all children receive a quality education; and 88 percent thought world leaders needed to take urgent action to fund education. 

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Former UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, campaigns with young people calling for investments into education at the UN's Transforming Education Summit in 2022. Photo: Theirworld.

Frustrated by the failure of policy makers, young people themselves are taking to the frontlines of the advocacy movement to improve the accessibility, quality, and relevance of education in communities across the world, just as they have made clear their views on climate change, racism, gender inequality and gun violence. 

These complementary movements are increasingly being led by members of Generation Z, the first generation of digital natives, who are exploiting how social media has granted them an unparalleled ability to spread their messages and convene large numbers in the digital and physical worlds at pace.

Today, large movements are built in days and weeks. They often start local, before expanding to the regional, national, and global level.

The United Nations’ Transforming Education Summit (TES), held on the sidelines of the 2022 UN General Assembly, gave us a flavour of the power of youth activism.

Thousands of young people used this platform to join forces and demand the right to quality education in a campaign called #LetMeLearn. In just a few months, online messages were seen more than two billion times.

For us at Theirworld, a charity committed to ending the global education crisis, watching the creativity with which members of our network of 2,000 Global Youth Ambassadors engaged with their local youth constituency and brought forward these authentic perspectives to a global forum was awe-inspiring.

We believe so much in the potential of youth movements that we will expand this cohort to be a 10,000-strong network of trained and committed youth education advocates over the next five years.  

At TES, the UN was handed a Youth Declaration, the result of months of consultations of 450,000 young people. It demanded that decision-makers include youth in the formation of education policy and implementation and invest in youth leadership and in gender-transformative education.

In a highly significant moment, the UN Secretary-General became the first senior global figure to acknowledge the existence of a global learning crisis. He persuaded more than 130 countries to commit to ‘rebooting’ their education systems and announced the launch of the International Finance Facility for Education, which will provide an initial $2bn for education systems around the world and aims to unlock a further $8bn by 2030. 

"Education systems around the world are in jeopardy and change needs to happen now."

Global breakthroughs like this take a lot of work and are the product of smart campaigning at the community level. Philanthropy has an important role to play here, to help reimagine policymaking and campaigning by investing in youth-led movements and organisations which support young people and promote democratic debate and social justice. This could mean groups that focus on minority rights, or raise awareness about gun laws and gun crime, or community groups that work on inter-faith bonds and social tolerance. 

While there are breakthrough large-scale movements, young people – particularly in marginalised and underserved communities – often lack access to training on campaigning, as well as the resources they need to build and sustain momentum for change in their local communities. There is a real lack of investment in youth-led campaigning, particularly on issues like education, and a great scope for building the capacity of youth movements for education.

By supporting young people’s conviction that their education is very often a let-down and that their future is being betrayed, philanthropy would be not only doing the right thing, but making social investments which are game-changing.

The response from world leaders to #LetMeLearn initiative at UNGA in September was encouraging, but it is only a beginning. Philanthropy must lead – and not lag behind – when it comes to supporting youth-led advocacy and youth-supporting community groups.

To tackle the profound challenges we face in education and have so-far failed to address, philanthropy must be committed to boosting the capacity, confidence, and scale of youth-led mobilisation so that once and for all we can unleash the potential of young people.