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UNICEF Renews Commitment to Education

JAMES P. GRANT, the executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), spoke with the Monitor about the ``Education for All'' conference. What was the genesis of this project?

We've had a massive breakthrough on health, and we learned in the '80s what can be done in terms of introducing more effective, low-cost, new types of knowledge.... The success in the health field has brought us back to a realization of the centrality of education. Even the breakthroughs on health are essentially an education breakthrough. And if we are going to sustain these you really have to build it into making educational assistance relevant.

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What are the conference goals?

Hopefully out of this process, when the meeting is over, there would be a renewed commitment, energy, to education, which frankly around the world tended to slip in the last 20 years. Not only in the United States, but in most of the third-world countries. Secondly, out of the conference should come a new vision of what can be done with education and through these new means.

But doesn't basic education mean vastly different things to developed countries than it does to the third-world countries?

Both ... are facing the same problem, which is how do you empower your citizens with the relevant knowledge for progress and well-being in their societies. Ten or 15 percent of the people in the rich countries have basically the same problem that you have in the third world, which is ... how do you get functional literacy.

For both sets of societies there is vastly more knowledge that is relevant to people's lives today than there was a generation ago. We tend to think that the communication revolution is a first-world phenomenon. Relatively, there probably has been an even greater revolution in capacity to communicate in the third world than in the first world.

Where do you see evidence of that?

You can go today to the most remote valleys of the Yemens, where the people still live in houses essentially like they did in the Queen-of-Sheba days, but every house has a VCR [videocassette recorder]. What is happening is that workers who have gone to the gulf to work buy a television set, a VCR, and a storage battery. They bring it back and somebody in the village has a cheap, Japanese-made generator [which charges a storage battery]. When you need to recharge it you take it to the man in the village, and for 10 eggs or 12 eggs he recharges your storage battery.

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We educators haven't seized this yet. You go to Nepal today and the most remote hamlet up on the mountainside - almost every hamlet now - has a VCR house, like a movie house. It's a television set, a VCR, and usually a small generator outside.

I was in Nepal during the political campaign about two years ago and I was helicoptered into a remote valley. And while I was there they were having the political campaign, the elections, and the candidates had all turned to television and they had little videos that were 20 minutes long. They are using these new techniques politically, but nobody in Nepal has really turned to using these yet [for educational purposes].

What do you foresee as your greatest challenges in the planning and implementation of this global conference?

The first challenge is how to get agreement on a set of basic principles and a framework for action. It is very easy for people in the education community to get into the pedagogical arguments and divisions that seem to exist in almost every professional sector. How do you get these people to rise above their differences ... to come up with certain principles?

Second is how to mobilize the political will to push through these changes. Take something like making curriculum more relevant. The world is full of the wrecks of ships that have come to grief on the reefs of the inability to change existing curriculum systems. Where you get the political will that will in effect lead to the changes that people say are needed?

What do you expect to happen after the conference?

As they [conference participants] try to implement these new ideas, we from the outside need to find a way to give them support. We in UNICEF are committed to giving a much more major effort to education within the next 10 years than we have in the last 15 or 20. We see the opportunity; we see its importance. The Bangkok conference itself ought to contribute to a certain sense of vigor and a new sense of rediscovery and shared purpose.

Basically, the tendency is to take a look upon education as a good thing to have. We should be changing that to say that it is more than a good thing, it's a right of children.

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