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Twenty years ago there were 183 million illiterate adults in China; 183 million people missing out on the chance to best support themselves and their families, and improve their lives. Today that figure has dropped by 66% - an achievement to be proud of. No wonder countries in Africa now look to China and other East Asian economies to learn how to help their young people lacking the most basic of skills.
As today's Education for All Global Monitoring Report, published by UNESCO reveals, weak education systems are leaving one in five young people in developing countries without the skills that completing primary school offers.
Apart from producing the skilled workforce that our businesses need, as UNESCO has been advocating since its conception, a solid education also confers dignity and the potential for self-realization. China recognized this in the 1970s. By not only upgrading skills for industrialization, but also focusing on productivity for smallholder farmers and non-farm self-employment, the number of those living below the poverty line fell dramatically. The reward of this investment was strong and sustained economic growth.
This investment also benefits young people through better earnings. In rural China, wages are significantly higher for those involved in non-farm work who have at least some post-primary education. This has global implications too: the Education for All Global Monitoring Report calculates that for every $1 a country spends on a child's education, it will yield $10-$15 in economic growth over that person's working lifetime.
Once in school, teaching our children to prepare themselves for work also goes beyond learning to read and write as well, vital as those skills are. China – the host of an international congress on technical and vocational education and training convened by UNESCO in May – has set a target of 50% technical and vocational enrolments in secondary schools by 2020, which will mean young adults are practically equipped for a wide range of jobs. China also recognizes the need to teach people transferable skills – not those taught from a textbook, but the ability to solve problems, take initiative and communicate with others well. Problem solving is now a key feature of the school curriculum.
But there is still much to be done. All governments need to focus more on the disadvantaged in our society. Too many people are still barely scraping a living and need skills to find prosperity. The average Chinese farm can now only feed three people. Young poor farmers need skills like the richer in the country to push through. Children in the country's rural areas are far less likely to attend preschool than those in urban areas too – and if they do, then they attend for one year rather than two or three.
Urban migration means needs are growing for poor urban young people too. No less than 145 million migrants moved from rural to urban areas in 2009. Eight out of ten of short term or seasonal migrants aged 15 to 19 years have dropped out of school and need help benefiting from the skills others have in the country to find work.
But much has been achieved – and so more is being asked. As one of the BRICS group whose economies are playing an increasing role on the world stage, China is using its experience to help developing countries, and can extend this further to reach many more young people disadvantaged by poor skills around the world.
Brazil is sharing its learning in skills training to combat poverty with Portuguese African countries. India has pledged US$700 million for training in Africa over the next three years. China's aid includes training workers in Chinese companies, building schools, and offering to train 15,000 African professionals, among other efforts.
For emerging economies to become important players in aid to education and training, they will need to ensure that their aid is targeted at disadvantaged young people. The Global Monitoring Report shows that globally, over US$3 billion is spent on scholarships – aid that is not leaving donors' borders – that could reach far more young people in need if it was spent investing directly in skills development in developing countries. For example, China recently donated US$8 million to support teacher training in Africa.
Last month, Ban Ki-moon launched a new global initiative, 'Education First', which UNESCO is helping to lead. The initiative aims to get marginalized children access to education, ensure children learn while in school and that schooling generates global citizenship. These are key to making sure we do not leave another generation of young people without vital skills for life.
It is clear that China grasps the potential of skills training for young people. It must now spread that to those not yet reached with the reforms and to countries with skills deficits needing attention. This is why China must take from its own experience of linking skills development with labor market reforms and poverty reduction, and use that to address the same growing problems in developing countries today.
Dr Qian Tang is UNESCO's Assistant Director-General for Education.