Guest blogger, Giorgos Koulouris, looks at the importance of education in combating poverty, social exclusion and inequalities. 

Education is the most powerful tool for combating poverty, social exclusion and inequalities. As Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

The right to education must be universal without discrimination, so that everyone can build a better future in their life. At the same time, through education, the active participation of people in their societies is enhanced, while they learn to respect and live in a world characterized by diversity and pluralism.

Since 1960, UNESCO has adopted the Convention Against Discrimination in Education, which recognizes everyone’s right in education. In addition, since 1966, access to education has been a human right by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the United Nations.

The international community has emphasized on both reducing illiteracy and increasing access to education, but also improving it in all countries of the world through the Millennium Development Goal 2 and Sustainable Development Goal 4. Particularly for the poorest, especially those living in developing countries, access to education should be facilitated. Maintaining a low educational level the quality of life is deteriorated, and a vicious circle are created. However, despite international efforts and relative improvement, a large proportion of the population in both developing countries and the EU does not have access to education.

Education in developing countries through the Millennium Goals

One of the main causes of poverty in developing countries is the large proportion of the population that is not fully involved in education. High poverty rates and inadequate infrastructure, especially in rural areas, make access to primary education even more difficult. This has as repercussion the reduction of children’s ability to develop their skills and to improve their standard of living, perpetuating thus the vicious circle of poverty.

Education is one of the most important factors in a society concerning the development of human capital and the well-being of the inhabitants of each region. Improving the quality of school education and student access to it, the ideal conditions are created for the development of cognitive competence. Although progress has been made, more efforts are needed  in secondary and tertiary education. In particular, the UN, through the Millennium Development Goal 2 “Achieve Universal Primary Education”, focused more on primary education during the period 2000-2015.

At the end of 2015, where the Millennium Development Goals had been completed, the percentage of children attending school reached 91%, compared with the 83% in the early 1990s. The number of children out of school in 2000 was 100m, while in 2015 it has dropped to 57m, with 149m of enrolled students. In order this issue to be considered as accomplished, this percentage should reach 97%.

Of this percentage, only Sub-Saharan Africa is in low level, having 78%. Also, the number of children who have never been to school has dropped considerably in Ethiopia from 67% in 2000 to 28% in 2011 and in Tanzania from 47% in 1999 to 12% in 2010.

Furthermore, children from poorer homes are 4 times more likely to be out of school than those who come from more affluent. Specifically, 21.9% of children from poor families are out of primary education while the percentage in the most affluent households to be 5.5%.

Concerning the other thorny issue in education, which is the non-completion of primary education, some progress has been made. According to Millennium Development Goal 2, 14-16 year old teenagers who have completed primary schooling have increased from 70% in 1990 to 84% in 2015. 34% of children from poor families do not complete primary education compared to 6.5 of wealthier families.

Contrary to positive developments in primary education, participation in secondary education in developing countries is limited, with Sub-Saharan Africa at 36%, as there are no schools in close distances, especially 7/10 where live in rural areas do not participate in secondary education. In tertiary education, only 6% of young people participate against 26% of the world average. This fact aggravates the situation, as the higher education level the better the chances for quality and decent job that contributes to improving living standards.

The importance of SDG 4 for Developing Countries

Although the Millennium Development Goals were targeting Developing Countries, Sustainable Development Goals by 2015 have a universal character and concern the entire population of the world and each country. Indeed, the difference in this approach is also apparent in educational goals in both cases. The Millennium Development Goal 2 is referred to access in ‘primary education’, while in the Sustainable Development Goal 4  the main issue is ‘quality education’.

Ensuring equal access to education of high quality through the Sustainable Development Goal 4 could be an appropriate tool for further improving the living standards in developing countries with a view to reducing high poverty rates. However, despite the promising results in primary education, the main target is the improvement also on the other tiers of education.

Sustainable Goal 4 aims at promoting equal access for all in both primary and secondary education. At the same time, emphasis is placed on the enhanced access to tertiary education, as well as vocational and technical training, which, in the developing countries, is particularly low. Within this framework, there is also a gradual increase in the available scholarships for the developing countries students to enroll in tertiary education, to participate in vocational training programs and other science programs in developed or other developing countries.

A coordinated effort under the UN responsibility should be the main guideline for improving education in developing countries. The beginning was with the Millennium Development Goal 2 in early 2000s, where progress had been made, but many steps need to be taken. The 767m extreme poor, about 385m are children and 240m are up to 9 years old, while 81% live in rural areas. These percentages should be the greatest incentive to improve education and living standards in developing countries so as to reduce the poverty rate and to ensure with equal opportunities for all.


Giorgos Koulouris (@KoulouGiorgos) is a Political Scientist based in Athens, working as Communication Specialist in the field of Civil Society in Greece. He obtains a Degree on International & European Studies from University of Piraeus and a M.A on Sustainable Development.  His interests focus on social inclusion, education, employment, inequalities and human rights. He is a blogger in Greece and abroad in Huffingtonpost.gr, SocialEurope.eu & Euronews.com about politics, international relations and social issues. He has been involved in numerous projects which promote equality, human rights and fight any kind of discrimination.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.