The Education for All movement, created by agreement in a conference in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990, is based on the proposition that free, compulsory primary education is a human right. Gandhi said that rights and duties are complementary; if someone has a human right, then we all have a duty see that it is exercised. Yet after almost two decades their are tens of millions of kids who still don't go to school. Still, much progress has been made. Defining universal primary education as a human right changed the discourse and made much of that progress possible.
I asked my class yesterday, "what was sacrificed in the effort to achieve education for all". Prior to Jomtien, the dominant conceptualization was that education was an investment in human resource development made to advance an overall program of economic development. My audience seemed not to recognize that the effort to achieve education for all in theory (and probably in practice) implies that some other goals will be less fully met.
The most basic tenet of optimization theory can be stated in a couple of complementary ways:
- expanding the set of possibilities studied can never reduce the value of the best alternative within the set.
- limiting the set of possibilities studied may throw out the best alternative if it falls in the subset of excluded possibilities.
Think about it. I worked in an African country with some 25 million people and only 500 professional engineers. I think that shortage of engineers was related to the ports no longer functioning, some of the railroads no longer functioning and the rest functioning poorly, the electrical and telephone networks being limited in scope, inefficient and providing intermittent service, etc. The Education for All program in the country was using many resources and much attention of the government, some of which could have gone to training and employing more engineers. I can imagine a scenario where the impact of the improvements in hte national physical infrastructure produced by those engineers would do more good for the country than the grade school education for some children that would be foregone.
Of course, a country could give up some graft and some exports of capital by its wealthy to pay for the education, and that would be all to the good. But would that happen?
The issue of rights is more complex and difficult than most people realize. A rights based development strategy is philosophically quite different than a utilitarian strategy based on "the greatest good for the greatest number".