This is part of a series on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre. This article focuses on goal 4 – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

Few people would dispute the importance of education in our lives and those of our children. For good reasons, in virtually all industrialized countries, education is compulsory for everybody for at least 10 years.

In developing countries, however, 780 million women and men remain illiterate. Moreover, about 60 million children of school age are not at school.

Yet instead of making a concerted global effort to bring all children to school, less than 4% of official development assistance funds basic education. Over the past seven years, UNESCO and UNICEF report a decline in basic education.

Many think education is an aspect of social development that comes as a by-product of economic growth. This is wrong. Education is an absolutely necessary precondition of economic development.

Bill Clinton’s famous mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid!”, may be a useful slogan for an election campaign, but it is misleading in setting the priorities for sustainable development. It’s not primarily the economy, nor money, that makes the world go round and determines progress in human well-being. Much more important than the content of people’s wallets is the content in their heads. And what is in our heads is formed and enhanced by education which, in turn, helps fill the wallets, improves health, improves society and the quality of institutions, strengthens resilience at all levels and even makes people happier.

I could discuss the ample scientific statistical analysis to prove the transformative role of education in development. But more convincing may be historical success stories.

Finland was one of the poorest corners of Europe in the late 19th century. In 1868-1869 it suffered the last great famine in Europe not induced by political events. Almost half of the children died in this hopelessly underdeveloped and poorly educated economy based on subsistence agriculture.

After that tragedy, the Lutheran Church, supported by the government, launched a radical education campaign: young people could marry only after they passed a literacy test. The number of elementary school teachers increased by a factor of 10 over just three decades and by the beginning of the 20th century all young men and women in Finland had basic education. In 1906 Finland was the first country in Europe to grant women the right to vote and the subsequent economic development, based primarily on human capital, made Finland one of the world’s leaders in technology, innovation and, as a result, competitiveness.

In the early 1960s, Mauritius was a textbook case of a country stuck in the vicious circle of high-population growth, poverty and environmental destruction. Following the advice of scientists such as James Meade, the government launched a (strictly voluntary) family planning programme together with a huge push on female education. This led to rapid fertility decline plus economic growth, first through the textile industry based on semi-skilled female workers, then in upmarket tourism and more recently in banking and high-tech information technology. Mauritius is the only such success story in sub-Saharan Africa. The country managed to escape the vicious circle of poverty and underdevelopment through investment in human capital.

Japan, Singapore, South Korea and finally China have similar stories but the timing is different. The Chinese experience shows that such success is not confined to remote and tiny island or city states. The highly elitist appreciation of education in Confucian tradition became transformative for the country once it was combined with the (originally) protestant approach of a broad-based education. Again, these countries built their stunning success stories primarily on improvements in human capital and without significant raw materials or international assistance. Economic growth followed the education expansion.

There is little doubt about the cause and effect between education and human well-being. Neurological research shows that every learning experience builds new synapses making our brains physiologically different for the rest of our lives. Education expands the personal planning horizon and leads to more rational decisions and less fatalism. It clearly empowers people to access more information, contextualize it and make conclusions that are more conducive to personal and societal well-being.

Well educated people are better at adopting good habits such as physical exercise, safe sex or quitting smoking. Education has many other effects on health from lowering child mortality to postponing disability and cognitive decline in old age, besides the commonly cited effects on income and employment. There is even the surprising finding that education makes people happier despite the fact of making them more aware of potential problems. Unsurprisingly, universal education reduces vulnerability to natural disasters and helps people adapt to climate change.

About a decade ago, I discussed some of this evidence with the Nobel laureate Gary Becker. He said: “Well, when I think about it, I cannot think of anything for which I rather would be less educated than more educated.”

Now we need to educate the economists and policy-makers to make it a much higher priority in the development agenda.

Have you read?
Why we need 12 school years for every child
3 key steps to a more sustainable economy
Why gender equality will make or break the Global Goals

Author: Wolfgang Lutz, Founding Director, Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital; Director, World Population Program, IIASA; Director, Vienna Institute of Demography, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Guest editor of this series is Owen Gaffney, Director, International Media and Strategy, Stockholm Resilience Centre and Future Earth

Image: Palestinian schoolchildren attend a class at a U.N.-run school in Dir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip, on the first day of the school year August 25, 2013. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa