How can we end violence against schools?

This blog appeared first on the World Economic Forum’s blog site.

The Peshawar school massacre that left 132 children and nine school staff dead is a terrible reminder of the war on education that is being waged throughout the world. We are in a paradoxical time for education: a higher number of children are in class worldwide than ever before and literacy and numeracy are spreading. At the same time, we have a poisonous backlash from conservative forces that see knowledge – particularly the acquisition of knowledge by girls – as a threat to their warped religious visions. They know what we know: that education will give girls more power and opportunities in the world, which is why they will resort to such desperate measures to take it away.

From Boko Haram in Nigeria to the Taliban in Afghanistan to Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, education has been the ground that extremists have chosen to fight on. They sow fear among parents so that they will keep their children away from school. It is an insidious tactic. Which parent wouldn’t think about allowing their child to stay at home if there was a risk that they would be targeted? Through intimidation they can achieve what they can’t achieve through their political support.

The attack in Peshawar is the most brutal manifestation of a trend that has been happening in Pakistan for decades. Teachers have been shot dead, drenched in acid and made afraid to publicly reveal their profession to the world. Between 2009 and 2012 there were approximately 900 militant attacks on schools, according to the Global Coalition to Prevent Education from Attack. Now it is estimated that attacks have exceeded the 1,000 mark. A worrying dimension of the Peshawar attacks is that they were so cavalier, the work of extremists who feel emboldened. Unlike previous attacks, they were committed in full daylight.

These attacks have had dire consequences for education in Pakistan. Attacks on schools alone have disrupted the education of 50,000 directly, without taking into account the number of children deterred from attending by violence. Worse, it’s happening in a place where education is already in crisis. The Pakistani government spends just above two per cent of GDP on education, which is among the lowest of any country in the world. Pakistan has the second highest number of children not attending school in the world – 5.4 million according to UNESCO. Fewer than half of Pakistani girls are estimated to have basic literacy.

Failing to educate the young in a society is to see it wither. Without skills, economic development stalls, inward investment disappears, and those with the skills and opportunity migrate. Even more importantly, the lack of an educated population weakens civil society and makes democracy itself fragile. Informed democratic choices give way to populism and extremism.

Normally, when writing a blog, one would suggest a neat policy agenda that can be followed to address the problem that the writer has outlined. But violence against children going to school isn’t that kind of problem. It can’t be solved simply by a change of policy in the world’s education ministries. The obvious solutions – higher fences, security screening and armed guards – may help, but they are not going to keep children safe from people determined to do them harm. Neither should we want to turn our schools into fortresses.

We need a far deeper change: political leadership that make a secure education for all children the most urgent national priority. India has major weaknesses in its education system – and also has to deal with threats to the education of women – but has developed a new generation of leaders and a robust civil society that understands the urgency of these issues. Indian schools have problems but, mercifully, fear of terrorism is not one of them.

To face down this extremism strong leadership is required, and elites who are emboldened to make wise decisions free from corruption or intimidation. It requires sturdy political institutions that, however imperfectly, represent the will of the people. Overwhelmingly the Pakistani people believe that education for girls is just as important as it is for boys (87% agreed with this statement in a recent Pew Research Center poll), but this is not translating into the political determination to face down those who would burn classrooms and bomb school buses.

There has been no lack of opposition to the war on education. Civil society has teemed with clever photo opportunities, viral marketing campaigns, emotive film-making and celebrity endorsements to champion those who risk their lives simply to go to school. The film Girl Rising – following the stories of girls facing barrier to education around the world became a phenomenon in US schools. The #bringbackourgirls Twitter campaign in response to the Boko Haram abduction of girls from their secondary school dormitories in Nigeria was shared by five million people – including the Obamas, Mary J Blige and Alicia Keys.

Perhaps most impressively of all, the cause of access to education has been gifted a once-in-a-lifetime icon in the shape of the heroic Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for blogging about her school experiences. She is now as famous as any Hollywood star. Deservedly, she has been showered with accolades for her extraordinary courage and eloquence – from the Nobel Peace Prize downwards – and regularly appears in lists of the world’s most powerful women.

But are these sentiments matched by a will among politicians on the ground to ensure that children are not cowed into staying at home? Though the international community will confer awards and issue strongly worded statements, are we doing enough to support those beleaguered governments?

Too often there is equivocation when facing down those who attack girls and their right to education. In the aftermath of the school attacks, many political, military and religious leaders condemned their brutality but failed to condemn the Taliban at the same time. It is perhaps encouraging that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif promised that the days of distinguishing between “good” and “bad” parts of the Taliban are over. But the verdict is out on whether the Pakistani security services will live up to these commitments.

Perhaps the unique horror of Peshawar will be seen as a turning point where the world summoned the resolve to see safe education as a non-negotiable right. The atrocity has already silenced ancient enmities. In India, there was a two minutes’ silence in every school to remember the dead in Pakistan, something that has never happened before.

How can the international community ensure this moment of collective horror results in change? Firstly, the international community, particularly the EU, provides significant assistance to Pakistan in the form of direct funds and preferential trade status. Further help could be offered that is explicitly tied to progress on the numbers of Pakistani children in school.

Secondly, backing needs to be given to Qatar’s efforts to ensure that the UN gives protected status to schools and places of education. Over the past four years, schools have been targeted in seventy countries around the world. In Syria alone, nearly 3500 schools have been damaged or destroyed during the civil war.

Some of this is collateral damage in war-zones. However, more often attacks on schools have been used a deliberate weapon of war. Killing your enemy’s children is to target what they regard as most precious. We have returned to medieval horrors that we thought we had banished through agreements on the rules of war.

Quite apart from the appalling human toll, the targeting of schools is also jeopardising the international community’s commitment to see all the world’s children in primary education by 2015. As world leaders reflect on their priorities for 2015, there is no more important priority than ensuring that the right of children to attend school safely is brought to the top of the agenda of every international summit next year. Perhaps then, some hope can come from what Kailash Satyarthi, who shared the Nobel prize with Malala, rightly called: “one of the darkest days of humanity”.

Elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce

I am honoured to have been elected a Fellow of the RSA on the basis of the work I have been engaged with professionally and personally over the past few years. It is even more of an  honour to join a highly respected society whose past and present members include Charles Dickens, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, William Hogarth, John Diefenbaker, Stephen Hawking and Tim Berners-Lee and is committed to finding innovative and practical solutions to today’s social challenges. Further to this, my election to the RSA falls in line with the goals of the Varkey GEMS Foundation in making a real impact on the teaching profession and the quality education-for-all agenda.

The RSA is an enlightenment organisation which is committed to finding innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges. Through its ideas, research and strong Fellowship, it “seeks to understand and enhance human capability to close the gap between today’s reality and people’s hopes for a better world”.

Based in London and founded in 1754, the RSA was granted a Royal Charter in 1847 and the right to use the term Royal in its name by King Edward VII in 1908.

The RSA Fellowship is a network of people from a wide range of backgrounds, united by a desire to build a better society. The RSA supports Fellows in developing local networks and initiatives and through RSA Catalyst programme it provides money and expertise to Fellow-led ideas that aim to have a positive social impact.

For further information on the RSA please visit this link.

The beautiful game

With the FIFA World Cup having started and England playing their first game this evening, you can’t just help but admire the way in which there’s been absolutely no build up in England about the competition. Normally, the flags are out, there’s a few themed songs in the charts, merchandising goes mad, but not this time.

Have we, as a nation, decided that we’re just not up to it anymore? Recently, I read an argument that actually blamed the 1966 win as having ruined the game. Football pandits, will undoubtedly need to weigh in, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s good that we have lessened our expectations as time and time again we have been let down.

I’m not saying that I won’t be watching the beautiful game, or cheering England on. It’s just that as a fan, I’ve come to understand that on their day, any of the competing teams can have their day.

Good luck England! Praying for you.

Young Global Leader announcement

VIKAS POTA SELECTED AS A YOUNG GLOBAL LEADER BY THE WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM

The World Economic Forum & my company released this info today: http://www.gemseducation.com/media-centre/press-releases/Vikas-Pota-CEO-of-the-Varkey-GEMS-Foundation-selected-as-Young-Global-Leader-by-the-World-Economic-Forum/534

What is a Young Global Leader?

I am hugely excited and thrilled to have been selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum (WEF). Having had the opportunity to attend a few regional WEF summits, I’ve always been impressed with the positivity that flows out of this community, and look forward to joining it.

You can read more about the programme here: www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_YGL_Brochure.pdf

What do you hope to achieve?

I am lucky to have had the chance to build a business, work with talented people, travel, commit to making our world a better place, and, importantly, do something about it. Being selected to join the Forum of Young Global Leaders will provide me with invaluable opportunities to connect and collaborate with other people who also share my passion and goal to fix perennial issues that are solvable within our lifetimes.

The diversity of intake – from ages, professions, and countries, allows me to the chance to tap into this mix of experience and ideas, which is key to creating sustainable change.

What issues interest you?

Inter-dependence & collaboration is what creates value. Change cannot & will not come if we work in silos.

I enjoy bringing together change makers from politics, business and NGOs to solve problems that for decades seemed unsolvable.

I find that you really make progress when you bring together people from completely different worlds. Globalisation has created the possibility for powerful collaborations and I believe we have only just started realizing how these connections are going to change the world forever.

I’m trying to change the following:

1. Education – as I believe that there is no greater equalizer. I’m currently leading an effort to raise $70million to train 250,000 teachers in some of the most desperate countries of the world. The Varkey GEMS Foundation, which I am the Chief Executive of, has devised a programme that will see a dramatic improvement in classroom outcomes, which ultimately results in a more secure and prosperous world for everyone.

2. Raising the bar of government & politics – I’m increasingly troubled by the way our world is governed. At one end structural reform issues form a key area of interest and the other end, we need a more conversant electorate that demands a higher standard from its representatives. Later this year, I am launching an initiative in India that will hopefully raise the bar of politics and provide a model that many other nations can emulate.

3. How to harness the energies and expertise of those who share my world view that there are infinitely more people who want to do good in this world that those that don’t. By connecting these people no problem is insurmountable. I’ve been lucky to be part of a founding team of do-gooders, through Sewa Day, who have motivated over 50,000 in 20 countries to provide their time to either help relieve hardship & poverty, protect the environment, or to bring a little joy to those who have little. Our aim is to get 1 million people swinging into action with us within the next five years.

A quote from a wise man from India – Swami Vivekananda – perhaps, sums up what I think best: “Get up, and set your shoulder to the wheel – how long is this life for? As you have come into this world, leave some mark behind. Otherwise where is the difference between you and the trees and stones? – they too come into existence, decay and die.”

Let’s work together

I’m experimenting with all three areas, and am keen on learning what others, who may share these interests, are doing. Leave a comment on this blog if you want to share your experiences (or tweet me on @vikaspota).

David Cameron’s visit to India

Last time DC went to India, I commented on the BBC that he may as well concede that we were the junior partner in that relationship as well, just as he had referred to relations with our American cousins who he had visited immediately prior to India.

This time things are a little different. Let me explain.

Last time DC visited it was in the immediate wake of forming the coalition. This time, I would suggest that this visit is focused on creating opportunities that are specific to the UK electoral calendar – electioneering has started!

The same can also be said of India and her politics. With Narendra Modi’s success at the polls, the only real discussion taking place is whether he will be the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate. Electioneering in India has also begun as polls are due in 2014.

Such a cycle can play a major role in how these visits are organised. What do you think the major goals of this visit should be? How should DC’s success be measured? Volume of commercial deals done, parity provided to the Opposition, agreements on counter security… ? Interested in your opinions. Leave a comment

Trends – 2010 onwards – quite spectacular

If you’re interested in trends, then take a look at the attached – quite spectacular…

Richard Watson, who’s a futurologist created this, and he claims that those on the outer fray of this tube style map is already taking place.

Incredible stuff. Enjoy.

Trends Map

Investing in girls & women will boost global trade & economics

Just a couple of weeks ago, I visited Ethiopia to attend the World Economic Forum’s Africa Summit – a choice which confused many of us, as, like many other African countries, doesn’t strike you as being a natural choice to host such an event, but when we scratched beneath the surface, what impressed was their total focus on applying science and engineering to boost their economic and agricultural productivity, which is obviously working as they’re now the world’s third fastest growing economy. Imagine that! I remember, as a young boy, cycling to my local record shop to buy the charity single that brought Ethiopia into focus, and where we all sang along to “do they know its Christmas time at all”.

And it’s not the only example of a country that we think of as ‘developing’ as being in a vastly different economic environment than we might think. While we all know of the rise of the BRIC economies, but did you know that a country like India produces more engineers & doctors than the whole of Europe put together?

Both examples show that investing in STEM education makes good economic sense. Education can be the driver for economic growth. But it’s not always universal and girls and women are often being left behind. There’s an obvious moral argument to this – how can it be right to leave behind so many people – but there’s also an economic argument. On what basis can we look at ourselves if we don’t do more to ensure that we create generations of female mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and technologists?

Did you know that since the inception of the Nobel Prize for Physics, only two women have won this prize? Only four have won the Chemistry prize. How can this be right? We can drill even further as the statistics for women “of colour” are even more alarming such as; only 2% of all women professors in the US are “of colour”.

How can this be right?

The work that the Varkey GEMS Foundation does with UNESCO concerns the recruitment of more women into the teaching profession, the skilling of these recruits to ensure girls advance in STEM subjects, and an ongoing commitment to their professional development as educators.

As a company, if there’s one thing that GEMS has learnt from educating children is that good teachers matter. Who stands at the front of a classroom often makes the essential difference to a child’s prospects of success.

As a charitable foundation we believe that the role & status of teachers has become so derided that we fail to appreciate their critical contribution to a country’s progress. We also fail to understand the way in which the teaching profession is changing, for example as technology allows for easier transfer of knowledge, the classroom teacher takes on an ever more critical role – that of a “mentor”. In this avatar, teachers can have an incredible influence on parents, students and the wider community, and can convince those who don’t believe that science pays, of the rewards advancement in STEM subjects can hold for families and communities – whether in cosmopolitan cities like London or Paris or in the most rural locations in Lesotho or Kenya, where our intervention is targeted.

No longer are STEM subjects taught in isolation, real world challenges demand an inclusive, combined approach. In this new way of learning, teachers become even more vital as they join the dots for students to make the subjects real and practical.

We need to be clear in our minds that a focus on STEM education can boost a country’s economic chances – which in these challenging and austere times is important to understand. But, clarity of thought is one thing, we ought to also bear in mind the moral argument in training girls and women, for they have been neglected for far too long by a male dominated political culture, which is hard to defend on any basis.

Teachers are the backbone of the education sector. By investing in them, we invest in ourselves.

As a father of two daughters, I wanted to convey my thanks to H. E. Ms. Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO for convening such an alliance to further the education of girls and women and look forward to reporting back the progress we’re making in Lesotho & Kenya over the next few years.

Vikas Pota
Chief Executive Officer
The Varkey GEMS Foundation