living in remote rural areas, from Angola to Zambia and
Bangladesh to Brazil, attending school competes with a whole
host of demands on their time and energy - collecting water,
herding animals and looking after their younger brothers and
But knowledge is a powerful means
of liberating these children, and their families, from the cycle
of poverty and hunger.
Rural people need
more schools, with improved teaching methods, techniques and
materials, focusing on their real needs.
Lavinia Gasperini, organizer of a workshop addressing
these very issues, talks about an FAO and UNESCO partnership
programme which brings together international organizations,
governments, universities and NGOs.
Q: Some 840 million people on the planet are
hungry and some 880 million adults are illiterate - these
numbers are startlingly similar. How are they linked?
A: The 840 million who are undernourished
and the 880 million adults who are illiterate are mostly the
same people, mainly the poor in rural areas. But we must add 130
million children to the number of illiterate people, bringing
the total number to over a billion people. Some 180 million
children are undernourished. The problems of illiteracy and
hunger are related - studies have shown that increasing
education has a direct effect on improving agricultural
production. A World Bank study, for example, showed that
increasing women's primary schooling could boost
agricultural output by 24 percent.
Q: Education and agricultural development
help to free people from poverty. How could a new approach
combining both elements help resolve this problem?
A: Collaboration among education and
agricultural specialists represents an important step forward,
it has led to the creation of a new partnership initiative
called Education for Rural People, launched during the World
Summit on Sustainable Development. This initiative calls upon
the world community - governments, UN agencies and civil society
- to join forces and work together to address the needs of the
rural poor. Up until now we have been working in a very
specialised way - different UN agencies addressed different
topics - FAO would address hunger, UNESCO would address
education. Now we know that we have to work together to address
people who have similar problems. The problems - and the
solutions - to hunger and illiteracy are interlinked.
Q: What are the main challenges of providing
education beyond cities and towns, in rural areas?
A: Most of the world's poor and hungry
live in rural areas. Rural children who are hungry simply do not
have the energy to attend school or to learn effectively. Hunger
impairs both their mental and physical growth. If millions of
hungry children cannot learn, or are forced to work instead of
attending school we will not reach the Millenium Development
Goal of universal primary education. There are infrastructure
problems too - there is a lack of schools in rural areas because
the state tends to invest in urban areas. Then there is the
problem of an urban bias in teaching methods - much of what is
taught in rural schools is prepared for urban schools by urban
specialists and is taught in the official language instead of
the language spoken in the village.
Q: How can education reach out to working and
A: By offering
incentives that encourage children to attend school and their
parents to send them to school - a midday meal or midmorning
snack, for example. With full stomachs children can concentrate
and learn better. The curriculum should also be relevant to
their lives. They might not care about the circus or the
supermarket but they may need to learn how to milk a cow or how
to handle pesticides. The school calendar should take their
working lives into account. You cannot have classes during
harvesting season, for example, and sometimes it may be
necessary to have evening classes if the children are working in
the fields during the day. Others are nomadic groups, so you
need caravan schools which can follow the group around, these
are just a few examples.
important is it to adapt teaching practices, including language,
to local culture and values?
This is crucial. The intellectual development of children is
very much linked to the language they speak. If they are taught
in their mother tongue, then their intelligence develops, if
they have to learn in a tongue which they don't understand,
their development is constrained. It is very important to adopt
the language of the village in rural areas. Often this
doesn't happen because countries have many languages and it
is easier to use the official one.
Q: Is there a difference between school
attendance by girls and boys? Why?
are usually less likely to attend school than boys. The reasons
are both practical - often parents cannot afford the costs of
fees, books and materials - and cultural - girls are expected to
undertake domestic duties, look after their siblings or are not
encouraged to study. According to recent figures from India, for
example, 17.3 percent of girls said they had stopped going to
school because they were needed to work at home. Some parents
worry that an educated daughter may become unmarriageable or,
away from the family's guidance, may be drawn to the city.
Parents are also often worried about their daughter's
safety in school and on the way there, fearing she may be
Q: How can we
encourage parents to send their daughters to school?
A: There should be a school in every village so a girl
does not have to undertake a long and perhaps dangerous journey.
Scholarships could be provided to alleviate costs or incentives
offered to families. Another solution would be to have female
teachers, or, where having girls and boys together is not
culturally acceptable, all-girl classrooms.
Q: FAO recently hosted a seminar on rural
education: who attended and what did you achieve on an
international and national level?
A: This workshop brought together international
agencies like the United Nations, the World Bank, UNICEF and
individual countries - France, Norway and the United States as
well as NGOs. Our aim was to position education for rural people
at the heart of the international aid agenda as a crucial part
of the fight against poverty. And to give a voice to those who
billion: number of illiterate people on the planet.
840 million: number of people on
the planet who are food insecure.
million: number of children who do not attend school.
180 million: number of
percent: share of the world's poor living in
15.3 percent: literacy
rate in Niger (1999 figures).
percent: female literacy rate in Niger (1999 figures).
13.1 percent: proportion of Indian
girls who have never attended school because it was considered
15.6 percent: rural
schools in Cote d'Ivoire with no electricity.
52.6 percent: indigenous rural
Mexican children who receive no homework assistance.
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