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Many of the world’s children sit outside the classroom

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kongei photo with dc column 4-23-14

Graduates at Kongei Secondary School for girls near Lushoto, Tanzania, in 2009. The school is owned by the Catholic Diocese of Tanga and managed by Father Damian Milliken.

Father Damian Milliken tells a story about a man who desperately wanted his daughter to attend school.

This is not a story about the United States, where we take it for granted that all children can go to school — even if many fail to make the most of the opportunity.

Father Damian manages three schools for the Catholic Diocese of Tanga in Tanzania. Two are secondary schools for girls, who rarely receive much education past the primary level. Many fathers would rather marry them off for a suitable bride price. Plus, education isn’t free in Tanzania; at a private boarding school, it costs more than most families can afford.

Nevertheless, this father was determined that his daughter would have a better life, which meant she needed more education.

There was a problem. We don’t have room, Father Damian said. The classrooms are full, and every bed in the dormitories is accounted for.

The man was undeterred. You don’t have to give my daughter a seat in the classroom, he said. I will put a chair and desk outside the window and she can learn there. And she doesn’t need a bed. She will sleep on the floor. Please, just let her come to your school.

“Of course we found a place for her,” Father Damian says to end his story.

For too many other children, there isn’t a happy ending. Unimaginable obstacles block their way.

You might have seen one horrific example last week. In Nigeria, Islamic insurgents attacked a girls’ secondary school, killed security guards and carried away more than 200 students.

The Boko Haram extremists, who model themselves after the Taliban, oppose all Western education — especially for girls. Reports say they intended to use the captives as sex slaves, cooks or porters. I hope all will be rescued.

This happened a week after I met Benedicto Kondowe, an education and civil rights advocate from the much more peaceful, and smaller, African nation of Malawi. He’s touring the U.S., with American supporters, to promote the Global Partnership for Education.

The partnership, founded in 2002, is a private organization that works with nonprofit and government agencies to improve education in 59 countries. It develops strategies, secures financing and monitors results.

The U.S. has made modest contributions so far. The partnership is asking for much more — $250 million over two years.

If properly administered, education funding is an investment that delivers a powerful return in terms of economic development, public health and social and national stability.

Children who receive a good education are more likely to work and contribute to their country’s development; less likely to engage in crime or armed conflict; and better qualified to make healthy decisions for themselves and their families.

Put together, those positives reduce future demands for foreign aid or even military intervention by wealthier countries.

So, why don’t poorer countries provide for their own children? They do. According to the partnership, poor countries use their own money for nearly 90 percent of what they spend for schools. The problem is, they simply don’t have enough money.

Malawi directs 23 percent of its national budget to education, Kondowe told me. It aims to increase that to 26 percent. Still, it has a teacher shortage of approximately 45,000. It needs more schools, with many still “operating under trees,” he said. Some schools have one book for every 20 children. Girls still lack equal opportunities. So, resources from the partnership are critical — along with management and governance help to make sure money is allocated productively.

Kondowe rattles off his country’s educational progress and challenges in impeccable English. No wonder — he earned a graduate degree at Oxford. He was lucky. His father was able to provide him with a top-notch education.

Also favored by fortune, or providence, was the girl whose father succeeded in enrolling her in Father Damian’s school. But he had to plead on her behalf.

We don’t hear that kind of desperation in our country. Our children don’t have to sit outside the classroom window straining to hear the lesson.

Not that all are afforded equal opportunities here. Some schools are not as effective as we’d like or as they need to be. But compared to places where a classroom is a patch of shade under a tree, or conflicts make it dangerous for students, any school here seems like Oxford.

We must do better for our own children, and we also should do a little more for the world’s children. Shouldn’t we be ashamed that some parents have to beg for a school to make room for their children?

Contact editorial writer Doug Clark at (336) 373-7039 and


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