NDONGA, Central African Republic — This remote village doesn’t have an official school, and there’s no functioning government to build one. So the villagers, desperate to improve their children’s lives, used branches and leaves to construct their own dirt-floor schoolhouse.
It has no electricity, windows or desks, and it doesn’t keep out rain or beetles, but it does imbue hope, discipline and dreams. The 90 pupils sitting on bamboo benches could tutor world leaders about the importance of education — even if the kids struggle with the most basic challenges.
“It’s hard to learn without a paper or pen,” Bertrand Golbé, a parent who turned himself into a teacher, acknowledged with a laugh. “But this is the way we have to do it.
“They never have had breakfast when they arrive,” Golbé added. “They’re hungry. It’s difficult.”
Yet the students do learn, here in one of the poorest countries in the world: They spoke French with me, and some were doing real geometry when I happened to drop in. One student, Doria Seleyanca, 13, said that his father had been killed in the warfare that has engulfed Central African Republic for 14 years, and his family doesn’t have much. “I eat one meal a day,” he explained stoically.
Doria said he wanted to grow up to be a teacher — and he knew that an education was the only ticket to a better life.
I’m on my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student with me on a reporting trip. My winner, Tyler Pager of Northwestern and Oxford universities, has been visiting schools with me here in the Central African Republic — and they underscore the need for a new global focus on schooling.
“Tragically, aid to education has been falling since 2010,” says Julia Gillard, a former Australian prime minister who now leads the Global Partnership for Education, an international effort to support schooling in poor countries.
The United States talks a good game about global education, but it has never made a huge commitment. President Barack Obama promised as a candidate to start a $2 billion global education fund, but nothing more was heard about it. As for President Donald Trump, he actually wants to slash aid, although Congress boosted support for the Global Partnership.
The U.S. has invested enormously in the military toolbox to reshape the world, but it has systematically underinvested in the education toolbox. The trade-offs are substantial: For the cost of deploying one U.S. soldier abroad for a year, we can start at least 20 schools.
The paradox is that education has been a huge global success. Until the 1960s, a majority of humanity had always been illiterate; now, fewer than 15 percent of adults worldwide are.
But now we’ve run into something of a global crisis: 60 million elementary school-age children remain out of school, and tens of millions more go to school but don’t learn a thing. That’s because schools in poor countries frequently are abysmal, suffering from corruption and inefficiency. Teachers routinely don’t show up — and are paid anyway — or are only barely literate themselves. Progress can’t involve simply pouring more money into broken systems.
The World Bank found that only 0.3 percent of teachers in Mozambique have the minimum knowledge needed to teach, along with 0.1 percent of teachers in Madagascar. In Niger, it’s just plain 0 percent.
In dysfunctional schools, students don’t learn. In Uganda, only 10 percent of fourth-graders can read a simple paragraph, the World Bank says. In Mozambique, fewer than half can add single-digit numbers. And in South Sudan, a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than to graduate from high school.
Yet done right, education can be transformative. The evidence suggests that it reduces extremism, empowers women, and promotes development; for the same reason terrorists blow up schools, we should build them.
Education is also a bargain: By my back-of-envelope calculations, for about one-half of 1 percent of global military spending, the world could vanquish illiteracy forever by ensuring that every child completes primary school.
If schools are often dreadful, the students are heroic. In the town of Boda, in a junior high school with 700 students and two functioning classrooms, we met an orphan named Lionelle Ngombe.
Lionelle had missed a year of school when she couldn’t pay fees. Then the Catholic Church gave her a few dollars to start a “small business.” So now every day, Lionelle sells peanuts in the street when she is not in school, to raise money for her school fees. Last year a teacher offered her money and good grades if she would sleep with him — but she refused and he backed off.
“I don’t know if I can stay in school,” she said gamely, “but I will try.”
As world leaders drop the ball, Lionelle could teach them something basic: The best leverage we have to change the world is education.