Interview with Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education

Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education. Photo: OSBG

12 July 2013 – In July 2012, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed former United Kingdom Prime Minister Gordon Brown to be the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, to help galvanize support for Mr. Ban’s Global Education First Initiative (GEFI), which aims to achieve the goal of safe, quality education for every girl and boy by 2015, the deadline of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Advances have been made since the target were set in 2000, but some 60 million children are still out of school, 32 million of them girls and 28 million of them in conflict zones.

A Member of Parliament in Britain’s Labour Party since 1983, Mr. Brown was Prime Minister from 2007 to 2010 and served as Chancellor of the Exchequer for the 10 years before that. He has recently completed a research project on globalisation and education at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Along with his wife Sarah, he is advancing initiatives that include the “A World At School” network and a Global Business Coalition to support GEFI, as well as Education Without Borders, which will help get education to children living in conflict zones and fragile states.

The UN News Centre spoke to Mr. Brown on his arrival in New York to participate in thFor centuries we’ve developed only some of the potential of some children. It should be a basic, almost commonplace desire that we develop all of the potential of all of our children.e 12 July UN Youth Assembly, where more than 500 young leaders from around the world were expected to convene to accelerate the achievement of education for all, especially for girls, in the remaining months before the end of 2015.  It was planned on the birthday of keynote speaker Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot last year because of her campaign for girls’ right to education.

UN News Centre: Mr. Brown, thank you for talking to us today.  Tomorrow, you will address the Youth Assembly here at the UN, with Malala Yousafzai.  You know Malala, you have worked with her – what have you seen in her that inspires you?

Gordon Brown: She’s 16 tomorrow; she’s a fragile girl because she was hurt very severely in Pakistan. I’ve seen her restored to good health, but I’ve never seen her ever give up on her crusade, which is a mission that every child should go to school.  Her refusal to give up, even when she’s been intimidated, threatened and shot at and her determination that the right that she now has to go to school should be available to every girl in every country in every part of the world, as well as every boy.  She’s a most courageous and brave young girl.

Gordon Brown at the Menelik II Kindergarten and Primary School, Ethiopia. Photo: OSGB

I once wrote a book on courage and what made people courageous. I found it was a strength of belief matched by a strength of willpower.  What Malala has is belief in her cause, but also this incredible willpower that even an attempted assassination has never taken away from her. 

When you ask her what she wants to do, what she wants for her birthday, she says “I want to build schools,” and it’s an amazing thing that a young girl will use her life and what she calls her ‘second life’ – after what had happened to her when she was left for dead – to actually help other girls, particularly, but girls and boys, to get the chance of education.

UN News Centre: What kind of strategies are you proposing to change attitudes to girls’ education?

Gordon Brown: I think attitudes are changing.  I think really what we’re talking about is how the silent majority, who know that education for girls ought to be a right and not denied to them, can be empowered to speak up and not to be silenced.  Of course the attempt by the gunmen, the extremists, the militants is to silence people and to prevent them defending the right of girls to go to school.  So we’ve seen 2,000 schools burnt down in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  We’ve seen teachers killed simply because they taught at all-girls schools.  We’ve seen girls themselves as students shot at and burnt and persecuted for their willingness and their wish to go to school. 

Schools burned by Boko Haram in 2013 in Maiduguri, capital of Borno State, northeastern Nigeria. Photo: IRIN/Aminu Abubaka

But I also see, as when I went to Pakistan the last time, a big change in attitude.   I see people in Pakistan saying, “We are supporting Malala.”  They’re wearing headbands saying “I am Malala.” Attitudes are changing; it is a cultural issue, but it has to be matched by us providing the resources to enable schools to be built and to provide good service and not to be second rate.  I think there’s a corresponding obligation on our part to help those governments that are trying to deliver education but don’t have the resources to do so.

UN News Centre: As you mentioned quality, it’s one thing to provide education, but another thing to provide quality education.  We know in some developing countries, many kids are going to schools under trees.  How can we assure quality as well as quantity?

Gordon Brown: I think the two things go hand-in-hand.  People believe in the power of education to change lives.  So then they will not just want enrolment, they will want results.  They will want not just the numbers getting to school, they will want quality as well.

Special Envoy Brown with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

I think the main thing is that we are too complacent about the 57 million children who are not at school.  We should be angry that in 2013, because of child labour or child marriage or because of discrimination against girls or because of the absence of facilities, so many millions of children today will not be going to school.  It should make us outraged that we haven’t done enough about it in previous years. If people are persuaded of the need for education and the need to invest in education, they’re also persuaded of the need not to waste that investment by having low quality education but to have high quality education. 

Certainly we need a measurement of results.  We need quantitative assessments of the success of education.  We need certification and qualifications both for teachers and for pupils.  It is not a choice between quantity and quality, between access and excellence.  Both of these will happen together if people really do believe in the importance of education to change lives.

UN News Centre: At the beginning of your career you were a lecture at an education college.  Was that the root of your passionate advocacy for education?

Mr. Brown addresses the UN Security Council in 2009 as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Gordon Brown: I think anything I was able to achieve, I was able to achieve because I got the chance to go to university.  I got the chance to study at post-graduate level, I got a chance to be a university lecturer, a college lecture, to write books.  I got the chance to do these things because I was given the right to an education.  When you think of the history of the world, for centuries we’ve developed only some of the potential of some of the children when it should be a basic, almost commonplace desire that we develop all of the potential of all of our children. 

So while I benefited, I feel that a lot of people lost out.  And they lost out in Britain, but even more so, they’re losing out in some of the poorest countries in the world where young people have talent, they have energy, they have enthusiasm, they have the will to learn.  They have the quality of intellect, but they’re not given that chance.  That is a huge waste of potential for the whole world and we ought to do something about it.

UN News Centre: It’s been a year since you were named UN education envoy.  Have you become more or less optimistic about reaching the goal of universal primary education?

Prime Minister Brown addressing a UN General Assembly meeting on the Culture of Peace in 2008. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Gordon Brown: You’ve got to recognize that we’re in a period where aid is being cut, where education progress had stalled some years ago, and where it’s only by a huge drive and a huge turn-around that we can get the resources and the commitment that is necessary for us to meet the Millennium Development Goal.  You don’t actually need a huge scientific advance to do so, which you might need to cure a disease.  What you need is the will power to deliver what is basically, relatively cost-effective educational investments that will put the 57 million children to school.

I see this as the next three years, 20 million, 20 million, 20 million leading to 60 million more children going to school.  I see us concentrating on those countries like Nigeria, where 10 million children are not at school, Pakistan ­– five million or perhaps more – Afghanistan, India, Ethiopia – countries where we could make progress very quickly.  And then we’ve also got to deal with conflict areas, like Syria today, but Somalia yesterday.  So many children are excluded from school because there was a civil war or because there was a breakdown of the regime. 

So I can see a plan we could actually deliver, but it demands that governments, both donor governments and developing country governments and international organizations be more coordinated in the way they approach this.  I would like to see that strategic view dominate the thinking of the United Nations General Assembly in September and the setting of the new development goals. 

The Prime Minister helps launch the "Class of 2015: Education for All" campaign in 2008. UN Photo/Jenny Rockett

UN News Centre: What would you like to see come out of the Malala Day events at the UN?

Gordon Brown: A determination that we will tell every government where children are not at school that they’ve got to do something about it quickly, and a determination never again to be complaisant about millions of girls, particularly, who are denied the chance of education. 

Until Malala’s case was known to the people of the world, there was an assumption that there inevitable progress toward universal education, and it was just a matter of time.  There was no sense that girls were being discriminated against the way we see now.  Since Malala was shot, there’s been a focus on child labour, on child marriages as well as on discrimination against girls – on child trafficking as well.  I think people are now more aware, as a result of what happened to Malala, that there are injustices that have to be rectified quickly.

So I hope that out of Malala Day, when people learn more about the injustices and the unfairnesses that are visited upon children, through no fault of their own, being pushed into child labour or denied a teacher or a school building, that we can see pressure on governments of the world to do more to get children to school.   It will only happen when parents and teachers and pupils and students themselves and governments come to the conclusion that the barrier to getting every child to school is not actually in the end financial, the barrier is our lack of resolve and determination to sort this out, as Malala herself will say tomorrow.

Gordon Brown with pupils of a school sponsored by the BRAC development organization in Hai-Kugi village outside Juba, South Sudan. Photo: OSGB

UN News Centre: Tomorrow, Malala will be addressing a group of young people from all over the world.  What would you say to young people today in terms of how they can take up this issue and promote education for their generation?

Gordon Brown: Yes, we could have had Malala address a group of politicians and statesmen and ambassadors and high commissioners and so on.  But it seemed right that Malala, who speaks for young people on this issue, spoke also to young people in her generation on how they can work together, she as a leader – others as leaders as well – to try to resolve these issues of education under-provision.  With Malala tomorrow will be other children of great courage, who fought for education in Pakistan, in Morocco, in Afghanistan, in India, in Nigeria, in all these countries.  We have children or young people of courage who have stood up for the right to education alongside Malala. 

I think what people will take out of tomorrow, as young people, is if we combine together, if we put the case across the world, then what is essentially a civil rights struggle for education can win supporters from every country and every continent. 

The petitions will be followed by people pressing their own government and pressing the international organizations to do more, pressing the aid donors to be more effective in the money they give to education.  And I think that what we’ll see as a result of tomorrow is young people themselves leading this struggle to get girls and boys the right, finally, for the first generation to become one where every child, every child, goes to school. 



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