Opinion: Building a shared future in a fractured world starts with education and health

A student reads a textbook in Niamey, Niger. Photo by: Kelley Lynch / GPE / CC BY-NC-ND

It’s that week again. When the world’s corporate and political leaders gather in Davos for the World Economic Forum.

This year, the theme “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World,” captures a vital and challenging task. We only have one planet, so military conflict, economic crises, poverty, and climate change are everybody’s business.

We have both been involved in the running of large countries, as prime minister of Australia and as health and foreign minister of Ethiopia, respectively. Our two nations are very different in many respects, but we have both seen firsthand that what creates a shared future for a nation is to invest in its people. If you provide everyone with affordable health care and education, then you drive up economic growth and drive down inequity and poverty. In doing so, the damaging political and economic fractures in a society are reduced.

Both of us have left our governments to lead global efforts to invest in health and education because we strongly believe that such investments are essential to solving the enormous challenges the world is facing over the coming years.

Investing in education and health is not charity. If we did not know this already, a report released by the advocacy group Global Citizen and the bank Credit Suisse at Davos reminds us of two vital statistics. First, if all children were to leave school with the ability to read, there would be a 12 percent decrease in global poverty levels. Second, according to the Education Commission’s 2016 Learning Generation report, a dollar invested in an additional year of schooling, particularly for girls, generates earnings of $10 in low-income countries and nearly $4 in lower-middle income countries. For every $1 allocated to childhood immunizations, there is a $44 net return rate on investment. And the world’s top economists estimate that every $1 spent on health yields up to $20 in full-income growth within a generation.

The costs associated with inaction are as devastating as this return on investment is impressive. If anyone doubts that we stand to lose a great deal financially if we do not invest in global health security, just think back to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. The U.S. National Academy of Medicine estimates that “the annualized expected loss from potential pandemics is more than $60 billion,” compared to the costs of preparedness of around $4.5 billion. Yet, the World Health Organization’s Contingency Fund for Emergencies, which many countries rely on to contain deadly disease outbreaks, is woefully underfunded. Even more troubling is that half the world’s people don’t have access to essential health services, and almost 100 million people are pushed into extreme poverty every year because of out-of-pocket health spending.

Investing in prevention is also why health and global education, particularly the education of girls and children with disabilities, must be prioritized on the global agenda. Neglected tropical diseases can cause preventable blindness and disabilities that hold people back. Girls and children with disabilities are often the most marginalized and face additional barriers to accessing health care and well-being, to participating in schooling, and to fulfilling their full potential. The cost of not educating all of our children and youth and harnessing their potential is simply too great. We need to focus on education — not “sometime in the future,” but right now. Indeed, without radical progress, by 2030 over 825 million young people will not have the basic secondary school skills needed to get a job.

In today’s world, the large majority of countries can actually afford to provide universal health coverage and universal access to quality education. It’s less a question of economics than of political will. For the few low-income or conflict-affected countries that can’t finance health and education from their own coffers, donor funding from multilateral organizations such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Global Partnership for Education can help to strengthen health and education systems.

Bridging the financing gap starts with donors stepping up and supporting GPE’s Financing Conference this February to help reach over 800 million children in 89 countries by 2020 or with the anticipated launch of the new African Leaders Malaria Alliance scorecard on NTDs at next week’s African Union Summit. We trust that engaged leaders know that investing in areas such as health and education is not just the right thing to do; it is also the most practical, resulting in more stable, prosperous societies and economies.

Innovation is also key to this cycle, and we are pleased to see this is a core focus in the Credit Suisse report. As those in extreme poverty generally live in the most remote, vulnerable communities, progress will require new efforts to reach them. We need to mobilize new technologies and forms of capital to support the most marginalized, especially women and those with disabilities. We also need to remove discriminatory practices that prevent all individuals from unleashing their full talents and invest in their education, economic empowerment, and health.

Changes of mindset, real commitment, and action are needed. With the necessary political will, we can accomplish the seemingly impossible, whether it is eradicating a disease such as polio or ensuring that every child has a good, basic education to prepare for a rich, meaningful, healthy life.

Read Devex coverage of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Julia Gillard

    Julia Gillard is the former prime minister of Australia and current chair of the Board of Directors at the Global Partnership for Education and distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution. Both organizations are headquartered in Washington, D.C.
  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

    Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is director-general of the World Health Organization. His distinguished health leadership career spans nearly 30 years. As minister of health from 2005 to 2012, Dr. Tedros transformed Ethiopia’s health system by investing in infrastructure, building the health workforce, and developing innovative ways to direct resources where they were most needed.