Race Against Time: Women and Children Last, UN Where?

[This blog post covers the chapters “Education: An Avalanche of Studies, Little Studying”, “Women: Half the World, Barely Represented” and “Solutions: A Gallery of Alternatives in Good Faith” in Race Against Time.]

The first two chapters of this book covered the AIDS crisis, and its magnitude. The rest of the book begins to talk more and more about possible proposed solutions. And that is when the role of the UN comes in a lot.

I really had not thought a great deal about the UN before reading this book. They appeared in the news expressing opinions a lot, but many of the people reporting the news didn’t seem to think that the opinions of the UN were terribly binding. I mostly wrote off the influence of the UN as being useful. However, since reading this book I am reconsidering. Whether or not they actually respect the influence of the UN, governments around the world pay lip service to it. They agree with the objectives (I’m thinking here specifically of the Millenium Development Goals), they promise to help, and then things don’t change.

In the book, Stephen Lewis lays the blame for things not changing on the “Developing World” and the UN. He uses the example of the the second Millennium Development Goal, Universal Primary Education. Governments, NGOs, and the UN are all in agreement that universal primary education is something with no downsides and many upsides. An educated population is less susceptible to civil war, they are healthier, they produce a faster-growing economy, and– in the case of AIDS– an educated population has an infection rate half of that of an uneducated population. And yet, it is projected that 88 countries will not have universal access to primary education by 2015.

The problem is school fees. With hundreds of millions of people living on under a dollar a day, those families can’t afford to pay fees to send children to school. (This is especially true in child-headed households. There is just no extra money to spend on education.) A family might manage to pull together the money to send one child to school, or even two, but not all of them. (This would also be why, of the millions of children not in school, 60% are female.) There are, of course, other issues which will stop children from getting an education. However, if schooling is without “user fees”– this has been demonstrated again and again– the number of children in school doubles. Especially importantly, many of the children who enroll when school is free are orphans without support. These are children with education as one of their very few avenues of escape from destitution.

What gets Lewis so angry is the fact that everyone has acknowledged that school fees serve as a significant impediment to education, and getting rid of them would be a fabulous idea. In 2000 UNICEF announced that their primary goal was the abolition of school fees. They then did not mention it again for five years. In that five years, millions of children continued to not have access to literally life-saving education.

At this point in the book Lewis, as a longtime employee of the UN, delves into the inner workings and machinations of that institution, and he does not like what he finds. In this particular instance (the issue of the strangely silent UNICEF head) it turns out that as soon as she returned from this announcement she was pounced on by people who felt that this movement wouldn’t be supported the nations who currently charged school fees. They didn’t have the infrastructure, they didn’t have the teachers– just cancelling fees like that would result in over-crowding and a poor education for the children. It would be better to wait until the infrastructure could support the inevitable influx of children wanting to be taught. So they said no more about it, waiting.

Lewis points out that many nations with school fees lost the school system under conditional loans in the 80s, and had not been free from debt long enough since then to build it back up. They still have the debt, therefore in the five years where nothing was said, nothing happened.

The issue of infrastructure is one of the things that he feels very strongly about. Even part of an education in an over-full school, he feels, is better than no education. (If it’s worth doing something, it’s worth doing it poorly.) However, he feels that either people in government are committed to only doing things if they can do them perfectly, or they’re just paying lip service to it.

The issue comes up again with the third Millenium Development Goal, Gender Equality. It is not happening in any sector, and Lewis again says the UN is responsible. As everyone has agreed that Gender equality enriches a culture, helps half of the population live longer and out of vulnerable employment, and is just the right thing to do, the UN should be there to remind them of what they said before and nudge them towards making political decisions that reflect that stance towards equality. And at the very least, the UN should be setting a good example of equality!

Within the UN power structure, only 5.5 percent of ambassadors are women. So that’s not working out so much.

As someone self-identified as a feminist and deeply involved with the AIDS crisis, the gender inequality issue just drives Stephen Lewis around the bend. Women are most often infected with AIDS by their husbands, who have been visiting prostitutes or simply cheating on them. And yet, even if they are sure that their husbands are being unfaithful, (before they are infected,) they have little or no means of protection from AIDS if they were to stay, legal support if they were to file for divorce, or financial support if they were to leave. So these women just have to play Russian Roulette. World wide, 50% more of children who are uneducated are women, and as previously mentioned, infection rates are twice as high in people without education. They simply don’t know how what the risks are.

*Cue Stephen Lewis tearing his hair out*

The issue of gender equality, while everyone can see that something is not working right now to achieve it, is very difficult to fix. People just don’t seem to care. Even people within the UN, those who claim to be fully committed to gender equality, don’t seem to care that much.

My opinion on the role of the UN is not fully formed yet. I feel like I don’t have quite enough information. He makes some very compelling points, but I’m not sure if we can lay ALL the blame squarely on one person or entity. I’m not sure if I believe in the power of the UN to influence that much, anyways.

Though, after reading the book one thing I am sure on is that there is an issue. The last part of the book is devoted to possible solutions. And interestingly, none of them are “If we just do this everything will be fixed!” They are small solutions, aimed at helping part of the problem. AIDS is not a Gordian Knot, to be cut with one stroke, it’s a whale, to be eaten one small spoonful at a time.


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