On 10 December Nobel’s Peace Prize 2014 is awarded to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai. Critical voices have claimed that their work is more about rights activism than promoting peace and that there is no obvious association between education and peace. Research into the causes of war suggests, however, that the Nobel Committee was right on target.
A good prize
The human rights activists Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai were awarded the Peace Prize in recognition of their campaigns for the rights of children and young people and for the right to education. While in the past the Nobel Committee has frequently been on thin ice from a research perspective when expressing views on factors that promote peace, the committee’s choice this year is a good one. This is because research shows that providing increased education is an effective way of promoting peace. The prize is also important because even though efforts to ensure universal access to education have got off to a good start, much work remains to be done.
How does education help promote peace?
At the request of UNESCO, PRIO conducted a survey of 30 studies on the relationship between education and conflict. Our report shows that conflicts are clearly less likely to occur in countries and regions where there is a commitment to providing increased education. This conclusion takes account of differences in income levels and systems of government. That is, countries that are otherwise equal are more likely to be peaceful if their inhabitants have spent several years at school.
There are at least three possible explanations for the finding that education promotes peace. Firstly, increased investment in education reduces dissatisfaction with public authorities, especially if everyone has relatively equal access. This may reduce motivation, for example among ethnic and religious minorities, to rebel against the government. Secondly, improved education increases a young person’s chances of obtaining a job that provides a living wage. Having such a job will also make joining a rebel group a less attractive option. Thirdly, better education can help teach young people to understand more complex problems and to resolve them by peaceful means, by expressing themselves socially, culturally, politically, and economically.
An important focus of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals has been to reduce the huge educational differences between men and women. Considerable progress has been made towards achieving this goal at the elementary school level, but at higher levels of education major gender inequalities remain.
Another major challenge concerns the favouring of majority groups in the population at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities. Studies have shown that restricting education to sections of the population may provide fertile conditions for the development of serious conflicts, particularly where access to education is restricted according to ethnic, religious or regional divides.
Countries often downplay the existence of systematic differences in the education provided to different groups, but our research shows that dramatic differences exist in many countries. In Nigeria, for example, Christian women spend on average three times longer in education than Muslim women. An increased global commitment to education may produce a further peace dividend by reducing large local inequalities.
The main focus has often been on the number of years of schooling that a child can expect to receive, but the content and quality of the education provided may also have an impact on the risk of conflict. Not least this is because education may create false expectations regarding employment prospects if the teaching is of very low quality. In addition, the promotion of nationalistic ideologies or religious extremism in textbooks and classroom teaching may negatively affect children and young people and lead in turn to greater antagonism and increased involvement in politically motivated violence. Accordingly it is now important for the international community to take systematic steps to improve the content and quality of school education.
Is the provision of education increasing too rapidly?
Even though education is generally seen as positive, there has been some concern about expanding access to education too rapidly. In particular this concern has been raised about the availability of higher education in poor countries with large youth bulges. The concern is that the labour market will not be capable of providing jobs for a rapidly expanding group of highly educated young people. If expectations of finding work prove unrealistic for a large proportion of the youthful population, this may create enormous frustration among a highly educated and easily mobilised group.
High unemployment among highly educated young men was arguably a contributing factor to the unrest sparked by the Arab Spring in many countries in North Africa and the Middle East. There is however little to suggest that a rapid expansion of higher education is in itself likely to create conflict. The challenge lies in creating economies that can provide opportunities for a highly educated generation of young people.
A prize for education
Education is high on the agendas of development policymakers and forms an important part of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Much suggests that the new development goals to be adopted for the period after 2015 will continue this commitment, and for good reason. According to UNESCO, there are still 57 million children of elementary school age who do not have access to schooling, and many of the world’s poorest countries will need development aid in order to educate their children in the foreseeable future. Any increased commitment to education in these countries is dependent on predictable economic conditions such as those that long-term aid commitments can provide.
Nonetheless, there appears to be a negative trend in respect of development aid provided for education. While total aid provided for educational purposes increased steadily from 2002 until 2010, statistics from the OECD show a 10% drop in more recent years. This reduction is significantly greater than the reduction in total aid over the same period (1%), which means that donor countries are generally giving less priority to education in their aid budgets.
This year’s Peace Prize should inspire donor countries to reverse this trend. Not only would the increased use of aid funds for educational purposes have positive effects on development, such as economic growth, better health, lower birth rates, and increased political participation, but an increased commitment to education would also be a good investment for achieving a more peaceful world.
This text was published in Norwegian in Dagsavisen 10 Dec 2014
Translation from Norwegian; Fidotext