In a recent high-profile press conference in New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon launched the Education First initiative aimed to boost progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goal on education.

Education is a key element in the fight against poverty and social exclusion. It is a necessary tool that can empower individuals and communities to achieve the objectives set by the Millennium Development Goals: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality; reducing child mortality rates; improving maternal health; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and developing a global partnership for development.

The initiative has already managed to secure €1.16bn in financial commitments to achieve universal primary education ahead of the dates prescribed by the Millennium Development Goals.

There are considerable challenges ahead. The Education First initiative needs an additional two million teachers and four million new classrooms in the world’s poorest countries to provide education for an estimated 61 million children of primary school age.

The greatest challenges lie in countries torn by conflict, that makes it difficult for the provision of educational programmes and services. Schools are often damaged or destroyed. Teachers, students and their families are likely to flee and live in refugee camps where there are little educational opportunities available. Others are recruited to serve in militias or taken into sexual servitude.

Such problems still offer enormous challenges for policymakers. Children are likely to suffer from preventable illnesses like malaria and diarrhoea. The problem of disease and illness is further exacerbated by a lack of adequate and basic health facilities.

In situations of conflict, survival instinct is likely to take precedence over the need to invest in education. Families whose source of income has been destroyed or put in jeopardy often depend on their children for added income. Girls are worse off and are often required to stay at home to attend to the house chores or act as carers to sick relatives.

These challenges must be met. Ultimately, a child who is overlooked by the education system may become a destabilising element. S/he will have little options for the future and may become vulnerable both socially and economically. Educational opportunities can radically transform the chances of an individual.

This was the experience of the UN Secretary-General who shared his experience at the launching of the Education First initiative: “In my small village after the war, I had no school building. Our class gathered under a tree. But whatever we lacked in supplies, we made up for in our passion for learning. Growing up, I saw the power of education to transform people and whole societies. And, so, when I say education is my priority, it comes from deep within me”.

Thus, education is often a secure way out of poverty. A report commissioned by the International Save the Children Alliance, an independent children’s rights group, states that education can be a “positive force for peace and contribute to the prevention of further conflict”. It stresses on the importance of good quality inclusive education which equips children with the right knowledge needed to survive and thrive in the future. Schools in developing countries need to provide a safe and protective environment where basic and practical skills can be taught.

Education also affects the national standard of living and infant mortality rate. A child born to a literate mother has a 50 per cent greater chance of reaching his/her fifth birthday.

The Education First initiative engages a wide variety of stakeholders, including individual nation states and a number of businesses and philanthropic foundations. An additional €19bn are needed annually to cover the shortfall for children out of primary and lower secondary school.

The Education First initiative serves as a reminder of the enormous task ahead and of the need to be proactive in placing education at the forefront of the agenda.

The author is a public policy graduate from the University of Malta.