USAID Senior Advisor for International Education Christie Vilsack visits with primary grade students in Malawi. / Christie Vilsack, USAID

USAID Senior Advisor for International Education Christie Vilsack visits with primary grade students in Malawi. / Christie Vilsack, USAID

In a small first grade class at Mikombe Elementary School in rural Malawi, a girl named Martha is receiving the opportunity of a lifetime – she is learning to read in her local language, Chichewa.

This might not sound like an incredible feat, but for many children in developing countries around the world, especially girls, literacy is elusive.

Poor education systems, untrained teachers and a lack of textbooks in local languages are just a few of the obstacles that hinder education for all in countries like Malawi.

However, what is truly remarkable about Martha is not just that she is learning to read in her local language, but that she is acquiring a skill that can lead to job opportunities her parents never had.

Reading enables education, and education opens doors.

While global health, food security, clean water and energy often dominate the conversation on ending extreme poverty, we at USAID know that education can act as a keystone for all development efforts.

The ability to read and write is essential for living in today’s world. This fundamental competency determines whether someone can understand the instructions on a medicine bottle, apply for a job, follow road signs, read a receipt, or vote in an election.

Unfortunately, hundreds of millions of children around the world are failing to learn fundamental reading, writing and math skills. For some of them, school is not accessible at all.

By increasing both quality and access to education, we can forge pathways towards ending extreme poverty. In fact, if all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty.

Education takes center stage on the global policy agenda this week as a diverse group of education leaders from around the world gather for the World Education Forum in South Korea.

Martha, a first grade student in Malawi, practices reading. / Christie Vilsack, USAID

Martha, a first grade student in Malawi, practices reading. / Christie Vilsack, USAID

After looking at the successes of the Millennium Development Goals — a blueprint created by the international community in 2000 to address eight key development goals — world leaders will renew their commitments in the Sustainable Development Goals that they will create later this year.

With this backdrop, the World Education Forum offers a platform for education advocates to come together to establish a new “Framework for Action” that will guide Sustainable Development Goals for education.

USAID stakeholders will be at the table alongside our development colleagues to share our measurable successes in education projects and to recommend best practices that can be woven into the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals.

Over the past four years, USAID missions around the world have worked tirelessly towards the three goals of our agency’s education strategy. We are working to improve reading skills of 100 million children, create employment opportunities for youth, and increase access to education for 15 million children in crisis- and conflict-affected areas.

And our work is making an impact. Since 2011, USAID programs have reached millions of primary school students in 42 countries, provided thousands of youth with new or better employment, and created learning opportunities for children and youth all around the world who would otherwise be out of school.

Despite these successes, the international education community agrees that there is much work left to be done. It will take a group effort to achieve the goals that will be established at the World Education Forum this week.

It will take a particular collaboration to shift program focus to measurable learning benchmarks and not simply access to education.

A report recently released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) titled, “Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain,” draws attention to the fact that even though enormous gains have been made in school enrollment around the world, large gaps exist in the quality of education a child receives once enrolled.

In few places is this more evident than in Martha’s native country of Malawi, where access to primary school is almost universal, yet 92 percent of the country’s youngest students cannot read a single word.

The World Education Forum is an important forum for building a pathway out of poverty through education and learning.

USAID — along with the U.S. Departments of State, Education and Agriculture — are committed to moving towards an integrated education development agenda that will achieve inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all children by 2030.


Christie Vilsack is the Senior Advisor for International Education at USAID working to ensure ALL children have access to a quality education. Follow her @ChristieVilsack.