There have been sweeping social changes in my adult lifetime, from how easy it is to travel to how easy it is to communicate. Many of us have had the experience of explaining to a baffled teenager how, not so many years ago, we used to communicate via landlines, and had to make plans that couldn’t be altered at the last minute with an instant message.
But the most far-reaching change is about much more than convenience. It has transformed whose voice gets heard in society. In decades past, the levers of change belonged almost exclusively to the elites. Today, change is also welling up from new and unexpected sources.
Previously marginalised groups – from farmers in the developing world living with the impact of climate change to girls fighting for the right to an education – have seen their voices are amplified by technology. It is their posts, tweets and clips, shared by the billions of people using social media, that now define how our society understands itself. This is transformative because it enables ordinary people to have a huge impact, potentially giving power to everyone, everywhere.
In all walks of life, people are also waking up to the possibility that with insight, determination and a desire to help others, they can make a real difference. People from outside the political sphere, such as like the young survivors of the 2018 Parkland school massacre in Florida, who launched the #NeverAgain campaign to change US gun laws, have led the way in showing how debates that seemed calcified and immovable for decades can be cracked wide open. This campaign led to a 17-minute school walkout across the US – one minute for every life lost in Parkland – and the two-million-strong US-wide March for Our Lives.
While the opportunities for people from beyond the traditional spheres of political discourse to effect real change are welcome, those wanting to harness this new digital ecosystem still need two things: the ability to thoroughly understand the world around them, and the ability to communicate their knowledge so that people will listen. Unfortunately, for every person that can take advantage of social media’s potential reach, there are many more that cannot – especially the millions around the world that have no access to education.
It is a tragedy that in 2019 nearly 263 million young people worldwide are out of school. Of the 650m primary-school-age children that are in education, 250m are not learning the basics.
Generation after generation of politicians have, for all their well-publicised efforts, failed to tackle a deepening crisis in global education. The Millennium Development Goals, modest as they were, were missed. And despite all the high hopes of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), progress in meeting them has stalled.
Between 2011 and 2016, the number of primary-school-age children not in education rose from 57 million to 61 million. It will take until the year 2072 at the current rate of progress to meet the SDG of eradicating youth illiteracy and providing quality education for all. In fact, to achieve this goal by 2030, we would need to recruit 69m more teachers globally – a tall order indeed.
We cannot afford to wait for politicians to act: the time is too short; the crisis too severe. If we are to turn this around, we must look not just to our leaders but to our neighbours, to those inspirational individuals in our communities all around the world who are striving every day to make change across all walks of life. We in the education community must learn from these people.
The Global Education & Skills Forum (GESF) aims to bring together today's visionaries and influencers with leaders and policymakers from the global educational community. By sharing the stories of grassroots activists, philanthropists, campaigners and tech developers, we can start a debate about how to meet challenges on a global scale. In 2018, we heard from fascinating individuals such as the YouTube educator Physics Girl, whose experiments on video make science popular and accessible.
This year, GESF 2019, which will be held in Dubai later this month, aims to take this conversation a step further and explore the interactions between technology, education and the problems of tomorrow. We will hear from Kennedy Odede, the social entrepreneur who founded Shining Hope for Communities to fight urban poverty and gender inequality in Nairobi’s slums. And we are honoured to have with us Bana Alabed, the nine-year-old Syrian girl who has documented the siege of Aleppo – with its airstrikes, hunger, danger and displacement – for the whole world to see. Bana’s Twitter posts play a huge role in educating people about the reality of war thousands of miles away. Her calls for peace illustrate what social media can achieve at its best. How do people like Bana see the world in which they are growing up? How would they educate the world?
And, of course, we must listen to the greatest changemakers of all – those whose imprint on the future will be through the children they teach. Teachers will once again be centre-stage in our forum, and will draw in the eyes of the world on the evening we announce the winner of the Global Teacher Prize 2019, which is awarded under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.
By listening to and reflecting on the insights of these changemakers, we will be a step closer to solving the problems of tomorrow’s generation – and changing the lives of millions for the better.
Vikas Pota is Chairman of the Varkey Foundation