The United Nations likes numbers and when it comes to international development it would seem the bigger the better. This weekend 150 world leaders will gather in New York to formally adopt the Sustainable Development Goals, the successor to the 8 Millennium Development Goals. Following months of painstaking negotiation between 193 member states, the UN has finally agreed on over doubling the number of goals to 17. They are universal and apply to all countries, including the UK. They go beyond ending extreme poverty and include issues such as inequality, environmental sustainability and climate change.
Goal 4 is about ensuring inclusive and quality education for all; removing the obstacles for girls and boys to lift themselves out of poverty in the future, and it is the goal I most resonate with.
The BBC reports that more than half a million families in the UK are discovering this week which primary schools their children will attend and the squeeze on places in some parts of the country. Also at this time of year many parents around the UK are visiting potential schools for next year.
It is a common picture: groups of questioning parents traipsing around classroom after classroom guided by neatly uniformed children (the scruffy or livelier pupils are well hidden away). In each class children's work is displayed, art is being demonstrated and the visits often conclude with a talk from a senior teacher.
Imagine the picture when the child leading your group of parents explains that there are less girls in their class and in most other classes. In addition, children are often off sick and in their class there is no water to mix with paint powder in the art lessons or to drink at play time. This is a concern, but worse is still to come. At the end, a parent politely asks if they can use the bathroom, but there aren't any. The child patiently explains that when pupils need the toilet they have to defecate in the field on the other side of the playground. What? It's an outrage at a UK school, but is it more okay for a primary school in east Africa, where this is a common problem.
Culturally the girls are responsible for collecting water and so instead of being in a classroom they are walking long distances for clean water. Often there is dirty water closer but the children know that it will eventually make them and their families sick or worse. The UN General Assembly this month will report great strides forward globally, but still UN Women report that only 23% of girls in rural sub-Saharan Africa finish primary school.
Where there is no water, there is seldom sanitation, so open defection is a real problem. It is unhealthy and an embarrassment for any child wherever they are in the world and so is another obstacle to them finishing school. The Sustainable Development Goals, which will be adopted at the UN this weekend, include Universal Access to Sanitation (Target 6.2). Meeting the target will be a huge stretch and a recent ODI report reveals that it requires almost four times the investment up from current trends.
These problems directly affect children and a 6 year old wanting to start school next year cannot wait until the situation is fixed. It requires a global change on a huge scale, hence the call from the UN General Assembly and the launch of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
At emerge poverty free, an international development charity which works in east Africa, we have a strong focus on investing in water and sanitation at schools. We will directly measure the improvement in girls' attendance at the schools where we have worked. For several thousand children, there will be a better start to their primary education this year, bringing their experience of school that bit closer to the excitement felt by primary school starters in the UK.