Nuclear physics, big ideas and the 130 million girls that didn’t strike last week

Wednesday, 15 March 2017 09:19 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In 1989, a computer scientist based at the European Organization for Nuclear Research - CERN - in Switzerland wrote a proposal for how scientists could share information. Within two years, Sir Tim Bernard Lee had built the basis of the World Wide Web, a tool that has transformed the lives of billions of people and reshaped the global economy.

This week, Sir Tim’s organisation, the World Wide Web Foundation will host a major conference in London on the future of work in the digital economy.

The issues posed and to be addressed by the summit have far reaching consequences for all of us. Connectivity to the web has transformed the global economy and the lives of everyone linked to the web. In two decades it has empowered and enriched the human species beyond imagination. 

Burst dotcom bubbles aside, the digital economy has been an immense success, helping our societies and communities evolve into dynamic trading networks where the cottage industry in a remote part Northamptonshire can find customers from Alaska to Auckland. 

Ideas can be shared and advice and help given, partnerships formed and business transacted in the time it takes to click a mouse or press send.

Every day, people, businesses, organisations, communities and government use digital technology to make decisions, to make goods, and to deliver services more efficiently and more quickly,

The UK economy and individuals lives are becoming increasingly digital. According to the Office for National Statistics last year almost 90% of the UK population used the internet and that figure shoots to almost 100% for those under the age of 44. In 2015 e-commerce sales (excluding finance) were half a trillion pounds, a fifth of business turnover.

Technology has revolutionised, business, transforming virtually all aspects of the economy and society –in most parts of the world.

The summit should then be a celebration of the internet.   But not everyone can join this cheering of the digital economy to an even bigger and brighter future.

There remain digital blackspots and the summit should find time to address one urgent and pressing crisis.

Girls are systematically left behind in education and the impact is devastating. A girl that doesn’t receive an education is more likely to be married as a child, more likely to die in childbirth, more likely to have more children, and is more likely to live in extreme poverty.

At a societal level the social and economic costs are shocking. If every girl in sub-Saharan Africa completed secondary school, the lives of 1.2m children under 5 could be saved. And if girls received the same levels of education as boys in developing countries it could yield an at least ${esc.dollar}112bn to their economies each year.

Today 130 million girls are out of school; all the more concerning in the knowledge that educating a girl for a day costs less than a loaf of bread or a lottery ticket.

Education has decreased as a proportion of overall aid in the past decade – and this is not without cost. Fees for education are often borne by families rather than governments.  Faced with the choice of sending a son or a daughter to school, they often choose boys. Where girls do have the same levels of primary enrolment as boys at the start of school, they often face increasing pressure from families to say at home and do domestic or paid work as they get older.

As girls get older, they also face an increased risk of harassment, including on their journey to and from school, and at times a lack of adequate toilet facilities to cater for them once they are in school.

From the personal to the global, this is a waste of human potential on an industrial scale.

We need to do something about it.  Because it’s the right thing to do.  And because if we don’t it may become a bigger problem than it currently is today.  Africa’s population will double by 2050. With education and access to jobs a new generation of Africans – all of whom will be born to females - could become the engine of global growth and prosperity.

Millions of young people without the opportunities provided by an education, and vulnerable to extreme poverty, extreme climate and extreme ideology, is a very scary prospect indeed.

This was recognised by the world’s leading experts at the recent Munich Security Conference – so if you need reassurance that this makes sense listen to a Senior Republican Congressman who recently said “an education to a poor young girl is far more damaging to radical Islam than any bomb”.

Given the importance of this issue, Angela Merkel, current chair of the G20 has put both Africa and Women and Girls at the top of the agenda. We need G20 leaders, when they meet in July, to agree a step change in international financing for education – through more and better aid, and through leveraging finance from development banks.

For their part, developing countries must implement a reform agenda, backed by adequate finance, that involves breaking every barrier to girls getting an education, from cost to culture; investing in every teacher to deliver an excellent education for their pupils; monitoring every outcome so we can track progress, course correct and ensure accountability; and connecting every classroom to the internet and increasing access to technology, so that state of the art educational materials can be accessible to children in the most remote areas.

Groups like Worldreader and the Khan Academy are already beaming the best educational materials to some of the world’s most remote places, allowing teachers to focus on their pupils and bringing education to life. These tools can be used to gather all important data on learning outcomes so that governments can track progress and ensure investments are delivering results.

Beyond school, access to the internet could be a game changer for girls in developing countries allowing them to create jobs, and hold local governments to account.

But by 2020, in the Least Developed Countries, ONE estimates that 350 million women and girls will remain unconnected on current trends. This week a Digital Development Summit, supported by the Department for International Development, should focus on trying to crack the problem of connecting every classroom.

Whether you care about gender equality, the fight against poverty, economic growth, or you are looking at the future security of your own home town, investing in education for women and girls is not a luxury for a world leader who has dealt with all the other pressing problems of the day. It is an urgent, important and strategic investment that must be made now. Access to the internet could be one critical answer to this problem.