In recent decades, the Asean Economic Community (AEC), which represents more than 620 million people across 10 member states, has experienced rapid socio-economic growth. The distribution of this prosperity though has not been uniform. Inequities abound, with no better example than the 3-4 million children in the region who still do not have access to basic primary level education.
However, this is not a recent phenomenon. According to Unesco UIS statistics, efforts to achieve universal primary education access for marginalised and vulnerable children in the Asean region has stagnated with little improvement for more than several decades.
Despite efforts from various government and non-government stakeholders, reaching this last 5-7% of children who persistently remain walled off from education has seemed like an almost impossible task for many institutions. These children face complex and interconnected barriers, such as migration, escaping from conflict with refugee status, disability, statelessness, gender and/or ethnic minority discrimination, geographical remoteness and poverty. The complexity of these barriers requires innovative solutions which most forms of standard education provision struggle to provide.
By continuing business as usual, this last 5-7% will never be reached, leaving their capabilities and potential unrealised. A staggering US$25 billion (about 754 billion baht) is lost each year in the region through not achieving universal access to primary education.
To change this, universal access to education cannot be envisioned as one nation's individual responsibility. It is a regional issue which all Asean member states need to unite and collectively promote for all children and youth across the region.
For example, education for children and youth crossing national borders as economic migrants, and/or refugees with varying degrees of statelessness, require regional solutions and effective collaboration. Individual nations cannot solve cross-regional issues alone. Formal opportunities to share knowledge and seek out a unified policy among states regarding universal education access is critical. This is an important asset that the Asean partnership brings.
The 30th Anniversary of the World Declaration on Education for All (EFA), launched in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990, is a significant policy benchmark that has led to the evolution of global, regional and national policies on access to education. The global importance of such declarations continues to evolve, most recently in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG4) and continues to be the basis for a variety of regional and national plans, policies and initiatives.
In the case of Thailand, in 2005, the government set a cabinet resolution to open its public education system to all children regardless of nationality. Regionally, through the support and initiative of the Asean Secretariat, Unesco, Unicef and the Education Above All Foundation, this has culminated in the "Asean Declaration on Strengthening Education for Out-of-School Children and Youth" (OOSCY), which was drafted and endorsed in 2016 at the Asean summit in Lao PDR.
The first of its kind, the creation of this declaration brought together and mobilised the 10 Asean member states to non-bindingly agree to address the issue of inclusive and equitable quality education for all disadvantaged and vulnerable children and youth in the Asean region. Developed using existing Asean instruments and principles, the declaration consists of nine sections which address the dimensions of OOSCY in the region, the key principles which will guide implementation of relevant policies and programmes and drive aspirational improvements in key areas that affect educational opportunities for OOSCY.
Once the declaration was endorsed, an official working group was established with high government representation from all member states. The declaration's working group is committed to meeting twice a year to monitor the declaration's implementation, exchange knowledge and expertise and refine regional collaborative actions for OOSCY. A number of projects, national policy and initiatives have been designed to put the declaration into action. Supported by both public and private sources, efforts are focused on improving OOSCY data and research, developing regional equivalency programmes, and ensuring effective communication and advocacy to sustain political will and raise public awareness.
Cross-regional ground-level projects have also been designed and implemented, such as the joint project between Educate A Child (EAC), a programme of the Education Above All foundation, and Unesco, called "Strengthening Education Systems for Out-of-School Children", which has seen over 54,500 out-of-school children and youth enrolled in flexible learning programmes across Thailand, Lao PDR and Myanmar.
From this year onwards, the newly financed Republic of Korea, Unesco Bangkok and Good Neighbours International project will seek to digitally transform alternative and non-formal education for out-of-school children and youth in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam.
To maintain momentum, regional conferences on out-of-school children and youth were also held, with Thailand hosting the first in 2019. Mary Joy Pigozzi, executive director of EAC said, "These 10 Asean countries are paving the way for inclusion and equality in their reqion. Through their commitment and hard work, millions more out of school children will be provided with the opportunity to realise their right to a quality primary education, no matter their circumstances."
However, despite this initial progress, more still needs to be done.
The recently published EAC/R4D case study, titled "Leveraging Regional Collaboration to Enhance Impact: A Case Study on the Asean Declaration on Strengthening Education for Out-of-School Children and Youth", notes the importance of securing consistent and predictable financing and overcoming persistent bureaucratic barriers, which inhibit the successful implementation of OOSCY programmes at the country level, and threaten the sustainability of regional initiatives. It concluded by saying that Asean members must continue to address the political sensitivities related to migrant children and maintain strong regional leadership on emerging issues which will affect education access in the future. The report publicaly commended Asean member state champions such as Thailand, which has been the core driver for the declaration's development and success.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to negatively impact education access across the world, closing schools and accelerating the digital learning divide, disadvantaged children and youth will continue to be hit the hardest. Their disengagement from education and the opportunity it brings is increasing at an accelerated rate. The declaration and its principles are therefore more relevant and important than ever before.
All Asean member states need to unite in strength as a collective power and minimise the impact of this pandemic on this current generation of children by continuing to prioritise and provide education for all in the region.
Ichiro Miyazawa, Programme Specialist, Educational Innovation and Skills Development Section, UNESCO Bangkok, has been working for 25 years to promote equitable and inclusive education for disadvantaged children and youth in more than 10 countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and most of Southeast Asia countries. Brett Rapley, Senior Education Specialist at Educate A Child (EAC), a programme of the Education Above All Foundation (EAA), is an international education and development specialist with over 15 years of experience working for Overseas Development Agencies, Non-Government Organisations and Government Ministries.