Basic Ed in the 21st Century


Basic education (primary and secondary school) is key to producing future leaders committed to democratic governance, sound economic policies, and the well-being of their citizens. An educated 21st century society can recognize and challenge corruption, hold its government accountable, and bring about productive social change.

Under USAID’s 2011-2017 Education Strategy, targeted interventions have yielded significant gains in basic literacy at the primary school level. To meet the diverse needs of contemporary students, USAID’s next Education Strategy should build on these gains and aim for acquisition of higher-level and broader skill sets. The new strategy should encourage interventions at pre-primary and secondary levels, focus on increasing learning outcomes, and allow for greater responsiveness to the constantly evolving demands of a 21st century global economy.


From 2011-2015, USAID and partners implemented 151 basic education programs in 45 countries, directly benefiting more than 41.6 million children and youth (U.S. Agency for International Development, 2016). Over time, USAID initiatives have made progress in literacy acquisition and primary school enrollment. Global literacy rates are up 33 percent worldwide in the last 25 years, and primary school enrollment has tripled in that period (U.S. Agency for International Development, 2016). According to the 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report, universal primary completion will be achieved in 2042; universal lower secondary completion is projected for 2059, and universal upper secondary completion will finally be realized in 2084 (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2016).

Despite progress, many education systems are falling short of preparing students for 21st century success. USAID reports that 250 million children worldwide have yet to acquire the most basic literacy and numeracy skills, even though 130 million of them have attended at least four years of school (U.S. Agency for International Development, 2016). In low-income countries, only one out of every ten young people will be on track to gain basic secondary-level skills in 2030 (The International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, 2016). Without foundational skills, no development initiatives have been or will be sustainable.


The knowledge, attitudes and skills gained from quality basic education lead to greater commitment to and engagement in systems for democratic representation. According to a study of 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, people of voting age with primary education were 1.5 times more likely to support democracy than people with no education, and twice as likely to do so if they had completed secondary education (United Nations Educational, Scientifc and Cultural Organization, 2014). The current world population is 7.4 billion people. 6.2 billion people live in less developed countries and 26% of the global population is under the age of 15. By 2050, global population is projected to reach 9.8 billion (Population Reference Bureau, 2016). It is critical that the growing youth populations know the benefits of and feel committed to democratic governance in the 21st century.

Quality basic education is a determining factor in whether the growing youth population will lead their countries towards social stability and functioning democracy or suffer increased hardship and desperation.


Investments in basic education that aligns with the 21st century labor market will combat poverty, thus decreasing countries’ dependence on foreign aid in the long-term. A recent study of 89 developing countries revealed that educational attainment is inversely coordinated with poverty- as educational attainment increases, likelihood of income less than US$1.90 per person per day significantly decreases (The World Bank Group, 2016). If all students in low income countries acquired basic reading skills, specifically, world poverty could be reduced by approximately 12% (United Nations Educational, Scientifc and Cultural Organization, 2014). As mentioned, current programs are making progress towards world-wide literacy. Best-practices from effective literacy acquisition programs should be documented, shared, and applied across a broader range of interventions for greater poverty reduction.

Higher level skills, acquired in secondary school, should prepare students for participation in the fast-paced, rapidly changing global economy. In the 21st century, automated technologies will continue replacing low-skilled jobs and employers will demand higher-level technical, social and critical thinking skills for the jobs available. Without effective secondary education, the increasing youth population in the developing world will lack opportunity for gainful employment (The International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, 2016). However, if quality universal secondary completion can be achieved by 2050, per capita income in low-income countries could rise by 75% (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2016). When students develop higher level academic and entrepreneurial skills in secondary school, they will be able to engage in the global economy as eager workers and consumers. They will lead their countries towards financial independence and increase markets for U.S. trade.

The U.S. Government invests significant resources in ensuring quality basic education for children around the world. These resources are making a significant impact in the lives of millions. Future programming should build on this momentum and encourage flexibility and innovation to effectively respond to 21st century economic and social needs of growing youth populations. Bipartisan political support is needed to adequately resource and fully realize effective solutions.

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