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Why educating girls is the best cure for the world’s problems

Female education can reduce population pressures, boost economic growth, curb infant mortality and improve child nutrition.

The southern fringe of the Sahara seems an odd place for a baby boom. This expanse of West Africa is just as parched and arid as you might think; its people endure perennial food shortages, sometimes escalating into famines. Yet the countries of the Sahel, as the region is known, have the fastest-growing populations in the world. Today, 74 million people live in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. By 2050, that is projected to nearly treble to 198 million.

Niger has the highest fertility rate in the world, with each woman giving birth an average of 7.6 times. The problem, of course, is not a booming population in itself, but the speed of growth. Niger’s population doubles every 20 years, meaning that the economy must also double in size equally fast, just to stop the country’s citizens from becoming even poorer per capita.

At first, I puzzled over why the Sahelian nations should be coping with population pressures on a unique scale – and then I discovered a big part of the explanation.

A third of Niger’s girls miss out on primary school; 90 per cent do not complete secondary education. The tragic consequence is that most women in Niger can neither read nor write: three-quarters of the female population aged between 15 and 24 are illiterate. Think of the waste and injustice represented by those baleful figures. Imagine the squandered talent and how the development of a nation is being held back.

And consider the trouble that humanity is storing up for the future, contained in the bleak fact that 131 million girls across the world are being deprived of an education. In some places there are not enough schools or teachers; in others, poverty and discrimination combine to keep girls out of the classroom.

That is why I have made the cause of female education a central priority of British foreign policy. My aim is to persuade every government to deliver a minimum of 12 years of quality schooling for every girl.

That goal is not only profoundly right in itself – it is also a metaphorical Swiss Army knife to fix a multitude of problems. If you want to reduce population pressures, boost economic growth, curb infant mortality and improve child nutrition, then one of the best ways is to ensure that all the girls in your country go to school.

The rapid growth in Niger’s population is partly explained by the fact that three-quarters of women are married before they reach adulthood. And child marriage is far more common if girls are denied an education.

None of this is assertion or conjecture: the hard facts tell the story. Women in sub-Saharan Africa who never attend school give birth an average of 6.7 times; for those with secondary education, the figure falls to 3.9.

A United Nations study found that if all girls went to secondary school, then the prevalence of child marriage would fall by two-thirds. Infant mortality would be cut in half – saving three million lives every year – and 12 million children would not have their growth stunted by malnutrition.

As for reducing poverty, each extra year of schooling raises a woman’s future wages by 12 per cent.

Governments must now get on with the job and do what is necessary. Penny Mordaunt’s Department for International Development (DfID) is doing great work in this field. At the beginning of February, it promised £225m for the Global Partnership for Education over three years, an increase of nearly 50 per cent on Britain’s previous contributions.

At the UK-France summit in January, DfID announced an extra £50m of British aid specifically for the Sahel, focused on a variety of needs including family planning. On this occasion, the Prime Minister and Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, jointly designated 2018 as the Global Year of Learning.

Another opportunity for action will come in April, when Britain welcomes the leaders of the 52 other Commonwealth countries to London for one of the biggest summits in our history. I will ensure that female education is high on the agenda as we lobby governments for more investment in schools. 

But mere attendance in the classroom is not an end in itself: the aim must be to ensure that girls actually learn when they get there and master the key foundational skills of literacy and numeracy.

The time has come for all governments to do more. If we can ensure that every girl benefits from 12 years of quality education, this would be the single most powerful spur to development and progress. So let us pull together and do what we must. Justice demands no less. 

Boris Johnson is the Foreign Secretary and Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.