A schoolchild in Ghana reads a textbook.

Education – a human right

Education is a human right. Every child has the right to an education and every individual is entitled to be able to satisfy his or her learning needs – through lifelong learning. Education is the foundation of developing an identity – as an individual and as a society. Education is essential for sustainable development, for reducing global poverty and enabling people to live together in peace. Education enables people to improve their political, social, cultural, societal and economic situation.

Symbolic image: Pupils raise their hands to report to class
Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
Article 26 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

There are some 763 million adults (2020) worldwide who cannot read and write. Almost two thirds of them are women. In 2019, some 64 million children of primary school age were not in school, and 63 million adolescents of lower secondary school age and 132 million young people of upper secondary school age were not going to school. A total of roughly 260 million children and young people aged between six and 17 years were out of school.


And those children who do go to school often fail to graduate. In 2020, the average completion rate for primary school was a mere 87 per cent, for lower secondary 77 per cent and for upper secondary 58 per cent.

These figures published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) are based on official surveys carried out by individual countries – and it must be feared that the real figures are very much higher. There are many crisis regions where no statistics on education are produced at all and many people living in informal poor urban areas are not recorded in the statistics either.

The COVID 19 pandemic has exacerbated the education situation further worldwide. As a result of the long school closures, children and young people have lost on average a full half a year of education. It is not yet possible to wholly predict the long-term consequences. The share of children who are unable to read and understand a simple text is expected to increase from 57 per cent (2019) to 70 per cent in 2030.

Outside the classrooms this educational gap can lead to even bigger challenges in the long term. The increasing educational poverty will result in an estimated loss in future income of 21 trillion US dollars. In parts, pre-pandemic progress on SDG 4 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has thus already been lost.

Poverty, harmful gender norms and practices, violence and poor infrastructure are common barriers that keep girls away from school. Enabling girls and women to get an education, however, is essential for them as individuals and for the societies in which they live. Studies have shown that education helps to ensure that girls and women can take greater control of their lives – they are healthier, later to get married and have less children on average. In addition, well educated women and girls are a driving force for development in their societies. They are equipped to play an active role in the labour market and can thus contribute to increasing productivity, driving innovation and fighting poverty.

Education – a key area of development policy

In detail
Teacher and pupils in a school in the Central African Republic

When people are denied access to education, they are denied a basic human right – and this is a lost development opportunity for an individual and society as a whole. Promoting education is therefore an important task in development policy.

The international community has pledged to improve education worldwide. Goal 4 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Developments says: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

This includes ensuring that by 2030 all girls and boys receive free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education, and that all young people and a significant proportion of adults learn to read, write and do arithmetic.

The German government's development policy activities in the education sector are geared towards these internationally agreed targets. The guiding principle of the German government is “lifelong learning”. Everyone must have the chance to acquire knowledge and skills from childhood into old age.

The education strategy presented by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in July 2015, “Creating equitable opportunities for quality education”, sets out Germany’s priorities for and approaches to promoting education. The comprehensive approach to education covers learning in every phase of life – from early learning through to primary and secondary school, vocational training, higher education and adult education.

We have comprehensive experience going back many years in German development cooperation in developing and using digital learning methods. Our activities have engaged in efforts to explicitly strengthen the digital skills of disadvantaged people since 2015. In line with the BMZ 2030 reform strategy the German government has been explicitly promoting multilateral efforts to support basic education since 2020. The BMZ is for instance supporting the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and Education Cannot Wait (ECW).

Group of students in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Group of students in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

The meaning of education

What does education mean for an individual?

Education enables people to read, write and do arithmetic. It facilitates ongoing learning and promotes problem-solving. It teaches both life skills which people need in daily life and work skills which they need for working life.

Education is a key instrument to overcome poverty. Education helps people to find work and earn their own living. Without education, families are frequently trapped in poverty for generations.

Knowledge is the basis for self-determined action and participation. Education is therefore also the foundation of a functioning democracy. People who can read and write participate more in political and social processes and claim their individual rights.

As at: 08/01/2024