Q&A: Why this is the pivotal century for equitable and inclusive education

25 September 2023

This is perhaps one of the most important centuries in human history. Why? According to IIEP’s technical lead, Suguru Mizunoya, countries implicated in the global learning crisis only have a limited time to strengthen their systems and get learning on track. Mizunoya believes this is the responsibility of everyone today, including new players such as the companies behind Artificial Intelligence. For IIEP’s 60th anniversary, he shares his insights on how organizations like IIEP can work with governments and partners to ensure every single person can access their fundamental right to quality education.

IIEP: What motivates you in your profession?

Suguru Mizunoya: The main reason why I'm wholeheartedly committed to the mission of IIEP is because it supports education in low and lower-middle-income countries, making a lasting impact on children's lives through education.

As the technical lead at IIEP, my motivation comes from a deep dream. I want every child to have access to quality education, no exceptions. I imagine a world where all kids can enjoy the beauty of life, experience amazing things, grow, learn, and become compassionate individuals. But I know that to make this dream a reality, we must ensure that kids can access good education.

I know I'm not alone in this dream, as many others share these values too. We're lucky to live in a time with better living conditions, food, shelter, and technology compared to the past. Only a few generations ago, many of our parents and grandparents could not go to school.

However, it breaks my heart to see that in some parts of the world, kids still can't go to school, and if they do, they struggle to read even simple sentences. Shockingly, in low-income countries and parts of Africa, 90% of 10-year-olds can't read basic sentences. Lack of such foundational learning skills is one of the world’s biggest educational problems.

Looking ahead, by the end of this century, more than half of the world's children will be in Africa, a continent struggling with low learning outcomes and huge education inequality.

This century is probably the most important in human history, as we have a limited time to establish strong education systems worldwide, especially since the global population is expected to decline afterward.

By the end of the century, we need to ensure that all education systems are helping children to learn and exercise their potential. It's a historic mission but with a clear deadline that we can't move.  For me, IIEP’s mission to support education in low- and middle-income countries is bigger than achieving SDG 4 goals or targets of national education plans; it's a crucial mission for all of humanity and I believe that IIEP can make a huge difference.

IIEP: What role do you see specifically for planning and management in making this dream possible? 

Suguru Mizunoya: There are three important points I would like to talk about. About 12 years ago, I was working in Kenya as the Chief of Education for UNICEF, and a friend of mine dropped some wisdom on me. He said, "Development is the second word for peace," stressing that without peace, there's no way we can achieve real progress. That really hit me hard because Kenya was going through a rough time after the 2008 post-presidential election chaos. Schools were getting burnt down, and so many innocent lives were lost – kids, women, young people, it was just devastating.

But that's not all. Kenya had to deal with the 2011 Horn of Africa drought crisis too, and millions of people became refugees in the eastern part of Africa. On top of that, there were these nasty floods in the northern part of Kenya, and never-ending terror attacks in Nairobi, including the heart-breaking Westgate Shopping Mall attack where 71 people died, including my former boss. It was just too much.

And it wasn't just Kenya. In 2011, my hometown in Japan was hit by the Great Eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami, and to make things even worse, there was that whole nuclear power plant incident in Fukushima. It was a tough time for everyone.

Fast forward to more recent times, and the whole world had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, and you won't believe that over 1.5 billion children got hit by school closures.  In the events of natural or humanmade disasters, everyone gets affected but can you imagine the impact that had on children? It's a nightmare that can mess up their lives forever.

All these disasters, natural and man-made, kept happening over the years. And education always takes a massive hit. It became extremely clear that setting up strong and resilient systems to keep providing education to kids, no matter what, is crucial for steady progress and recovery.

The second point is about providing better earlier learning, which includes both pre-primary education and learning in the early grades of primary school. As mentioned earlier, the lack of foundational learning skills is one of the biggest challenges in global education. The transition from home to school, and from pre-primary to primary education, is not an easy one; it does not happen automatically. The inequality created at this stage will only grow as children progress through the education system. There is a wealth of robust evidence showing the positive impacts of quality early learning, and it is crucial to accelerate efforts in this area. However, early learning has not been mainstreamed enough in many countries and governments aren’t providing sufficient resources.  By focusing on improving early education, we can address these challenges and lay a strong foundation for students to thrive academically and socially in the future, that encompasses all the SDG4 targets.

The last point is all about inclusivity, and it's incredibly important for numerous reasons. IIEP has been a strong advocate for promoting equality, especially regarding disability-inclusive education. Earlier, estimates suggested about 10% of children had disabilities, but now we know there are at least 240 million children with disabilities worldwide. Sadly, many of them face significant challenges in accessing education, and those who do attend school encounter learning obstacles.

Disability-inclusive education is personally close to my heart, as I've dedicated over a decade to working on this topic.

I firmly believe that providing disability-inclusive education has the power to not only foster equitable education for all children but also to transform the education system from a system-centric approach to a child-centric approach.

By embracing inclusivity and accommodating diverse needs, we can build an empowering and enriching learning environment that benefits everyone.

IIEP: We have six priorities guiding our work at IIEP, spanning equity, inclusion, skills, climate change, technology, governance, and learning. How will these be integrated into IIEP’s technical cooperation offer to countries?

Suguru Mizunoya: They are all embedded in the technical cooperation work of IIEP. However, I would like to revitalize the focus on disability-inclusive education and governance, which is critical. Regarding technology, currently, there are many ongoing discussions within IIEP and with external partners to determine the appropriate use of AI and new technology. My approach is quite simple: we need to leverage technology to solve the problems we identify. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I believe there is enormous potential, especially in strengthening educational administrations by addressing bottlenecks and streamlining various processes to make them more efficient.

IIEP: Where do you think IIEP can have the most impact in countries, and especially at the system or organizational level?

Suguru Mizunoya: I definitely believe in the capacity for development. In the early stage of my career, I had the opportunity to work for the International Labour Organization in Bangkok. During that time, the Thai government introduced the so-called "30-baht" schedule, which was a national health insurance system that aimed to cover the entire population, including workers in the informal economy, dependents, and children.

One of the reasons for this success was a person in the Ministry of Health in Thailand. There was a senior health expert in the Ministry who strongly believed that Thailand was ready to implement a universal health care system. It may not come as a surprise when you look at Thailand now, but this was more than 20 years ago. This expert had patiently waited for the right opportunity with political support, and eventually, Thailand successfully introduced a comprehensive universal health care system.

The success of this endeavor was largely due to the presence of experts within the Thai government who not only understood the country's healthcare issues but were also equipped with the vision, skills, and knowledge to design and implement such a complex system.

In critical reforms like this, the impetus for change comes from within the nation, and international organizations can only offer support.

As you see in various documentation, IIEP has supported various countries and witnessed massive changes in education systems around the world. While IIEP has been supporting many countries for decades, each time a joint programme is developed, it aims to address previously unaddressed problems and move forward toward improvement.

This demonstrates that development and transformative changes are most effective when driven by national leaders and with local expertise and an understanding of specific challenges. International organizations can play a significant supportive role by offering knowledge, resources, and collaboration.  IIEP is an extremely unique organization that focuses on the capacity development of ministries of education to actualize real progress and educational development, stemming from the commitment and capability of the nation itself.