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Time to invest in education, AIDS prevention and youth

By Andrew Hewett - posted Thursday, 1 September 2005

On August 12 it was again International Youth Day. Each year it presents an opportunity to take stock, recognise the achievements of others and examine shortfalls in our commitment to our youth and their future.

Five years ago in New York the world committed to eight ambitious, but achievable, Millennium Development Goals. These time-bound goals cover issues from international co-operation, healthcare and education to sustainable development. Some deadlines have already passed. Today we remind ourselves that the world is not on track to fulfil its promises.

By 2005 we were supposed to have eliminated gender disparities in primary school education. Yet today more than 60 million girls throughout the world are still denied access to primary education. By 2015 we are to ensure that all children complete primary school. At current rates of progress, this deadline too will be missed. By 2015 we are to halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV-AIDS and other major diseases. Unless the world gets serious about the first two goals, the third is unattainable.


Education is so strongly predictive of better knowledge, safer behaviour and reduced infection rates that it is described as the “social vaccine” against HIV-AIDS. Recent studies indicate that young people with little or no education may be 2.2 times more likely to contract HIV as those who have completed primary education.

HIV is spreading fastest among young women in the world (ages 15-24) because their physiology puts them at risk, and because they have limited access to knowledge, economic resources and decision-making power. As long as 36 per cent of students in low-income countries and 60 million girls miss out on a primary education, lowering infection rates cannot be remedied.

Former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said, “AIDS is more devastating than any terrorist attack, conflict, or any weapon of mass destruction …” UNESCO estimates the additional external funding required to achieve universal primary education, fulfil the Millennium Development Goals and halt the HIV-AIDS epidemic is US$5.6 billion a year. This represents less than a third of global annual spending on video games, and less than the US and Europe spends each year on pet food. Australia remains less than half way towards the realisation of our financial commitments to achieve the Millennium Goals.

Yet despite the lack of international solidarity, vulnerable young people like Oxfam International Youth Parliament’s action partners are working independently for their peers and towards fulfilling the Millennium Goals. In Papua New Guinea, Bessie Mauria’s work in training other teachers to provide preventative HIV-AIDS information has now reached 75 per cent of a linguistically and culturally diverse population increasingly at risk from the disease. Last year, Bessie’s work earned her an International Day for the Eradication of Poverty award from the United Nations.

Elisha Cliff Ishaku, a 24-year-old dismissed from the navy in Nigeria due to his HIV-positive status, organised an umbrella group of youth living with the stigma of AIDS that serves 11,000 members. Bessie and Elisha are just two of the many young action partners working on vital local projects that help plug the shortfall between the glittering promises of governments and the slim reality of their subsequent support.

Many times, with great enthusiasm in international arenas, it is claimed that youth are the future. Well, they may be, but they are also a vital part of today. Through networks such as International Youth Parliament, the changes they are independently working towards are extraordinary. They appear even more extraordinary today because promises to make access to education and a life free from disease “ordinary” appear to be made with fingers crossed behind backs. Isn’t it time we uncrossed our fingers and invested in these young people the way they are investing in themselves and their communities?


At the UN Millennium Summit in September 2005, world leaders have the opportunity to demonstrate the strength of their commitment to reducing world poverty. A key announcement from would be a timetable to increase our aid level to 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income by 2015. Isn’t it time Australia committed to making the Millennium Development Goals more than just an empty promise? Today, we can’t afford not to. 

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About the Author

Andrew Hewett is Executive Director of Oxfam Australia.

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