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Students share a desk during a mathematics class at the Every Nation Academy private school in the city of Makeni in Sierra Leone, April 20, 2012. Reuters/Finbarr O’Reilly)

The world’s poor will get universal access to basic education 100 years after the rich

By Neha Thirani Bagri

At last year’s United Nations summit on sustainable development, world leaders vowed to provide “free, equitable, and quality” primary education for all children, by 2030. But for millions of kids, it will not come in time—and probably not even in the next 50 years.

The Sept. 5 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) shows that economic inequality will keep the world from achieving education for all anytime soon. The report uses past trends to project when different countries will achieve ”universal education,” defined as 100% of children enrolled in school. Its findings are grim: The world’s poorest countries will reach universal primary-school education more than a century after the richest nations.

Low-income countries such as Burundi, Central African Republic and Ethiopia are predicted to achieve universal primary education in the year 2100. That’s over 100 years after high income countries, such as Russia, the United States, Sweden and the Czech Republic, which all achieved universal primary education by 1970.

Country’s economic level Projected year of universal attainment of primary education
High income 1985
Upper middle income 2020
Lower middle income 2054
Low income 2088

India is predicted to achieve universal primary education by the year 2050, ten years after Brazil and 45 years after China. Saudi Arabia and South Africa will both achieve universal primary education in 2030.

In many countries, conflict has been a major obstacle to the spread of education. Nigeria, where terror group Boko Haram has targeted hundreds of schools and teachers, is expected to achieve universal primary enrollment by the year 2070. Syria, wracked by civil war, could achieve universal primary education by 2060, the GEM report predicts. (Syria actually achieved universal primary enrollment in 2001, but civil war caused primary net enrollment to fall 71% in 2013.)

The importance of basic schooling cannot be exaggerated. Primary education levels have a measurable impact on all other social, political, economic and cultural conditions in a country. As the report points out, in countries such as Ethiopia, Malawi and Uganda, increases in primary school enrollment from the mid-90s on led to a marked reduction in women’s ideal family size and desire for high fertility.

Primary education also impacts political participation. A 2014 study of 27,000 people in emerging African democracies, cited in the GEM report, found that people with primary education were slightly more likely to attend community meetings, than those who had never attended school. Primary and secondary education also gives future farmers greater knowledge about sustainable food production, impacting the environment.


Countries Projected year of universal attainment of primary education
Belarus 1970
Czech Republic 1970
Slovakia 1970
Georgia 1970
Poland 1970
Russian Federation 1970
Ukraine 1970
Estonia 1970
United States of America 1970
Latvia 1970
Sweden 1970
Switzerland 1970
Austria 1970
Denmark 1970
Germany 1970
Ireland 1970
Finland 1970
Iceland 1970
Norway 1970
Turkmenistan 1975
Canada 1975
Japan 1975
Armenia 1975
Slovenia 1975
Lithuania 1975
New Zealand 1975
Bulgaria 1975
Hungary 1975
Kyrgyzstan 1980
Kazakhstan 1980
Australia 1980
France 1980
Montenegro 1980
Serbia 1980
Republic of Moldova 1980
Albania 1980
Republic of Korea 1985
Cyprus 1985
Croatia 1985
Romania 1985
Azerbaijan 1985
Italy 1985
Tonga 1985
Greece 1990
Mongolia 1990
Samoa 1990
Malta 1990
Belgium 1995
Tajikistan 1995
Bosnia and Herzegovina 2000
Puerto Rico 2000
Cuba 2000
Singapore 2005
Spain 2005
China 2005
Bahamas 2005
Jamaica 2005
Saint Lucia 2005
Trinidad and Tobago 2005
Netherlands 2010
Luxembourg 2015
Bahrain 2015
Lebanon 2015
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 2015
Guyana 2020
Malaysia 2025
Chile 2025
United Arab Emirates 2025
Thailand 2025
Tunisia 2025
Kuwait 2025
Aruba 2025
Suriname 2025
Uruguay 2025
Saudi Arabia 2030
South Africa 2030
Maldives 2030
Jordan 2030
Iran (Islamic Republic of) 2035
Algeria 2035
Indonesia 2035
Occupied Palestinian Territory 2035
Turkey 2035
Myanmar 2035
Argentina 2035
Mexico 2035
Philippines 2040
Egypt 2040
Peru 2040
Brazil 2040
Panama 2040
Vietnam 2040
Colombia 2045
Zimbabwe 2045
Portugal 2045
Costa Rica 2045
Dominican Republic 2045
Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) 2045
Equatorial Guinea 2045
India 2050
Iraq 2050
Nepal 2050
Qatar 2050
Ecuador 2050
Paraguay 2050
Mauritius 2055
Bangladesh 2055
Timor-Leste 2060
Pakistan 2060
El Salvador 2060
Namibia 2060
Bhutan 2060
Syrian Arab Republic 2060
Lao People’s Democratic Republic 2060
Cape Verde 2065
Gabon 2065
Ghana 2065
Kenya 2065
Morocco 2065
Belize 2070
Honduras 2070
Nicaragua 2070
Gambia 2070
Nigeria 2070
Swaziland 2070
Vanuatu 2070
Cameroon 2075
Congo 2075
Democratic Republic of the Congo 2075
Cambodia 2075
Guatemala 2080
Haiti 2080
Malawi 2080
United Republic of Tanzania 2080
Zambia 2080
Benin 2085
Guinea-Bissau 2085
Lesotho 2085
Sao Tome and Principe 2085
Somalia 2085
Sudan 2085
Uganda 2090
Comoros 2090
Madagascar 2095
Senegal 2095
Sierra Leone 2095
Ethiopia 2100
Guinea 2100
Central African Republic 2100
Burundi 2100
Rwanda 2100
Mozambique 2100
Chad 2100
Mali 2100
Liberia 2100
Niger 2100
Burkina Faso 2100

Girls, marginalized populations and displaced people tend to lag even further behind. In 2014, only 63% of all countries surveyed in the GEM report had achieved gender parity in primary education, while populations considered “indigenous” often scored lower on education indicators such as enrollment rates. According to March 2016 data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and UNESCO, one in every two primary school-age refugee children is out of school, missing crucial years of education and development.