Investing in quality education and youth: preparing central Asia for emerging opportunities and sustainable development

Tashkent (UN ESCAP Strategic Communications and Advocacy Section) – Addressing an international conference on education in Tashkent today, the top United Nations official in Asia-Pacific highlighted significant progress in Central Asian education and the critical role that quality education can play in preparing the subregion to take advantage of emerging opportunities and to ensure a future based on sustainable development.

“Education is a ‘game changer’ that can close our biggest development gaps,” said Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). “Improved education carries benefits throughout life and across generations. It has positive impacts on reducing infant and maternal mortality; increases poverty reduction and empowers women and youth. With just three years left until 2015 – the deadline for both Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals, it’s time for a last big push.”

The 16-17 February conference, hosted by the Government of Uzbekistan, is focused on education as a key to modernization and sustainable development. Pointing to Central Asian successes in reducing gender gaps, promoting higher rates of literacy and providing universal primary education, Dr. Heyzer made the point that this progress remains uneven across and within countries of the subregion.

On the goal of universal primary education progress has been made with the net enrolment ratio for the subregion having reached 90 per cent by 2008, indicating that countries continue to struggle to reach the last 10 per cent of children. Central Asia’s adult literacy is near-universal at an average rate of 99.4 per cent, higher than the world’s average of 83.7 per cent. However, more than 330 000 adults remained illiterate in 2009, of which almost 67 per cent were women. Teacher recruitment at secondary school level also improved by 11 per cent between 1999 and 2008.

Speaking in support of efforts by Uzbekistan to strengthen education in the country, the ESCAP Executive Secretary acknowledged the Government’s efforts to make a clear link between economic development and education: “By investing in life-long learning, we build human capital and equip people to make the leap into the new global economy. We develop the skills and know-how to attract foreign investment, generate new jobs, and build shared prosperity.” She added that countries like Uzbekistan have an important opportunity to integrate more fully with other regional economies – increasing regional connectivity, closing development gaps, and investing in social development, green growth and sustainable agriculture.

ESCAP’s economic and social development partnerships with the countries of Central Asia already include projects like the Dry Ports initiative – building inter-modal transport systems linking the Asian Highway with the Trans-Asian Railway, to connect landlocked countries with the more prosperous coastal economies. ESCAP’s Asia Pacific Training Centre for Information and Communications Technology (APCICT), based in the Republic of Korea, is also providing ICT training across Central Asia to prepare youth for the modern knowledge economy. Building on these initiatives Dr. Heyzer announced that one of the fellowships under the ESCAP Young Leadership Programme will be awarded to a recipient from Uzbekistan.

Addressing the links between education and sustainable development, Dr. Heyzer added: “Education opens the door to unlimited possibilities – it helps us to change mindsets. We cannot make lasting progress on economic growth, environmental sustainability or social equity in isolation – they are all part of the same integrated agenda.” Making the point that shifting to more sustainable models of growth will lead to the loss of some types of jobs and the creation of many new industries, she said: “Our challenge is to focus education and skills training to position our people in Asia at the leading edge of this next economic wave.”

During her mission to Uzbekistan the Under-Secretary-General also held meetings with the President, H.E. Mr. Islam Karimov; the First Deputy Prime-Minister and Minister of Finance, H.E. Mr. Rustam Azimov; and a number of senior Cabinet Ministers including the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Foreign Economic Relations, Investments and Trade.