Millions of parents in low-income Asian communities live in fear that their children will miss out on a quality education. And as societies continue to rapidly urbanize, many are migrating to cities in search of better opportunities for their families. Yet once they arrive, they often find they’ve landed in a place where there are education haves and have nots. Due to the system that I refer to as the lottery of life, low-income kids often lack access to quality schools, a library filled with children’s books in their local language, well-trained teachers in their classrooms, and gender equality. Approximately half of the world’s out-of-school children live here in Asia.
I have had the honor of attending a graduation ceremony in Vietnam where 99 young women who were supported by Room to Read’s Girl’s Education Program cried tears of joy. Over 90 percent of those amazing young women were the first females in their families to complete secondary school. Most had dreams of going to “the city” (e.g., Saigon), to pursue higher education and employment opportunities. They seemed so confident—possessed of that kind of inner resolve that comes along with an education. I often reflect on that day with the knowledge that Vietnam could achieve a 10 percent increase in GDP by 2025 through the advancement of women’s equality. If we can assure that many more girls end up proudly wearing graduation caps, then we move closer to unlocking that $40 billion of potential economic progress.
In Indonesia, I have met local children’s authors who can now see their works of Bahasa literature come to life in colorful, engaging books that fill the shelves of newly established libraries. During my last trip, one of Room to Read’s partner NGOs shared with me their audacious goal—that every school in their province would have a library within five years. Room to Read’s Literacy Program combines the science of learning to read with the magic of loving to read. And when children in Indonesia flood into school libraries and develop their literacy skills, they have the power to reverse the US$10 billion strain that illiteracy costs the country in health care, welfare, lost earnings, crime, lost business productivity, and countless other political, social, and cultural areas.
Asian cities have always been places of aspiration where young people go to pursue their dreams. The best possible way for us to set Asia up for success is to make sure that a generation of youth are ready, willing, and able to positively determine their futures. From Dhaka to Phnom Penh, from Colombo to Delhi, the future of Asia is being written now. To truly maximize that potential, we need to ensure that young women are enrolled in university rather than working in a sweatshop or a brothel, and that young men have found gainful employment rather than a life of crime or despair. If we want to influence these outcomes, there is no better place to start than in guaranteeing that every child receives an education. Every day we lose is a day we cannot get back.
Literacy and gender equality lay the critical foundations for healthier, safer—and more prosperous—cities. By educating the next generation, no matter their economic situation, we are investing in the next engineers, entrepreneurs, and economists. And who knows what kind of world they can build if given the chance?