Alierta: Digital Education a Historic Opportunity

Event Video

“Never in the history of mankind has there been an opportunity like the digital revolution,” César Alierta, President and Chairman of Foundation Telefónica, told a February 3rd meeting at IPI on new partnerships for digital education.

“We think that by 2020, the world will need over 400 million boys and girls with digital education that now they don’t have,” Mr. Alierta said, expressing the belief that if private actors, governments and multilateral agencies can come together in order to deliver digital education on a global scale, these children “will have a job, have a good income, [and] will be very happy.”

The challenges faced in realizing his ambition were outlined at the outset of the discussion by Jimena Leiva Roesch, Senior Policy Analyst at IPI, who spoke of “50 million children not enrolled in school, and 24 million who will never go to school.” The question that she put to the panel was clear: “How do we achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4, to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, amidst these odds?”

Mr. Alierta was joined on the panel by Paloma Durán, Director of the Sustainable Development Goals Fund which co-hosted the event with IPI. Ms. Durán spoke of the goal at the heart of partnership efforts, saying, “The goal is not that the private sector replace multilateral organizations or that governments replace the role of civil society. The goal is to work together.”

Madhavi Ashok, a senior adviser at UNICEF, illustrated the issue facing those who are being left behind as the digital evolution continues to gather pace, telling an anecdote of her experience in a diner where the process of ordering and receiving one’s food was entirely automated, leaving her at a loss for what to do.

“That is the digital divide that we don’t want, and the 24 million children we’re talking about will be faced with that digital divide if we don’t do something about it right now,” she said. “We’re going to have possibly a fourth industrial revolution, and technology is going to make the difference. The shift in skills means not only the 24 million children will be affected… We need to look at digital education not just for schools, but for parents, for early childhood development.”

Ms. Ashok reiterated Ms. Durán’s assertion that cooperation is crucial in meeting SDG4, the fourth of 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015, dealing specifically with quality education. On the subject of data gathering in particular, Ms. Ashok said, “UNICEF is very concerned about the children on the move. How do we bring education to children in cross-continent movement? In crisis? It cannot be classroom based, it cannot be static.”

On this matter, Ms. Ashok said “Partnering with the private sector gives that unique opportunity to examine the data on equity. Which child needs it most? What sort of education should be made available so that communities are able to benefit?”

Anthony Bosah, the Chargé d’Affaires of Nigeria’s Permanent Mission to the UN, offered insight as to how his own country’s government had partnered with private companies in initiatives that had enabled them to narrow this digital gap. As a result of collaborating with Intel as part of the company’s World Ahead program, digital access has improved across the African nation.

“‘The Computer For All Nigerians Initiative’ is the product of the partnership with Intel, and this program has helped thousands of Nigerian children to purchase their very first computers,” Mr. Bosah said. “The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) reported in 2004 that there were seven PCs per 1,000 Nigerian inhabitants. This has all changed.”

Mr. Alierta, former CEO of Telefónica and one of Spain’s most successful businessmen, concluded the panel with a presentation on ProFuturo: a digital education project for underprivileged children and adolescents, sponsored by Foundation Telefónica.

He offered the crowd some striking numbers on the finances it would take to improve the educational welfare of millions. “You know how much it takes to make a kid digital, anywhere in the world?” he asked. “100 euros. 100 euros times 50 million kids is five billion euros. You know how much a tank costs? 500 million euros. You know how much a fighter jet costs? 900 million euros.”

“So if the world, instead of buying ten tanks or five fighter jets, could invest in education and have a much a better world—five billion euros, and we solve the biggest problem in the world.”

He stressed the need for will from both political actors and private actors. “We are looking for more and more partners,” he said. “We want ten ProFuturos.The more partners we have, the faster we achieve our aims. We are not interested in having medals, we are interested in the goal of making a much better world.”

It is ProFuturo’s goal to have 50 million people covered by the project by 2025, a goal Mr. Alierta said he is sure they will meet. He told the gathering that this mission had even been blessed by the Pope.

“Pope Francis told me: this is not to make the kids Christians. This is to make kids have a future. If they are Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, fantastic. If they don’t believe in anything, they still need a future.”