- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 16, 2009


In January I watched, along with the rest of the world, as President Obama, with his message of hope and inspiration, was inaugurated as the first black president of the United States.

In August, just a few months later, I came to the United States to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the president himself. This medal, which I humbly accepted, is for my work to end apartheid and promote peace in South Africa and throughout the world. When I think of how this came to be, how far we have come, I am filled with gratitude.

In the past, I have said injustice is not the norm. Poverty is not the norm. War is not the norm. It is one of the most almost incontrovertible pieces of evidence, that those are the aberrations.

We are appalled at war, disaster, violence and humiliation. Because our norm is goodness. Our norm is compassion. Our norm is gentleness. So to receive this prestigious medal for my lifelong work advocating for these ideals is an overwhelming recognition of our common goodness.

It is very clear that the Obama administration shares a deep concern for the problems facing the people of my continent and those throughout the world, and I applaud the United States for making Africa’s future a priority in U.S. foreign policy.

In his short presidency, Mr. Obama has already traveled to Ghana, and just last week Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited seven countries throughout Africa. The administration is wise to raise the issues of malnutrition, economic growth and governance for these are critical to the future of Africa.

It is also very clear that the president recognizes and values the work many of us are doing to alleviate these same issues. That is evident by those of us that are here in Washington to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When I was at the White House on Wednesday, I had two friends by my side, and the president also recognized them. While Mary Robinson, Muhammad Yunus and I were all honored for different reasons — microcredit innovation, human rights oversight, and peace and reconciliation — our collective work has the same end goal in mind: To create a world where all people are afforded the opportunity to become productive and healthy members of society.

While our means to this end have varied in the past and will inevitably vary in the future, we all agree in the importance of universal basic education because it can have a profound impact on global poverty and is critical to the development of human potential.

A recent study looked at what it cost 65 countries around the world that were failing to educate their girls to the same level as their boys. What they found is that those countries consequently lose $92 billion every year for this mistake. While the rest of the world is combating the economic crisis by investing in goods and services, one of the most pragmatic economic stimuli for the continent of Africa, and indeed for the rest of the world, is to invest in the education of our youth — especially our girls. A small investment now will yield huge dividends in the future.

The same goes for health and social benefits. In the years between 1970 and 1995, research shows that almost half of the reductions in child malnutrition were due to improvements in secondary school enrollment — girls’ education and not food aid was more important to the health and survival of babies born into poverty.

Education has also been called a “social vaccine” for preventing HIV/AIDS. Not only do children, particularly girls, learn how to protect themselves, but they are also less likely to be forced into prostitution to provide for their families if they are in school, and able to earn a living wage as a result of their education.

In June, before leaders of the Group of Eight major industrial nations gathered in L’Aquila, Italy, I, along with my friends Mr. Yunus and Ms. Robinson, called on the G8 to create a global fund for education by the end of the year. The leaders of these eight powerful countries did indeed reaffirm their commitment to education and agreed to raise more than $1 billion among them to support basic education in the developing world. However, their financial commitment is far short of the $16 billion needed to achieve universal education this year alone.

Still, I am not discouraged. In Mr. Obama, I see a leader who not only talks about issues of poverty, but a leader with the courage to address the struggles of the poor with compassion and dignity. He knows personally that the great Nelson Mandela spoke truth when he said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Last year, throughout his campaign, the president promised a $2 billion contribution toward the creation of a global fund for education. Unfortunately, this fund has not yet become a reality.

Mr. Obama recognized me for my work toward peace and reconciliation. I ask him in return to take forward this promise for the future of Africa’s children, so that we may soon recognize him for his compassion toward the children of the world and their education needs. Mr. president, please do not to lose sight of this goal: We need a global fund for education now.

The Most Rev. Desmond Tutu, Anglican archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa, is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, an honorary chairman of the Global AIDS Alliance, and a 2009 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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