Friday, 26 December 2003  
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Development and education

The 21st century is termed as the knowledge century as the world is expected to move on to a knowledge society in the forthcoming decades. Today science and technology have become a force of production and the tremendous sweep of globalization is a direct consequence of the modern day revolution in science and technology, more particularly the revolution in information technology.

Though Sri Lanka could claim to a literacy rate much higher than most of the developing countries, it is obvious what is required to meet the challenges of the present day world is not mere ability to read and write. Gone are the days when the alphabetical knowledge sufficed. What is more relevant today is functional literacy.

With the onset of the digital revolution the traditional gap between the world's rich and poor nations have widened. In fact, a new gap, the digital divide is fast making the less developed countries lag even far behind.

Though the developments in science technology, especially information technology opens possibilities for less developed countries to bridge the digital divide by making use of advanced technology as a starting point, the restrictions on the transfer of technology by the developed countries and the high costs involved make the aspirations of the poor countries mere day dreams.

In order to leap frog to an advanced society, the less developed countries require huge investments in education to develop the human capital required. Development cannot be measured in terms of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the quantum of Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) etc. Nor can it be measured by economic indices alone.

There is the necessity to consider human development. Development should guarantee a decent living to the vast mass of the poor. If the poor were left out of development, the result would be no development.

It is almost axiomatic that development needs large outlays on education among others. No country has developed without investing heavily on education.

In this context it is sad to note that state expenditure on education is being curtailed progressively. The result has been the closure of hundreds of schools throughout the country. These closures are not confined to the remote areas like Vanni or Moneragala districts. Schools in the Colombo district too have been closed for "lack of students."

Not only have schools been closed but also existing schools, particularly in the rural areas lack enough resources including teachers. Woefully inadequate infrastructure facilities have also contributed to the poor quality of education. Yesterday we reported that hundreds of schools with G.C.E. (O/L) classes have failed to present a single student for the Examination.

Another disturbing factor is the low percentage of passes at the G.C.E. (O/L) Examination. Something more than the lack of resources should be there for the percentages to be so low. The Colombo district with better resources too has a high percentage of failures. The whole method of teaching, the curricula, the quality of teaching staff and school management all seem to be at fault.

The authorities, both administrative and political at national and provincial levels seem to pay only lip service to education. While they prefer the international schools for their children they have become a party to the collapse of the state educational system.

The education reforms that were initiated during the PA regime seem to be abandoned halfway. Valuable foreign aid remains unutilized or under-utilized. It is time to set aside partisan politics and consider education as a national priority and work out a national consensus on its development.

Madcow scare

Madcow disease is back again, this time in the United States. The only previous outbreak of madcow disease in North America was a single case at a farm in Canada in May. The first case appeared in Britain in 1986.

The disease still mystifies scientists because it is not caused by a virus, bacteria or other microbes, does not alert the immune system and can jump from species to species.

Japan and Mexico, the biggest importers of US beef, have stopped imports after the disease, formally known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, (BSE) was found in a single cow in Washington state on the US West Coast.

Beef consumers can get a form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob, a brain-wasting disease known as vCJD from eating beef products infected by BSE. At least 137 people have died of vCJD, all linked to eating beef or to having received blood or tissue transplants from vCJD patients.

Asia, with the exception of Japan, has remained free of BSE. Japan reported its first case in September 2001. Since then, every cow slaughtered there for consumption has been screened for the disease. However, Asia cannot be complacent - diseases go around swiftly in an increasingly borderless world.

Stopping beef imports from BSE-hit countries is only one solution. Intensifying international research on such diseases is also vital, so that future outbreaks may be prevented. Sri Lanka too must be on guard to prevent any outbreak of diseases such as BSE among its livestock.

Madcow exemplifies the alarming rise in diseases which first affect animals before spreading among humans. AIDS and SARS are two well-known examples. Again, the chief culprit seems to be air travel. A Shanghai resident infected with SARS can be in Toronto the next day, unwittingly transmitting the disease.

This is why international cooperation is essential to guard against deadly diseases that recognise no national boundaries. The World Health Organisation spearheaded the drive against SARS. A similar approach by is veterinary counterpart, the World Organisation for Animal Health, will be crucial in efforts to contain BSE and other such diseases.

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