Boris Johnson has said investment in global education is a “Swiss army knife” for solving “virtually every problem that afflicts humanity”.
Speaking at a summit attended by a host of developing world leaders, the Prime Minister said he was “proud” the UK had pledged £430 million last month to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) in the face of “difficult financial circumstances” after the coronavirus pandemic.
He described the contribution as a “hell of a lot”, despite critics saying it falls short of what is required to fix the global education “crisis”.
The GPE campaign, which aims to secure at least five billion US dollars (£3.6 billion) over the next five years, is designed to help 175 million girls and boys in up to 90 countries.
Closing the two-day Global Education Summit in south-west London, the Prime Minister said education has the rare ability to be the “universal cure” for preventing the “ignorance” that leads to terrorism and war.
He described the funds raised by the GPE as “the silver bullet”, adding: “This is the magic potion, this is the panacea, this is the universal cure, this is the Swiss army knife, complete with Allen key and screwdriver and everything else, that can solve virtually every problem that afflicts humanity.
“I’m absolutely serious. If you educate the world properly, fairly, then of course you end a great natural injustice but you also… perform the most fantastic benefits for humanity.
“You lift life expectancy, you lift GDP, you deal with infant mortality, and if you educate people properly in the way that they deserve, then, of course, you help to end all kinds of ignorance and prejudice.
“By educating people, you help to end all the things that ignorance and prejudice helps to create, so you deal with terrorism and war and extremism, and you help people to tackle climate change.”
The Conservative Party leader also shared a moment from his own childhood, remembering a teacher who inspired him.
He said the teacher, named Mr Fox, took him to the school library when he was about 10 and encouraged him to read books, an experience that made a “fantastic and lasting difference on my life”.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who was co-hosting the summit with the UK, described the gathering as a “watershed” moment that would “avert an education catastrophe” caused by Covid-19.
But global children’s charity Plan International UK was critical of the summit for falling a billion dollars (£716 million) short of its 5 billion dollar target.
The charity said the UK’s contribution was “well below” the £600 million called for by experts.
Chief executive Rose Caldwell said: “By missing their own funding target, donor governments have failed to grasp the scale of the global education crisis.
“As co-host of the summit, the Prime Minister has trumpeted his own commitment to girls’ education even while cutting the overall aid budget. It is little surprise that he has struggled to inspire other governments.”
Mr Johnson’s commitment to the GPE in June came against the backdrop of a £4 billion aid cut by his Government, despite warnings that it would affect education projects.
The UK Government is allocating 0.5% of gross national income on official development assistance rather than the 0.7% pledged in the Tories’ 2019 general election manifesto.
It argues the reduction is temporary and has been implemented due to the economic hit caused by Covid-19, although charities fear the cut could be indefinite.
In his opening remarks, Mr Johnson noted how “wonderful” it was that coronavirus vaccines had “liberated us” to be able to attend international conferences again.
Hundreds of people attended the event in Battersea Park, with proof of a negative coronavirus test required and attendees asked to wear masks, while seating was positioned apart in the auditorium.