Julia Gillard is the new board chair at the Global Partnership for Education, which is working to get the world’s poorest children into school. It’s the first major role for the former Australian prime minister since leaving politics. Al Jazeera America’s Ray Suarez spoke to her about her tenure as the first woman to lead the Australian government — and about the message she wanted to send to young women.
Ray Suarez: For decades now, the world has been preaching to itself about the value of education. Do you still have to preach the gospel of education?
Julia Gillard: I don’t think we have to preach the gospel. I think people understand that education changes lives and that it changes the path of countries. More educated people, higher skills, a more prosperous economy. What we’ve got to do is get out and not only talk about that gospel but implement it on the ground so that we are changing children’s lives. And whilst a lot of progress is being made, and we should be congratulating ourselves about that, there is so much more to do, which is why I’m really excited to have the opportunity to chair the Global Partnership for Education and to make a difference to the children who are still out of school and the children who are in school, that the quality of their learning isn’t really high enough. They’re not coming out of school able to read or write or do math.
So, what are the impediments?
Well, one of the things that’s stopping kids getting education is the need to increase the aid effort. We’ve actually seen the amount of aid money going into education go backwards by more than 6 percent. I think that’s a very concerning statistic when we know, if we’re going to make sustainable change, that it is all about education for the future. So the Global Partnership for Education, which has, and continues to, work with almost 60 countries around the world and has made a real difference, will be out and about, knocking on doors in coming months, as we move towards our replenishment round, to try and galvanize more effort into education. I think there’s been a lot of momentum generated. A lot of things have happened. We’ve got more kids in school, more girls in school. Developing countries are putting more of their budget into education. We’re working in fragile and conflict-affected areas and making a difference.
I was interested to see that you had said, earlier in your career, that in fact foreign affairs was interesting but not your passion. You prefer the Education Ministry. But is that the place where you become an international personality? If we look, there are 50 nations in Africa, three dozen in Asia, is that where people are going to say, “Yes, that’s where things are happening, that’s where I want to be”?
I think increasingly they are, and that was my personal experience as prime minister. I would go to a lot of countries, representing Australia. I’d go to a lot of multilateral meetings. And I can certainly tell you that, apart from the important discussions about the global economy and peace-and-security issues, leaders, when they got together, did talk about education and wanted to compare policies and outcomes and how you were going with your schooling system, as opposed to how they were going. And that’s why there’s such interest in international testing. Everybody’s looking over their shoulder to see whether or not their education system is keeping up. And I managed to specialize, in the end, in not only traveling overseas, representing my nation, but making sure that I went to a school in the country I was visiting. And there’s no better place to get a real feel of how a country is going than visiting a local school.
Is it only on a second look that sometimes we find that nations are all gung ho for education, but then, when you start to ask probing questions, it turns out, “Oh, I didn’t know that you meant including this ethnic minority. I didn’t know that you meant girls, too. I didn’t know that you meant this region that we normally ignore and disempower.” Is it important to remind countries that are revamping their systems that everybody has got to be in the game?
It’s important to remind all of us that everybody has got to be in the game. There are 57 million children around the world who don’t get to go to school. Some of them are in ethnic minorities that are discriminated against. Many of them are girls. And many of them are children in fragile and conflict-affected zones. And the world made them a promise that we would get universal primary-school education for them, and we’ve got to make good on that promise.
Is it a battle sometimes? I mean, there are places where it is just understood — it’s in the social fabric — that certain people just don’t get the benefits, even of a well-functioning state. We don’t bother to give it to them. We don’t search them out to make sure that hard-to-serve communities are reached by these things.
I think that there’s a set of attitudes we’ve got to work through — some cultural predispositions, some prejudices — and some economic equations. I mean, for families in some of the poorest parts of the world, they’d be making choices as to whether or not children are contributing to the labor of the family — getting water, collecting firewood — or going to school. And we’ve got to make sure that that economic equation stacks up, in the sense that the kids are going to school and getting a good education so that they come out of school able to read and write and do math and, consequently, get other work that better supports the family. Which is why access is so important, but so is lifting quality. So we’ve got 57 million kids who don’t get to go to school. We’ve got about 250 million kids who go to school but still don’t come out with even the most basic of skills, and that’s why we’ve got to be focusing on quality as well.
A lot of governments have given individual families incentives to keep their children in school. And the amount of compensation goes up as they advance through their school careers. Does opportunity necessarily follow the educated?
It’s a circle, and we’ve got to be making sure all parts of it are there. The global economy has to continue to grow. And of course, we had the great shock of the global financial crisis, and many parts of the world are still recovering. We’ve got to have global growth. And then, within global growth, each individual nation has to be aiming for economic growth and economic development, to be creating the opportunities for their people, their workforce, to get on and to get ahead. But those nations are not going to attract capital or investment or economic activity if they can’t offer a workforce with the skills to do the jobs, which is why educating the population will help attract that economic activity and then, for the life of individuals, will mean that there’s a pathway beyond schooling, into something that pays well and helps them create a better life.
Is there enough of an effective dialogue between that very posh conference room in the ministry and the village, where they’re deciding whether or not to let their girl continue past primary school, whether or not they’re thinking it’s worth it to scrape together the fees for secondary school for their son?
The Global Partnership works as a donor of funds. But in order to have funds flow, a developing country has to bring together everyone who’s got a stake in education, develop an education-sector plan that everybody is buying into, and they’ve got to be lifting their own efforts as well. And the Global Partnership for Education has enjoyed success at that in the countries where we’ve worked. What you see is that the amount of money going into education, its share increases by 10 percent of GDP. Now, that’s a fantastic achievement that you’ve not only got donor funds but you’ve got local funds coming together in a combined education plan. So you don’t get some of the problems that people hear about, where someone’s bought the computers and someone’s built the classroom and someone’s got the textbooks, but actually putting it all together, it doesn’t work, it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t integrate and it doesn’t help educate children.
Are the governments that have been giving you money, in the donor parts of the world, ready to pony up at a time when we’ve just come through a bunch of years that have been very difficult in the ministries of finance in these various capitals?
I am certainly aware, as a former government leader, that there are many finance ministers around the world who have gone rapidly gray after the global financial crisis and that it’s not easy for the governments. But what we’re actually asking for is a better share for education and a better focus on education out of aid. Aid dollars are actually growing again. There was a period when they went down as a result of the global financial crisis, but they’re growing again. But even in a growing situation, the amount going to education has gone backwards. So we need a better focus on education, because it’s the best way of making sustainable long-term change.
There are countries that we traditionally think of as needing the rest of the world’s help that are actually doing pretty well and creating new middle classes in their societies, spinning off wealth. Do we have to take another look at the map of the world and ask for a little more help from the Brazils, the Mexicos, the Chinas — places that used to be net aid recipients that maybe now can be donating to the global kitty?
Well, certainly, yeah, I would think any nation with the capacity to give should be giving, and we’ve got to be very rigorous.
Let’s talk a little bit more about China, because Australia, while through history and culture has been oriented to Western Europe, you’re very much an Asian economy and an Asian-oriented economy, and that probably took a shift inside the mind of Australia about who you were and where you were on the globe.
Yes, it did, and it was a shift originally led by the Hawke and Keating Labor governments — Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Prime Minister Paul Keating. We increasingly engaged economically with our region of the world, led to the creation of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), the community of nations in the Asia-Pacific coming together to talk through economic questions. And here we are, all those years later. And under my prime ministership, we sharpened that focus by having a whole-of-nation, whole-of-government policy paper called “Australia in the Asian Century,” looking across the 100 years to come, at the remarkable growth we will see in our region of the world, and its rising economic power. So we were very conscious of the shifting economic weight and strategic weight of the world in which we live, and Australia’s place in that and the great opportunities that can flow from it.
Do you think Australia has a lesson to teach to the United States as it talks about tilting toward Asia, refocusing not necessarily away from Europe but perhaps taking a wider view of the world? China is a big player now, and I think America’s associations are still very heavily pitched across the Atlantic.
I was very happy, as prime minister, to welcome President Obama to Australia. He spoke in our Parliament House, and he spoke at the time that the United States was first articulating the doctrine of the pivot or the rebalance — whatever terminology you want to use — towards Asia. And it seemed to me a very smart move and was followed up by a lot of activity. I mean, the U.S. has always been deeply engaged in our region of the world, but it was clearly a conscious foreign-policy decision to strengthen that engagement even more. And in my experience, that has meant a very deep and sophisticated engagement with China, as China rises in our region, and that starts to shape and change the world’s history and the strategic balances in our part of the world.
We’ve talked, from time to time through this conversation, about your time as prime minister. You’re at the moment a recovering politician. Does it take a while to actually get used to being a regular person again?
Oh, look, it’s got its delights, as well as its regrets, I suppose. There’s a lot that’s bittersweet about moving out of politics. Of course, you miss the opportunity that politics gives you and government gives you to make meaningful change, to have the direct power and ability to do that. So, of course, there are public-policy things I would still have liked to have done in Australia and continued in politics to do. But that wasn’t to be, and so there is the life beyond. And I’m very much enjoying taking some of the skills and things I learned from politics into different ways of working, including becoming the chair of the Global Partnership for Education. And it is nice to be able to travel in a more informal way and wander down city streets by yourself and some of the things that you didn’t get to do when you were in politics.
A lot of countries around the world have had heads of government or heads of state who are women — elected women. We haven’t had that yet in the United States. Maybe we’re a little bit behind the curve. But have you had a chance to think about what it means to be a woman in power, and how so many welcome that and so many are still a little put off by it?
I think our world is undergoing a change about gender equality and more women going into politics. I think it’s important that we see more women going into politics for the future. If you believe, as I do, that merit is equally distributed between the sexes, then we should see our national leaders being around half men, half women. If we’re going to get there, then we’ve got to fix a series of things, like girls’ education, because if you don’t get that foundation stone, then you’re never going to get equal outcomes.
Well, education is changing the nature of who can aspire to political leadership, isn’t it?
I think that’s true. And if we are looking at some of the poorest countries in the world, then we’re only going to see women come through and take their equal place in business, in politics, in law, in every walk of life, if we get education there and equal for girl children.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
This episode aired Sunday, March 2, at 7p ET/4p PT.