Similarly, progress toward the Millennium Development Goal of universal education by 2015 has stopped because of a failure to reach the marginalized, including child laborers and child brides. While the public justification for all our efforts is to offer the most help to the poorest and most vulnerable, setting a universal goal without targeting the most disadvantaged is a recipe for them to be left behind. And when the next set of Millennium Development Goals — with more ambitious universal targets for learning outputs and secondary education — raise the ceiling before we have put the floor in place, then they will continue to lose out.
This weakness in the Millennium Development Goal process was foreseen by the authors of Bangladesh’s latest five-year education plan. Children in the country’s flood zone and hill areas and among all ethnic minorities, they discovered, had missed out on the country’s general progress. So they decided to target payments for education and social protections for the poor on the most marginalized, but they also set an explicit “equity goal,” resolving to close the gap in school attendance between the richest and poorest and to close the learning gap between the best- and poorest-performing areas. They understood that providing a malnourished child of illiterate parents the same level of per capita support as children from the richest homes is a prescription for inequality, and that if children with very unequal starting points were to enjoy “equivalent freedoms,” more resources had to go to those most in need. Unless a foundation of equal rights is accompanied by resources devoted to reducing inequalities, millions of the marginalized will still be left behind. Progressive universalism demands that governments and the international community deliver the resources needed to convert the right to equal treatment in health and education into real opportunity.