About the Author Diana Harper serves with the U.S. Agency for International Development."Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."
-- James Madison, 1788
This month's historic referendum will determine southern Sudan's future, either as an independent country of part of a unified Sudan. Voting ends on Saturday, January 15, and enormous efforts have been launched by U.S., Sudanese, and international agencies to support a credible process -- that voters know how and where to vote, that the Sudanese referendum commission is equipped to carry out referendum logistics, that sufficient ballots and voting materials are available, and that poll workers and election observers are properly trained.
At the same time, the United States has continued to provide development assistance that strengthens democracy as well as demonstrates the benefits of peace. These efforts include improving health care and access to clean water, building roads and transportation infrastructure, providing microcredit loans to spur economic growth, and -- of particular importance -- increasing access to and the quality of education.
Formal education is not a prerequisite for wisdom, but it is a critical part of active participation in the democratic process. Literacy is crucial for making informed voting decisions and lobbying representatives for change. The public's ability to effectively organize and work in groups provides protection against political abuses and dictatorships. Research supports the intuition that investments in education pay returns in peace and democracy. (See a related interactive graph.)
In 2005, when Sudan ended its 22-year civil war, only 37% of southern Sudanese men and 12% of women were literate. Primary school enrollment was low, and girls in particular faced many obstacles to attending school. These obstacles included high direct and indirect costs, discriminatory attitudes and school policies, and poor access to feminine hygiene products and lack of sanitation facilities.
USAID has worked closely with the Government of Southern Sudan Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology to improve its ability to plan and implement educational reforms, increase access to primary education especially among girls, train teachers, and foster community-wide support for education.
One example of USAID's work is the opening of a school in the Blue Nile State -- a region on the north-south border of Sudan that was a major site of conflict during the civil war. The Granville-Abbas School serves 120 female students and serves as a model of girls' education in the region, with three sets of classrooms, a library, theater, and a computer center with internet access. Better education for girls leads to benefits for their families and communities including increased economic growth, reduced poverty, improved health and nutrition, and better HIV/AIDS control.
U.S. educational programs throughout Sudan helped to increase primary school enrollment from 1.1 million in 2007 to 1.4 million in 2009. In addition, U.S. programs have trained over 2,300 teachers, including many female instructors who serve as critical role models to young girls. Beyond bricks and mortar institutions, USAID has also supported radio education to help students study English, math, local languages, and life skills. In 2009 alone, the radio programs reached over 350,000 youth and adults.