Health and Education: The last mile must be a shared mile

By: Kolleen Bouchane, Director of Policy and Research, Global Business Coalition for Education

Several months ago, when I stepped down as the Director of ACTION, a well-known global health advocacy partnership, to join the A World at School and Global Business Coalition for Education teams, some of my colleagues in the health world were very surprised that I was making a leap to another sector.

But it wasn’t a leap. It was a straddle.

There is no leaving health behind for me.  I landed in health policy and advocacy via education. I visited too many schools when I first worked on education years ago with half enrollment because there was no toilet, or the school feeding programme hadn’t started yet. Sometimes children were at home looking after sick parents with TB or HIV/AIDS or out all day helping collect water. Other times, uniforms and school materials were out of the question because of family health expenses.

That children are often unable to access education, or unable to thrive in school due to their own health or the health of their family, is well understood. What seems to be less well understood is that education also saves lives and makes health interventions more sustainable.

– A child born to a literate mother is 50% more likely to survive past the age of five than a child born to an illiterate mother.

– In 2012 alone, 6.6 million children under five died of preventable causes. At least 15% of these deaths could have been prevented if all women in these countries completed primary education – a million children every year.

– If all women in these countries completed secondary education, under five-deaths would fall by 49% – 3 million young lives.

Despite these connections between health and education, most of the time we are not approaching children in a holistic way. Even the ambitious effort to achieve a ‘Grand Convergence’ and reduce infectious, maternal and child mortality rates in poor countries – put forth by The Lancet Commission on Investing in Health points out that ‘complex and entrenched political obstacles exist’ to addressing social and other determinants of health, including education. As such the health needs of the vulnerable will be most directly and expediently addressed by investments and action within the health sector.’

The Lancet Commission isn’t wrong, the obstacles to getting all children in school include amongst other things, our inability to address political complexities involving violence and conflict as well as emergencies caused by repeated shocks in communities with little or no resilience due to poverty.

So while there is perhaps some expediency in just focusing on health in the short-term we can’t finish the job with this approach. This is the exact complexity that we have to take head on to provide for the most vulnerable children in our world – children who die because they receive a vaccine but don’t have a safe place to go to the bathroom; children who die because they have clean water but are married and pregnant before their young bodies can survive child birth; children who make it through overwhelming odds to adulthood but don’t have the basic math and literacy skills they need to get a job that would enable them to feed their own children well.

The business community has made tremendous contributions to improve health around the world.  But despite more than 40% of 1,000 chief executives citing education as one of the top sustainability challenges affecting business[1] and a lack of key skills becoming a potential threat to growth,[2] corporate spending on health is 16 times greater than in education. More businesses, particularly those investing in health outcomes should be considering how education could contribute to the impact and sustainability where they are already working.

We’ve achieved a lot. But to finish the job and sustain these gains will require an entirely different level of coordination, amongst different actors including the business community.  We’ll have to all do this by ‘straddling’ sectors and addressing health and education together with all the other barriers to opportunity that keep the most vulnerable trapped in a cycle of poverty.

The last mile must be a shared mile or we will not finish the job.

To learn more about the link between health and education, read here.

Photo © Joydeep Mukherjee

photo (1)Kolleen Bouchane has been working for more than a decade with advocates in the U.S. and around the world coordinating legislative actions and campaigns at the national and international level to achieve universal access to education, essential medicine, water, sanitation and other services necessary for the realization of economic and human rights. Ms. Bouchane is currently the Director of Policy and Advocacy for the A World At School campaign and Director of Policy and Research for the Global Business Coalition for Education
Previously Ms. Bouchane served as the Director of ACTION a global partnership of advocacy organizations working to influence policy and mobilize resources to fight diseases of poverty and improve equitable access to health services based at RESULTS Educational Fund. During her tenure, ACTION played a key role in mobilizing billions for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Nutrition for Growth summit. In her role at Freshwater Action Network, then based at WaterAid UK, Ms. Bouchane supported partners from around the world to achieve the the recognition of the rights to water and sanitation at the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Ms. Bouchane served with the U.S. Army from 1993-1997 in Somalia and South Korea. She has a BA in International Studies from the Jackson School at the University of Washington and an MA in War Studies with a focus on Conflict, Security and Development from Kings College London.


[1] Accenture and UN Global Compact, The UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO Study on Sustainability 2013: Architects of a Better World, 2013,
[2] PricewaterhouseCoopers, 17th Annual Global CEO Survey: Fit for the Future—Capitalising on Global Trends, 2014,