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Economic ladder

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Indonesia is on track to meet United Nations development goals for compulsive education and mass literacy, but millions of teenage dropouts still threaten the nation’s economic competitiveness.

Stronger education and literacy would help Southeast Asia’s largest country at 247 million people compete against neighbors for foreign investment. Multinationals see Indonesia as a place to make cars, open mines, or produce palm oil, while investments dependent on white-collar labor end up in parts of Asia with stronger education.

“We have a high literacy rate according to our government, but the fact is that kids 12 to 18 keep dropping off,” says Veronica Colondam, chief executive officer of the YCAB Foundation. Her Jakarta-based nongovernmental organization is helping Indonesia reach its UN millennium development goals.

“Literacy rate may increase but it doesn’t mean everyone gets enough education,” she adds.

According to the United Nations Development Program, about 95 percent of Indonesian children enroll in primary schools and 95 percent of people ages 15 to 24 can read. Those figures are consistent with the UN development goals.

Officials in Jakarta have sought improvements since 2012 by extending compulsory education from nine to 12 years in stages through 2014. About 50 million people attend primary and secondary schools in the country.

But half of Indonesian children are not in class, Ms. Colondam estimates. Some live in parts of Indonesia with no schools, some lack cash for transportation or meals during the school day and others are expected to work for their families.

From 1 million to 3 million students between 12 and 18 drop out every year, usually to work for impoverished parents, Colondam says. The government calls adult illiteracy a major cause of poverty, which affects about 12 percent of the population.

“Parents won’t be supportive of the idea of going to school because they would rather have their kids help them with income of the day,” she says. “We give people free education, but they’re not coming to school.”