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Exploring the Links Among Universal Education and Good Governance

A staff member walks down the stairs inside the Hong Kong International School in Hong Kong August 31, 2011.

This week, the Global Partnership for Education meets in Brussels with the hope of raising $3.5 billion for the education of the world’s most marginalized children. The countries furthest from Education for All (EFA) goals and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are settings of fragility. These countries have traditionally been challenged to attract funding, with overseas development assistance (ODA) channeled primarily toward “good performers” with strong records of good governance. The assumption has been that investment in education is only wise once good governance has been established.

The Global Partnership for Education’s (GPE) new investment strategy, however, turns this assumption on its head. The number of fragile states funded by GPE, for example, grew exponentially, from 1 in 2003 (when GPE was called the Fast Track Initiative) to 22 in 2013. Can investment in education strengthen governance? The GPE’s investment suggests a belief in this pathway. What does the evidence say? 

A Dynamic Relationship

Today at the GPE replenishment meetings in Brussels, director of the Brookings Center for Universal Education Rebecca Winthrop will present our exploratory analysis of the connections between universal education and good governance. We have found unmistakable relationships between universal education and good governance. The direction and strength of these relationships, however, remain murky. Does good governance lead to universal education? Does universal education lead to good governance? The answer, in both cases, is likely yes.

The direction of causality is still uncertain, but our exploratory analyses show a stronger relationship between high levels of education in the mid-1990s and good governance in recent years than vice versa.

It appears that there are multiple relationships between universal education and good governance, and that they may be cyclical and mutually reinforcing. Of particular interest are the characteristics of education systems and the content of education, which may mediate the effects of universal education on governance.

How Might Education Improve Governance?

Overall, we see the potential of universal education—for which we use primary net enrollment and primary survival rates as proxies—to act on three elements of governance: voice and accountability, control of corruption, and political instability and violence. These are the three elements of the World Bank’s Good Governance Indicators that we find to be most relevant to education. Across these domains, there are three key mechanisms by which universal education might promote good governance:

  1. The development of a more informed citizenry promotes voice and accountability. Education can be essential for citizens to access and act on information. The ability to access information relates not only to literacy rates; it also relates to other school-acquired knowledge required to comprehend and analyze information and to act civically. For example, math skills allow citizens to understand if their schools are being cheated out of funds, and general knowledge of a political system enables citizens to understand how best to influence it.


  2. The socialization into norms, including attachment to the state, helps control corruption. Education socializes citizens. It can do so in ways that lead both toward and away from good governance. It can lead people to feel greater attachment to the nation state. This greater attachment brings with it greater expectations for honest government, which is associated with increased state capacity, or strong institutions. These strong institutions are less likely to exhibit corruption (and they also feed back into strengthening education). On the other hand, the content of education can serve to distance citizens from the nation state: curriculum can reveal explicit or subtle discrimination toward particular ethnic, religious, or political groups and can increase social distance between diverse groups, while rationalizing or reproducing intergroup grievances. In this way, education can build greater mistrust within government institutions thereby perpetuating weak governance.



  3. Increases in economic equality can reduce political instability and violence. Education can lead to greater productivity, which in turn can create conditions for economic equality. Greater economic equality leads back into more demand for education, which in turn leads to stronger demands on the state by more citizens and decreased elite power, resulting in lowered corruption. Greater economic equality is also associated with political stability and lack of violence. Unequal access to education or lack of access to quality education, however, does not increase economic equality.

Not All Universal Education Is Created Equal

Across all three mechanisms, the nature of both the structure of education systems and content of teaching and learning are critical. In particular, education that is inclusive and relevant may have positive effects on governance, while education that alienates or marginalizes individuals and groups or that lacks relevance to the aspirations and possible livelihoods of students may have negative effects on governance. For example, the content and skills about which a citizenry is “informed” through education determine whether and how individuals have voice, seek accountability and counter corruption. Similarly, the inclusivity and relevance of the norms into which citizens are socialized appear to form a dividing line between strong and weak governance. Further, increases in economic equality by definition reflect inclusion so that all citizens can have voice, seek accountability, counter corruption, and work to support rule of law and against political instability and violence.

Overall, in our exploratory analyses, we see stronger correlations between governance indicators and education indicators in the mid-1990s than we do now. An important difference between these two times periods may be the quality of universal education. There is clear evidence that remarkable progress in increasing access to education since 2000 has often happened at the expense of quality. Indeed, not all universal education is created equal. Does the weaker correlation between universal education and good governance more recently reflect tangible differences in the quality of education? A research agenda going forward should be focused on determining the content and structures of education that are most likely to produce pathways to good governance.

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