The Path Toward Universal Education in 2010

This month, political leaders worldwide are emphasizing the stark divide between the world’s commitment to achieving universal primary education by 2015 and the reality that 72 million primary-age children remain out of school. Underlying the education gap is a significant financial resource deficit, underscored by recently released data by the OECD on donor financing and the G8’s development commitments for 2010.

Despite increasing high-level attention to universal education, the OECD found that there is an $18 billion shortfall in the commitments made by the G8 at Gleneagles and that Africa is likely to receive only $11 billion of the promised $25 billion increase in assistance from the G8 donors. While this financing gap will impact many sectors, it particularly diminishes the chances of achieving universal primary education by 2015.

Over the last decade, the share of overall development assistance going to education has remained relatively flat at 11 percent, and many of the gains in external education support have reflected the expansion of the overall aid envelope. The overall financing gap for education has been estimated by UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report to be as high as $16 billion. 

Despite these challenges, new momentum is building toward expanded investment in global education. In South Africa, President Zuma announced last week that because “education is the key to genuine freedom,” he will host a major universal education summit in June in connection with the FIFA-World Cup. In the United States, Congresswoman Nita Lowey introduced the Education for All Act that seeks to make U.S. investment in global education a top priority. Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama launched her new international focus on education by saying that “We have to confront the wrong and outdated ideas and assumptions that only certain young people deserve to be educated. . . .” 

Upcoming global summits in June may be the last chance to set the world on the right path to achieving the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015. When Canada hosted the G8 in 2002, the country played a central role in catalyzing a new financing instrument, the Education for All-Fast Track Initiative (FTI).  As part of its agenda of promoting accountability for past G8 commitments, the Canadians would be well placed to encourage the G8 to support important governance reforms to strengthen the Fast Track Initiative.

With the G-20 emerging as the leading forum for economic policymaking, it should take on a larger role in shaping and delivering these global commitments, such as universal education. The current G-20 chair, South Korea, has indicated that development issues will be included in its agenda. Emerging donors within the G-20 can become a leading force with their global education investments as well as lead by example and share lessons from their own experience moving toward universal education.

Closing the global education gap will require President Obama and the G8 to deliver on their specific commitments on development assistance and financing universal education, and the G-20 to assert its leadership in catalyzing universal education as a fundamental building block of economic growth. While recent events offer new signs of hope for global action around universal education, the coming months will demonstrate whether that hope is justified.