At a Crossroads in Copenhagen: The Future of Financing for Global Education

Not all international gatherings get the attention they deserve. Next week, governments from around the world will meet in Copenhagen, Denmark to decide on aid levels for the Global Partnership on Education. You probably won’t read about it in the media. The outcomes won’t register in financial markets. But for the millions of children in the world’s poorest countries, this is a summit that matters.

The Global Partnership on Education is the world’s main source of multilateral aid for basic education. Currently housed in the World Bank, but governed through a wider partnership of U.N. agencies, donors, developing country governments and representatives of civil society, it provides grants to countries to support quality universal primary education. Financial commitments made in Copenhagen will set the budget for the next three years.

Crowded as the international development agenda may be, the state of education merits urgent attention. Progress toward the 2015 Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education has slipped in the past few years. With 67 million primary school age children out of school, along with an even greater number of adolescents, the international community needs to act now if the promise of education for all is to be kept alive.

But getting children into school is just one part of the equation. The abysmal state of learning in many countries means that as many as 200 million children will probably leave primary school unable to read, write or do basic math. As highlighted in a recent Brookings report, all of this adds up to a global crisis in learning.

Failure to respond to the learning crisis will have grave consequences. Education is one of the most powerful drivers of progress in areas such as nutrition, child survival and maternal health. It is also an engine of economic growth, innovation and employment creation.

At risk of understatement, the backdrop to the financial replenishment of the Global Partnership on Education is not propitious. Donors have not responded effectively to the global learning crisis and development assistance budgets are under pressure. Aid levels for education in the poorest countries have stagnated at less than $3 billion—far short of the $16 billion needed to achieve the targeted goals. To make matters worse, several bilateral major donors—including the host country, Denmark, as well as the Netherlands, Spain and the United States—are heading to Copenhagen having recently announced cuts in their aid budgets for global education. Meanwhile, the World Bank has allowed International Development Association (IDA) support for primary education in sub-Saharan Africa, the region that has furthest to travel, to fall to just $157 million in fiscal year 2011 (compared to an annual average of $202 million between fiscal years 2005 and 2009)—with 2010 and 2011 primary education financing at the lowest level since 2000-2001.

The agendas of the G-8 and the G-20 are dominated by the ongoing crisis in the euro-zone, recession and global imbalances. Yet the Copenhagen meeting is also an opportunity for donors to step up to the plate, demonstrate leadership and deliver on the education promise made to the world’s poorest children.

So what needs to happen? The Global Partnership for Education has called for commitments of $2.5 billion for its pooled fund, or around $600 million annually, but the response has not been encouraging. While 15 out of 22 donors have accepted the invitation to attend the conference, current estimates indicate that just $1.5 billion will be committed.

The United States is the only G-7 country that does not provide support. Given Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s leadership role on girls’ education and America’s strategic interest in seeing a broad expansion of educational opportunity, this makes little sense. And at least 69 members of the U.S. House of Representatives agree, having sent a letter to Secretary Clinton urging the U.S. to make a strong commitment. France and Germany have provided derisory levels of support to the fund. The United States should offer to come into the Global Partnership as a financial partner with an initial pledge of $375 million over three years, subject to France and Germany making matching pledges. As the current president of the G-20, France should take the lead role in brokering a deal.

The World Bank is also well-placed to provide leadership. Last year, World Bank President Robert Zoellick pledged to increase IDA support for basic education by $750 million annually to 2015. Using the 2008-2010 commitment levels as a benchmark, this implies average IDA spending of around $1.2 billion annually without taking into account any new commitments at Copenhagen. Early signs have not been encouraging. IDA commitments for basic education fell sharply in 2011. According to the World Bank, this reflects a lack of demand from developing country governments. If that is the case, the World Bank should go to Copenhagen with a creative solution for channeling IDA grants through the Global Partnership.

Making a success of the financial replenishment meeting in Copenhagen should be seen as a first step toward a more ambitious global agenda. Recent governance reforms have made the Global Partnership on Education a more effective body. But far more needs to be done. In contrast to the global funds for health, the Global Partnership on Education does not utilize a financing window for the private sector, depriving the partnership of a source of innovation and dynamism. Some of the countries with greatest needs—notably those affected by conflict—are not even covered. And disbursement rates to some countries have been far too slow, although this has been improving.

Looking foward, the Global Partnership for Education needs to demonstrate a real value-added in the aid architecture. It should have an unremitting focus on creating incentives for policies that tackle education inequalities, strengthen learning outcomes and build national capacity. It needs to become a hub for innovation and flexible responses to real problems. And it has to reflect a level of ambition commensurate with the scale of the education challenge. Some commentators argue that this will take more fundamental reforms. Former British prime minister, Gordon Brown, and Australian foreign-minister, Kevin Rudd, have both called for the Global Partnership for Education to be reconstituted as an independent organization, building on the model adopted by the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS and the Global Alliance for Vaccines.

With less than four years to 2015, the Copenhagen meeting should concentrate the minds of donors. A successful replenishment could provide the springboard for a renewed drive toward the education for all goals. Small investments of aid could yield dramatic advances. The question is not so much whether we can afford the investments but rather whether we can afford not to make them.