Post-2015 education goals need to be realistic, and will require drastic change

The UNESCO Global Monitoring Report (GMR) launched its annual report card this week on the sidelines of the World Bank and IMF spring meetings. The report presents a comprehensive, 500-page overview of education progress over the past 15 years.

So what is the verdict? Overall the report presents a mixed but rather bleak picture. Only one-third of countries achieved all measurable Education for All goals. The headline statistics paint the picture. About 121 million children and adolescents were still out of school in 2012 and the poorest children were four times more likely to be out of school. Learning deficits are huge and nearly 800 million adults are illiterate.

But how depressed should we be? What does the fact that we have not achieved the EFA goals tell us? Could more be done? Certainly. But the failure to meet these goals also tells us about the dangers of setting unrealistic targets. The EFA goals were set to be achieved in less than two decades. This would have required a rate of progress in many countries much faster than has ever been achieved in history. When we look at the numbers more closely—and recognize that many goals were not achievable in the first place—a more optimistic message of significant acceleration of progress over the past 15 years emerges. More than 34 million more children are in school now than would have been had the trends from the 1990s persisted. This acceleration should be celebrated!

Moving forward into the post-2015 era, the key question is how we can further accelerate progress while remaining realistic about what can be achieved. A number of recent studies have highlighted that the highest social returns can be found in investments in quality preprimary education, followed by primary and (lower) secondary education—not in vocational training, higher levels of education, or adult training. The SDGs should take this into account with their focus.

Yet why is it that given these fabulous returns, we have not been able to make a more successful case for investment in education? While a number of countries have increased spending, many developing countries are spending much less than the recommended 4-6 percent of GNP on education. Support from donors has been waning in recent years and less than 5 percent of official development assistance (ODA) is currently devoted to basic education (including lower secondary education). In my remarks at the GMR launch I highlighted three things that will be needed to achieve the “drastic change” the report recommends.

  1. Create stronger compacts with governments. Delivering universal preprimary, primary, and lower secondary education in 82 of the poorest countries by 2030 will cost a total of $239 billion annually between 2015 and 2030. The GMR estimates that country governments currently only cover about 40 percent of the cost (about $100 billion out of $239 billion required) and will need to increase this to 90 percent. But, in addition to spending more, countries will also need to spend better. Greater efforts will need to be directed towards ensuring that available resources are focused on those most in need. A recent study by UNICEF as well as our research in Kenya shows how public resources are often allocated in ways that are not pro-poor. Higher levels of education are often subsidized to the detriment of financing quality primary education for the poorest. In Malawi (where basic education fees have been abolished) 70 percent of resources are spent on the 10 percent that are most educated. Examples, such as the one we found in Bangladesh, where primary spending is largely pro-poor are rare.

    Fulfilling the ambition of universal basic education will also require much greater efforts from external actors. The GMR estimates that filling the financing gap will require a 300 percent increase in education aid over the next 15 years, from the current $5 billion to $22 billion on average annually. This is an ambitious proposition. Total net ODA has only increased 66 percent in real terms since 2000 and education ODA has increased more slowly, resulting in a lower share of total ODA going toward education. Even if we assumed ODA could reach the U.N. target of 0.7 percent of GNI (which would have been equivalent to an estimated $325 billion in 2013), the financing gap would still not be filled, unless donors devote a much larger share of their ODA to education.
  2. Look beyond the usual suspects. Clearly, solutions beyond more traditional funding will also be needed. In addition to improving the effectiveness and allocation of governments and donors, new sources of finance need to be found. Private actors are becoming bigger players in education in developing countries. The GMR highlights the role played by non-state actors in bringing education to the neediest, but its analysis of the potential of new forms of finance is surprisingly short. Non-state financing and philanthropic efforts in education remain low. A recent study highlighted that barely 10 percent of corporate social responsibility funds of major international corporations are spent on education, much below the recommended 20 percent. For financing goals around education to be met will require action beyond the usual ODA suspects and must include all actors. The desire to include a larger set of players in the education financing is one of the drivers behind the recent calls to establish a Global Fund for Education.
  3.  Develop a narrative around critical investments. The education sector lacks a clear narrative around what kinds of investments are critical to achieve learning at scale. Others sectors have been more successful at this. The ongoing Commission on the New Climate Economy, for example, is showing the way. It identifies key actions governments can take to achieve economic growth that is also sustainable. What are the critical investments Ministers of Finance and Education should make to achieve access with learning? The GMR highlights more than 35 policy options, but given scarce resources and even scarcer political opportunities there is a need to prioritize and create a stronger narrative about the key actions and policies governments and donors could pursue. As a recent World Bank paper points out, reviews of what works have also often reached contradicting conclusions. Better data and evidence on financing, learning outcomes, and “what works to achieve learning at scale” are needed to help answer this question. At Brookings, we are aiming to contribute to this through our Millions Learning project.

As we move beyond 2015 and a set of Sustainable Development Goals are formed to continued global development efforts, the GMR will be reinventing itself and become the Global Education Monitoring Report. Using its strong analytical approach, it could play an important role in providing the evidence to create stronger compacts, attract new players, and guide policymakers to make the critical investments needed.