Southern Perspectives on Learning and Equity in the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda

On December 11, the United Nations (UN) hosted the sixth session of the intergovernmental Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG). This session of the OWG served as a key opportunity for civil society voices from the Global South to inform policy discussions on the role of education in the post-2015 agenda. Though no specific goals have yet been determined, a consensus has emerged that improving learning should be at the center of the next development framework, including a focus on access to equitable learning opportunities.

Education experts from sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America shared recommendations at a side event arranged to promote an ambitious shift from the current Millennium Development Goal (MDG)—that focuses strictly on access to primary school—to a post-2015 education goal that would focus on access to equitable education and lifelong learning. Highlighting the problem of youth unemployment, Ambassador Csaba Kőrösi, co-chair of the OWG and permanent representative of the Republic of Hungary to the UN, called for not only keeping young people in the classroom but also making sure that the knowledge taught is applicable for the job market and society. Overall, there was broad consensus that learning must encompass not only literacy and numeracy, but also transferable skills like critical thinking, problem-solving and civic values—skills that prepare young people for the workforce and to be active, productive members of their communities. This shift will also require more support and capacity-building to enable education systems, teachers, parents and caregivers to better collect, disaggregate and analyze data on learning and identify the accompanying actions needed to improve learning outcomes in all countries.

Panelists from Colombia, Pakistan and Nigeria shared their experiences in working to improve learning outcomes and related proposals for the post-2015 agenda. Dr. Judith Ann Walker, co-founder and executive director of the Development Research & Projects Centre of Nigeria and a Brookings Echidna Global Scholar, called for the measurement of education inequality within countries, including the development of a regional parity index that goes beyond urban and rural.  Moreover, she called for measurement of not only access to and completion of school, but also of learning outcomes through nationally applied metrics, drawing upon the recommendations of the Learning Measurement Task Force on improving learning outcomes worldwide.

Some cities have already begun working towards this goal of access plus equitable learning. The subsecretary of education for the City of Bogotá, Patricia Buriticá, shared the experience of Colombia’s capital city, where the government has been combining access to schools with “integral learning,” which includes math, natural sciences, mother-tongue literacy and a second language, social science, citizenship education, analytic skills, arts and sports. The city also focuses on offering good-quality preschool and inclusive education, strengthening secondary education and widening access to higher education. To support these efforts, the Bogotá government doubled its budget for education, spending an additional billion dollars per year in order to achieve public education excellence for all children and youth. Subsecretary Buriticá explained that the government believes this investment will pay off; with the most qualified human talent in the country, Bogotá will also have a stronger economy and government. This notion of viewing education spending as an essential long-term investment was echoed both by Ambassador Guilherme Patriota, Brazil’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, and Ambassador Kőrösi.

The OWG event also showcased progress toward the goal of access plus equitable learning in Pakistan. Baela Raza Jamil, director of programs at Idara-e-Taleem-o-Agahi, spoke about the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), a citizens’ learning and accountability initiative that fills the gap in quality educational data by providing accurate, comprehensive and easy-to-understand disaggregated data across Pakistani households, villages, districts and provinces. Through household assessments carried out by citizens, ASER provides reliable data on children’s basic learning, compares the change in levels of learning from the previous year, interprets these results and uses them to affect public action and policy decisions at various levels. Reaching 251,444 children in 82,521 households, 4,033 villages, and 4,226 urban blocks in 2012, ASER’s results are shared with decision-makers to stimulate national debate and action. But ASER also takes the critical step of bringing the results back to their primary constituency of parents and communities to discuss and determine bottom-up action that can improve learning. As Dr. Raza Jamil explained at the event, “such a large data set is powerful because it renders data by geography, gender, income, and more. It is powerful and empowering for citizens to understand what this means; if it isn’t a wake up call for them, it won’t be a wake up call for the state.” If the goal of access to equitable, quality education and learning is to be attained globally, the post-2015 framework must be supported by reliable data and stronger accountability to children, parents, caregivers and communitiesThese stakeholders are uniquely positioned to hold education providers to account for learning, both through direct accountability relationships and through feedback to district and national-level duty-bearers.

Next Steps for the Post-2015 Process and the Education Community

The strategies and recommendations voiced on this panel can help to inform the post-2015 dialogue at national, regional and global levels in 2014. In advance of the beginning of inter-governmental negotiations at the UN General Assembly meeting in September 2014, the following four processes will be in play:

  1. The Open Working Group will continue its work, gathering input until February 2014 and then, starting in March, negotiate a text for the new goals, which it will to present to the UN General Assembly in September 2014.
  2. The Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing will be discussing how governments and others will fund the post-2015 agenda, also submitting its report to the UN General Assembly in September 2014.
  3. The UN’s One Secretariat on Post-2015 will lead a new round of national, regional and global consultations focused on how to make the post-2015 agenda work, which will enable diverse stakeholders to share concrete strategies and models for implementing the post-2015 agenda, including strengthening capacities and institutions; participatory monitoring, existing and new forms of accountability; and partnerships with civil society and other actors.
  4. An additional set of high-level events and thematic debates on “The Post-2015 Development Agenda – Setting the Stage” will be hosted by the President of the General Assembly on the themes of the role that women, the young and civil society play in the new development agenda (March 6-7); the role of partnerships (April 8-9); ensuring stable and peaceful societies (April 24-25), and others.

This roadmap is important, as it provides clarity on the way that the global negotiations will proceed in advance of the final phase of UN member state negotiations, which will culminate in a summit at head-of-state level in September 2015 for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda. This roadmap should give the education community an opportunity to engage with these key processes. In terms of informing the post-2015 discussions moving forward, it is now time for the education community to refine the WHAT and focus in on the HOW.

In terms of refining the WHAT, this means that the education community needs to speak with one voice about what exactly we mean by learning and to put forward concrete targets and indicators for measuring learning. Fortunately, the education community has already begun this work through the Learning Measurement Task Force (LMTF), which has put forward a broad vision of learning represented by seven globally tracked indicators as a comprehensive package for member state representatives and other stakeholders to use in the post-2015 discussions (as well as outside of it, such as within Education for All discussions). The next step for the task force is to take collective action to develop the indicators and measures to track the seven areas globally, which will be completed in time for the post-2015 agenda implementation.

In terms of focusing in on the HOW, the education community must effectively communicate to policymakers at national, regional and global levels that an access plus learning agenda is feasible and share concrete evidence of where this is working and how. Much of the assessment data generated thus far on learning has been used effectively to communicate that education systems are not working in terms of improving learning. However, in the next phase of post-2015 negotiations with member states and post-2015 policymakers, the education community needs to use evidence to highlight what is working and to provide concrete strategies for achieving access to equitable, quality education and learning so that international community can begin to work toward not only the world we want to see post-2015, but also the world we need to see now.