Web Chat: Achieving Universal Education

On August 18, David Gartner answered your questions about the difficulty in attaining universal education in a live web chat moderated by Seung Min Kim, assistant editor at POLITICO.

12:30 Seung Min Kim: Good afternoon on this rainy Wednesday in Washington. Today, we’ll be chatting with David Gartner on achieving universal education. Welcome, everyone.

12:30 [Comment From Michael: ] What are the biggest stumbling blocks to achieving universal education? How can UN countries solve these problems?

12:31 David Gartner: Among the biggest challenges to achieving universal basic education is the fact that so many girls, children living in rural areas and conflict affected countries are still not able to go to school. Around the world nearly half of these out of school children live in Africa but these challenges are also faced by girls in other parts of the world, such as South Asia.

12:31 [Comment From Frida Smith: ] How important is it to educate girls in developing countries?

12:32 David Gartner: Educating girls is one of the single most leveraged investments we have in the world today. When mothers are educated, their children are much more likely to survive past age 5 and to be well nourished. Educating girls is critical to empowering the role of women in democratic societies and promoting economic growth as well.

12:33 [Comment From Mark Allen: ] Why does universal education have so much weight in regards to the other Millennium Development Goals?

12:34 David Gartner: As we approach the Millennium Development Goal summit next month, when world leaders will gather to focus on key goals for ending global poverty, education will play an especially important role. While education represents just two of the goals: achieving universal primary education and gender equity in education, it can catalyze many of the other goals with respect to health and hunger as mentioned in the last answer.

12:34 [Comment From Paul Kruchoski: ] David, thanks for sitting down with us virtually. We hear so much about the importance of girls’ education. Yet one of the biggest problems we face is *how* to get education to girls in remote areas. What tools can we use to reach out to areas that central governments have had trouble reaching?

12:35 David Gartner: In terms of reaching girls in rural areas, there are a range of strategies that have proven successful. In Burkina Faso, for example, building “girl-friendly” schools in rural areas closer to where students live, and providing separate bathroom facilities and school meals was enormously successful in expanding enrollments of girls.

12:36 [Comment From Steve: ] What’s your prediction for the outcome of the summit next month and will it make a difference in reaching the goals?

12:37 David Gartner: It is hard to predict what will come of next month’s summit but my concern based on recent drafts of the outcome document is that there is the risk of restatements of commitments without new resources or concrete strategies to achieve universal education and the other key goals. It will require new resources from donors and a redoubling of efforts by all countries to achieve them.

12:37 [Comment From Elliott Hughes: ] While I am completely in favor of increasing investment in education as a means to help those in poverty help themselves, would you not agree that investments in education are rendered meaningless when a majority of the children in developing countries are suffering from malnutrition and therefore physically are unable to learn? Should we not, when looking at what can be done to meet the MDG targets, focus our efforts on such cross-cutting issues as nutrition?

12:38 David Gartner: Just as educating mothers can help to reduce the risk of child hunger, you are absolutely right that hungry children are much less likely to learn or even to go to school in the first place. Investments in nutrition for the youngest children, through early childhood development programs is critical as is providing school meals to encourage students to come to school and be able to learn when they get there.

12:38 [Comment From Lillian: ] What’s the status on the Global Fund for Education? Is it in progress? And is it something that will have a big impact on achieving universal education?

12:40 David Gartner: One of the keys to achieving universal education is greater investments in more effective multilateral mechanisms. President Obama pledged to erase the global primary education gap by 2015 by investing $2 billion in a Global Fund for Education. Although the President has not yet announced his plan to accomplish this, the commitment has helped to catalyze important reforms in the Education for All Fast Track Initiative which has played an important role in expanding enrollments in Africa and elsewhere and could play an even bigger role going forward.

12:40 [Comment From Julie: ] Are you familiar with the Family Grant (Bolsa Familia) program in Brazil, which pays parents a stipend in return for sending their kids to school? Would that be a viable option to increase school attendance elsewhere in the world? What other methods can be used to convince parents of the importance of enrolling their children in school?

12:42 David Gartner: In Brazil, the Bolsa Familia has been incredibly successful not just in getting children to go to school but also in expanding basic health immunizations. Similar strategies have worked elsewhere too- in Bangladesh a girls’ scholarship program nearly quadrupled girls enrollment in secondary school.

12:42 [Comment From Paul Kruchoski: ] You mentioned the EFA Fast Track Initiative. How do you evaluate the recommended reforms? Will they substantially improve the effectiveness of the FTI? Do you think they are enough to generate new investment?

12:44 David Gartner: Over the past year, the EFA Fast Track Initiative has transformed its governance structure so that today it includes an equal number of donors and developing countries and an expanded role for civil society and the private sector that is building new energy and momentum. It is strengthening its internal capacity and moving toward a more robust results framework. As a result, the Congress for the first time has included funding for it in the budget for next year.

12:44 [Comment From Joel: ] How can technology be used to develop universal education?

12:46 David Gartner: Technology is an incredibly underutilized resource in expanding education around the world. Many learning materials can be accessed on-line through efforts such as the One Laptop per Child. Nevertheless, one of the biggest challenges in Africa and elsewhere is the shortage of teachers. Millions more teachers will need to be trained, as well as new technology introduced, to achieve universal primary education.

12:46 [Comment From David Barth: ] It is currently estimated that the global financing gap required to achieve the MDGs in education could be as high as 20 billion. Obviously, this is a sum that will not be made up by donors. What is the best way to encourage governments to increase the share of their scarce budgetary resources going to education?

12:48 David Gartner: Achieving the MDGs will absolutely require higher levels of commitments by developing countries around the world. Some, like Nigeria spend far too little of their federal budget currently on education. Yet, many countries are close to the 20% budget benchmark and still have inadequate resources. In order to help with national investments, it is also crucial that the donors do their part. The G8’s commitment to doubling aid to Africa could be a crucial boost to the MDGs but the latest figures estimate a substantial shortfall.

12:48 [Comment From Carrie: ] Why are these children not able to go to school? Lack of facilities, financial ability at home to send them, no teachers? In other words, in your opinion, what are the biggest factors that are keeping these children out of school?

12:51 David Gartner: The cost barriers to going to school were one of the biggest barriers and remain a serious one. Eliminating primary school fees in countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya catalyzed major gains in enrollment. Building rural schools across Ethiopia, contributed to bringing 3 million new students into school. However, training more teachers will be key to future gains with some countries requiring as much as 10% growth each year in their teaching force to manage student growth.

12:51 [Comment From Sam: ] Can MicroFinance investments be utilized to expand educational capabilities in developing nations?

12:53 David Gartner: Microfinance is one of the best tools we have in the fight against global poverty will a phenomenal track record of success. Even in countries where school fees have been eliminated at the primary level, there is still often out of pocket costs for transportation to school, uniforms, or tutoring. Secondary school costs can be a major share of a poor family’s income. Microcredit, by helping to generate family income, can make a big difference for education.

12:53 [Comment From Francis: ] Achieving universal education is certainly important for reducing poverty, but what about the transition after education to work. If countries are educating people, but there are no jobs to go to how will people be incentivized to complete their education?

12:55 David Gartner: The transition from education to work is a major challenge in many parts of the world. Part of this challenge is simply one of creating enough jobs for new graduates. Yet, another part of the challenge is that too often students do not graduate with the skills they need for success. In one cross-country survey in Africa, the chance that a student would still be illiterate after several years of schooling was as high as 40%. More has to be done to improve learning outcomes as we expand enrollment.

12:56 [Comment From Jerry: ] Can you explain what the Education for All (and Fast Track Initiative) are?

12:57 David Gartner: Sorry I did not fully explain but the Educational for All-Fast Track Initiative is a multilateral education partnership that invests in countries with strong national education plans. In Africa, countries that have been endorsed and supported by FTI have demonstrated enrollment gains of 22%. It uses funds from donor countries to support national education strategies to achieve universal education.

12:58 [Comment From Pete: ] We talk about having children gain access to school, but what about quality once they are there? How do we accurately measure “quality” education?

12:59 David Gartner: One of the biggest challenges to improving learning outcomes is getting a better handle on what is the current situation of quality in schools. In India, a dynamic NGO named Pratham went across the country and surveyed children to find out if they could read. Its surveys then became a way to track and compare state governments in India and the results helped to catalyze many of these states to enter into partnerships with Pratham to improve reading and learning.

1:00 [Comment From Allison: ] With regard to developing countries increasing their investment in education, we’ve heard in the past that IMF policies have worked against increasing investment. Where do we stand in getting exemptions for spending limits in the education (and health) sectors in countries dependent on IMF stamps-of-approval?

1:02 David Gartner: One of the challenges to expanding domestic resources for education in the past has been constraints on overall budget expenditures by governments under programs with international institutions, including the International Monetary Fund. With the financial crisis this may emerge as a bigger challenge once again. Recently the United States passed a law that required the US representative to the IMF to oppose programs that would limit spending on education and this may contribute to greater flexibility in this area.

1:03 [Comment From Sally: ] How effective is US aid to developing countries when it comes to education? Are we incentivizing the right things?

1:05 David Gartner: With strong leadership from the Congress, and especially from Representative Nita Lowey, US investments in education have grown substantially over the last decade. In my view, one of the biggest current challenges facing US education assistance is that not enough is directed to the regions of the world where the most children are out of school. For example, Africa has just under half of all out of school children at the primary school level but receives less than one-quarter of current US assistance for basic education.

1:06 [Comment From Guest: ] You noted the importance of investing in child nutrition … Have you seen proven strategies for schools and communities to achieve such funding?

1:08 David Gartner: There are a range of strategies that can help when it comes to nutrition in the context of schools. Simply providing a school lunch or breakfast, something we also do here in the United States, can make a big difference in terms of the ability of students to focus and learn. Some schools also provide students with food to take home given that many of these children will not eat much after school otherwise. Beyond school interventions, investing in early childhood development to ensure that children have the food they need as their brains grow is critical to future success.

1:08 [Comment From Rachel W.: ] What do you see as the main obstacles for achieving universal education in the future, and what can we do to overcome them?

1:10 David Gartner: It is worth remembering that there has been enormous progress in many parts of the world over the last decade at expanding primary enrollment and promoting greater gender equity. What is needed now is a greater focus on the regions and populations who have still not been reached, greater attention and focus on learning outcomes, and increasing attention to the ceiling that many girls especially face in going beyond primary to secondary education.

1:10 [Comment From Erica: ] Can you give examples of effective policies developing countries have created to strengthen the educational framework

1:12 [Comment From Sally: ] Can you provide some information on the philanthropies working in this area and how effective they have been?

1:14 David Gartner: Private funders, including foundations and individuals, have played an important role in this arena and could play an even bigger role going forward. Beyond government investments, individual families still pay a great deal for there children to go to school. Remittances, or money sent back home from family members working abroad is a big source. Private foundations, such as Hewlett, have helped bring greater focus to issues of quality and learning outcomes in the developing world.

1:17 David Gartner: In terms of Erica’s question, I would highlight different countries for different dimensions of progress. In terms of pure numerical gains in enrollment, Ethiopia stands out because of its focus on building rural schools. In terms of moving toward universal primary, Tanzania stands out in part because of its movement away from fees for primary school. In terms of improving gender equity, Bangladesh stands out because of its investment in opportunities for girls especially at the secondary level through targeted scholarships.

1:17 [Comment From Bill in Virginia: ] Why should average Americans care, or have their tax dollars spent, on educating children in countries that don’t set that as a priority? Shouldn’t we be investing in our own crumbling schools?

1:21 David Gartner: The idea of universal public education has deep roots in American history. It was a pipedream in the 19th century when Horace Mann and others said that it was key to democracy and prosperity. It is no less key to the democracy and prosperity of the increasingly small world in which we live. The level of investment in all foreign assistance is much less than 1% of the US budget and the investments in education around the world is a tiny fraction of that. So while I absolutely agree that we need to do more to invest in education in the United States, I don’t agree that we can’t do so and support those countries that are too poor to achieve universal education on their own. That said, there are some countries that aren’t doing enough on their own and we absolutely need to push them to do so.

1:21 [Comment From Roger: ] Also will there be discussion of education at the UN General Assembly in September?

1:23 David Gartner: In September, there will be a gathering of world leaders at the United Nations that will focus on all of the Millennium Development Goals. There will be several side events, led by the Global Campaign for Education, UNESCO/UNICEF, and other groups that will particularly highlight education.

The opportunity for leading countries is to give a major spotlight to education by making clear how they will scale up investments, strengthen national strategies and achieve universal education.

1:24 [Comment From Eileen: ] How can Congress and the Obama administration ensure access to quality education for all children, including early childhood development and education, teacher quality, and inclusive education (language, minorities, indigenous, disabilities)?

1:26 David Gartner: At the MDG Summit next month, or at the meeting of G20 leaders in November, the President could join with other world leaders to chart a path to achieve universal quality education. The Congress, after hearing from a wide range of voices, is now investing in multilateral mechanisms. Yet, in order to catalyze the level of global effort that is needed, it will take Presidential leadership in the context of these upcoming world forums.

1:27 [Comment From Roger: ] You’ve noted a couple of times the regional disparities. Is the UN looking at this issue? And/or are other countries adjusting their giving to focus more on Africa?

1:30 David Gartner: The past decade has witnessed progress around the world, but as your questions suggests, some regions had much farther to go at the beginning.

The regions facing the greatest challenges at this point are Africa (especially West and Central Africa) and South Asia in terms of out of school students.

The UK for example gives about twice as much to Africa as a share of its investments and those countries that are investing multilaterally similarly give more to Africa because that is where the biggest out of school populations are.

1:30 Seung Min Kim: And that’s it for us — thanks for joining us this week and for the great questions, and a special thank you to David for his responses.