Welcome Ministers! Can We Convince You to Invest More in Education?

This week, hundreds of government leaders, donors and a plethora of development activists and thinkers will descend on Washington, DC for the World Bank-IMF Spring meetings. On the agenda are critical development issues as well efforts to build international support for improving the lives of the world’s poor. Education is central to these efforts.

The clock is ticking. There are only just over 500 days left before the Millennium Development Goals end. Fifty-seven million children remain out of school and a quarter of a billion are not learning, even after having spent time in primary school. On Wednesday, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education and A World at School is organizing the 2015 Countdown Summit to draw attention to the plight of the children that are left behind without a quality education and with little chance of escaping their often desperate circumstances. The summit will coincide with the Learning for All Symposium, which will discuss the global learning crisis that is affecting a total of 250 million primary aged children. This symposium is the third in a series, with the first meeting held in conjunction with last year’s World Bank-IMF Spring meetings.

Bringing quality education to all children around the world is a tough but not insurmountable challenge. The number of primary aged children out of school has been nearly halved over the past decade, and much work has gone into identifying the barriers that keep children from getting into school and learning. These are laid out in a number of country reports that were prepared for last year’s meetings and will be summarized in a forthcoming report on the fourteen Learning for All countries. They include economic and socio-cultural barriers such as child marriage. Other major concerns are infrastructure and teacher quality, as well as weak monitoring and accountability. Solutions to removing these barriers already exist and have been studied using rigorous methods of evaluation. These solutions now need to be scaled.

Central to this will be adequate finance—which in turn will be decided by the finance ministers and donors gathering this week. The arguments for investing in education seem overwhelmingly clear, but spending has fallen far short of what is needed and is even declining in the case of foreign aid. While overall aid has grown by 6 percent between 2009 and 2012, aid to basic education fell by 16 percent globally and by 25 percent in sub-Saharan Africa! Public spending on education has increased significantly in most countries, but in 75 percent of countries it is still below the recommended 6 percent of GDP. The replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education, the sector’s only dedicated global fund, will also be discussed this week.

Education is competing with other sectors for scarce resources. In most countries, an increase in education spending in the short term will require spending less on something else. The recommendation to spend 20 percent of total public spending on education is strongly advocated, but it is much less clear what countries who are not currently meeting this goal should spend less on. Is it infrastructure, health, defense? What are the opportunity costs? The development community, and the education community, in particular, is failing to grapple with these larger questions of trade off.

Politicians and other decision makers will invest in education only if a clear impact of dollars invested can be demonstrated (preferably in the short term and compared to other investments). Fortunately, in the past few years a large number of rigorous evaluations have demonstrated the impact of specific interventions. These data will be on display for ministers this week. Truthfully, it has been harder to demonstrate that rapid scaling up of such successful pilots is equally successful at a nationwide level.   For example, a hugely successful contract teacher program in Kenya, implemented by NGOs, became much less effective once the government decided to scale it up through public institutions.  Another problem has been that data on education outcomes and spending has been hard to come by, making monitoring and evaluation tricky.

We are now in a situation to be able to say with much greater confidence what works in what context. High quality data on finance and impact are improving as more countries conduct learning assessments and expenditure tracking surveys. And lessons of successful scale-up are being learned. Thus, for example, learning-by-doing, community-based action guided by data and honest evaluations of impact can have highly positive effects on learning outcomes. Recent discussions reflecting on lessons learned since the 2004 World Development Report, Making Services Work for Poor People, have highlighted similar lessons.

The case for adequate financing for education is now convincing. Let’s hope among all the commotion of this week’s meetings, policymakers can hear the clock ticking—and act boldly.