Get­ting uni­ver­sal education right

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The United Na­tions is ex­pected to adopt the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals, 17 goals and 169 tar­gets that will guide in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment ef­forts over the next 15 years. The ob­jec­tives are am­bi­tious; they in­clude ef­forts to end hunger and poverty, re­duce eco­nomic in­equal­ity, achieve gen­der eq­uity, com­bat cli­mate change, pro­mote sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment, and im­prove in­fra­struc­ture, san­i­ta­tion, health, and education. And yet, if the ef­forts cov­ered by this last goal – education – are any guide, it will take more than prom­ises to en­sure that the SDGs are achieved.

Two of the eight Mil­len­nium De­vel­op­ment Goals (MDGs) – the global frame­work that pre­ceded the SDGs – tar­geted education. One was to at­tain uni­ver­sal pri­mary education (UPE) and the other to reach gen­der par­ity in en­roll­ment. Nei­ther was achieved by the tar­get date of 2015.

The his­tory of bro­ken prom­ises goes back much fur­ther. At­tain­ing UPE has been pledged by par­tic­i­pants at in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ences since the 1960s, and both goals were part of the 155-coun­try Education for All (EFA) com­pact that was signed in 1990 with a tar­get date of 2000. Mid­way through that decade, how­ever, in a rel­a­tively se­cret process, th­ese and other EFA goals were un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously post­poned un­til 2015.

Today, 58 mil­lion chil­dren do not at­tend pri­mary school, and even more are out of school at the se­condary level. The SDGs will kick the can down the road once again, post­pon­ing UPE and other goals to 2030.

The most fun­da­men­tal rea­son why UPE and other education goals have not been achieved is the un­will­ing­ness of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to sup­ply the nec­es­sary re­sources. UPE has been within reach for decades. But stud­ies of do­mes­tic fi­nanc­ing and in­ter­na­tional donor­coun­try con­tri­bu­tions (of­fi­cial de­vel­op­ment as­sis­tance) re­vealed that an­nual spend­ing to­ward the 2015 education MDGs and EFA goals fell $22 bln short of what would have been needed. The same stud­ies project a $39 bln an­nual short­fall in ef­forts to at­tain the 2030 education SDGs.

At the 2000 fol­low-up meet­ing to EFA in Dakar, James Wolfen­sohn, then-Pres­i­dent of the World Bank, pledged that no coun­try com­mit­ted to at­tain­ing the EFA goals would be kept from meet­ing them by a lack of fi­nance. The World Bank re­neged on that prom­ise. Af­ter a few years, it set up the Fast Track Ini­tia­tive in an at­tempt to re­spond to the prom­ise made in Dakar, but FTI was plagued by prob­lems and a lack of suf­fi­cient re­sources. FTI was re­vamped and trans­formed into the Global Part­ner­ship for Education, but, to date, donor fi­nanc­ing to­tals only about $500 mln an­nu­ally, or 80 times less than what will be needed to achieve the education SDGs.

Given cur­rent ef­forts, pro­jec­tions in­di­cate that UPE will not be achieved un­til 2086, if then. While there is talk of de­vel­op­ing in­no­va­tive fi­nanc­ing mech­a­nisms, stud­ies of pri­vate-sec­tor con­tri­bu­tions have shown th­ese ef­forts to be small-scale, self-in­ter­ested, un­co­or­di­nated, and mis­di­rected; bil­lion­aire phi­lan­thropists have put rel­a­tively lit­tle money into education. It should be noted that no one has re­newed Wolfen­sohn’s EFA pledge with re­spect to the SDGs.

Given this dis­mal state of af­fairs, much at­ten­tion is be­ing fo­cused on pri­vate schools, in the hope that they will take up the slack. Un­til re­cently, pri­vate school­ing has been mostly for the rel­a­tively rich. But there has been an ex­pan­sion of what have been called Low Fee Pri­vate Schools (LFPS). Mul­ti­lat­eral agen­cies like the World Bank and bi­lat­eral agen­cies like the United King­dom’s Depart­ment for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment have been pro­mot­ing and fi­nanc­ing th­ese ef­forts. How­ever, th­ese schools are not cheap for poor peo­ple, who of­ten con­front a choice be­tween pay­ing for pri­vate education and cov­er­ing nec­es­sary ex­penses like food and health, es­pe­cially when they have sev­eral chil­dren.

Fur­ther­more, most of th­ese pri­vate schools are of very low qual­ity. The rea­son many poor par­ents choose a pri­vate school is that more than 30 years of mar­ket fun­da­men­tal­ism has dec­i­mated pub­lic education. Pri­vatis­ing a pub­lic good, fur­ther strat­i­fy­ing education, and in­creas­ing in­equal­i­ties is no an­swer; fully fund­ing pub­lic schools is. When that hap­pens, most pri­vate schools will go out of busi­ness – as they should. It may be in­di­vid­u­ally ra­tio­nal to send your child to a pri­vate school, but sup­port­ing this choice is bad pub­lic pol­icy, and makes a mock­ery of broad in­ter­na­tional agree­ment on every child’s right to free, qual­ity education.

Once again, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is talk­ing a good game, while push­ing the goal posts far into the fu­ture. It is un­will­ing to put up the money re­quired to achieve its stated goals, while try­ing to avoid re­spon­si­bil­ity for its fail­ures. The Global Part­ner­ship for Education has em­pha­sised the need for coun­tries to in­crease do­mes­tic fi­nanc­ing, but there is lit­tle pos­si­bil­ity that this can gen­er­ate suf­fi­cient re­sources to achieve the SDGs’ education goals.

What is needed is for rich coun­tries to live up to their decades-old pledge to de­vote 0.7% of GNI to de­vel­op­ment aid and to ini­ti­ate global tax mech­a­nisms for gen­er­at­ing the nec­es­sary re­sources – a call that, un­for­tu­nately, went un­heeded at the re­cent Fi­nanc­ing for De­vel­op­ment con­fer­ence in Ad­dis Ababa. As the SDGs’ adop­tion nears, gov­ern­ments must agree to put in place mea­sures to en­sure that th­ese new prom­ises are not just an­other ex­er­cise in lip ser­vice.

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