Boosting education accountability in a pandemic world

COVID-19 threatens to undermine gains in education and exacerbate existing inequalities, especially for the most marginalized children. A new phase of vigorous advocacy, accountability and open dialogue is needed to improve coordination, coherence and alignment in education.

February 18, 2021 by Michael Gibbons, American University, Megan Haggerty, International Education Funders Group, Michael Jarvis, Transparency Accountability Initiative, and Sarah Beardmore, Global Partnership for Education
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4 minutes read
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A student reading her book. Azimpur Government Primary School in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
A student reading her book. Azimpur Government Primary School in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud

The COVID-19 pandemic has put front and center societal problems that education advocates have been grappling with for decades. Economic dislocation, rising inequality, persistent discrimination and exclusion, continued underfunding, and growing authoritarian populism around the world, have shaped the context in which education policy has taken place over the last 50 years.

In turn, this history sheds light on the mechanisms that have helped to drive progress despite the trenchant challenges, and points to new opportunities to mobilize and deliver on the right to education.

A half-century of history: The education advocacy movement

In the immediate post-WWII era of decolonization and post-imperial nation-building across the globe, education emerged as a human right and development priority. During the 1960s and 1970s, the focus shifted to inclusion and literacy as people sought opportunities to escape poverty, join the modern economy and participate in the political process.

The Jomtien World Conference on Education for All (EFA) in 1990 was a watershed moment when universal basic education broke through as a global public policy goal and the “Education for All” movement began to take shape. Civic activism for the right to education expanded and political will accelerated.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) and international agencies joined efforts to help national governments expand education in many countries. International funding expanded to support these efforts, despite calls for austerity and privatization from opponents.

At the turn of the century, education was featured prominently as one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). A groundswell of support from civic organizations, teachers’ associations, and the public in the early 2000s ensured that the U.N., governments, businesses and philanthropists knew that education was a top priority affecting every person around the world.

During this time, four important drivers of progress emerged:

  • Coordinated civic action: CSOs around the world organized to hold governments and donors to their EFA and MDG promises. The Global Campaign for Education (GCE) was born in 1999, drawing together scores of national education coalitions into regional networks and a global federation.
  • Increased international funding: The donor community promised to assist national governments to fund the full expansion of primary schools and created the EFA Fast-Track Initiative to provide supplemental sector financing in 2002, later renamed the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).
  • Better monitoring and transparency: UNESCO set up the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report to track progress on Education for All, hold governments to account and orient education actors and policymakers to new ideas and consolidate technical knowledge.
  • Mobilized private philanthropy: Foundations came together in 2008 around the global EFA agenda and the International Education Funders Group (IEFG) was born, with its members addressing gaps in access, quality, equity and social accountability in expanding public education systems.

By 2015, progress in enrollment and gender parity -- and gaps in quality and wider equity -- motivated a new drive to advance education efforts. Advocates and policymakers helped define education expansion, quality and equity as the main pillars of goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Requirements for meaningful advocacy and accountability

This progressive action has shown that, despite challenging contexts, social accountability and advocacy have been effective inputs to progress in realizing the right to education. To have a meaningful effect, social accountability fosters the right combination of:

  • “Sunshine”: transparency of information about public system performance against policy goals
  • “Story”: positive narratives about the logic, benefits versus costs, and results of public policy investment
  • “Voice”: authentic civic advocacy communications regarding citizen demands, expectations, and independent assessment of performance
  • “Teeth”: the capacity to ensure responsiveness to advocacy demands and active pursuit of policy goals

An opportunity for funders

The pandemic threatens to undermine gains and exacerbate inequalities in our field, particularly those affecting the most marginalized: closed schools, learning loss, significant numbers of children not returning to school, triggering upticks in child marriage, adolescent pregnancy, child abuse and neglect.

Funding gaps are opening up as economies struggle, international aid is cut, and public education tax bases are eroded. A new phase of vigorous education advocacy and accountability work is urgently needed to bolster sustained, open and honest dialogue and reflection.

To encourage these discussions and foster progress in advocacy around education, GPE’s Education Out Loud fund offers a welcome new infusion of energy and support. EOL is a dedicated fund of $55.5M over 4 years that focuses on civil society accountability and advocacy.

It was designed with inputs from a number of philanthropic foundations with expertise in this space, such as Wellspring, Open Society, Hewlett and Ford foundations, and builds on a decade of GPE financial support for the GCE civic education advocacy network.

Education Out Loud offers a unique opportunity for funders of social accountability in education to take a fresh look at the potential for stronger strategic collaboration, shared learning, co-funding and joint capacity development of civic organizations large and small -- working together in a more unified field of action. It also opens an important conversation with governments about the value that civic engagement has in promoting transparency, participation and accountability in education.

In this context, the International Education Funders Group, Transparency and Accountability Initiative and GPE held an initial meeting with funders of education accountability work to discuss the best ways to improve coordination, coherence and alignment within the field. The first meeting in December generated strong interest in a continuing conversation about ways to share experience and work together.

Interested funders are welcomed to join future conversations, and an ongoing series of blogs on the subject. For more information and to join these discussions, please contact Michael Jarvis (via contact@transparency-initiative.org) or Megan Haggerty (via info@iefg.org)

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