Education funding, philanthropy and COVID-19: what next?

The drive for education systems adaptation due to the COVID-19 pandemic are conditioned by human and financial resources. To better understand how COVID-19 is changing education funding, the OECD Centre on Philanthropy analyzed years of OECD data on ODA and private philanthropy and interviewed dozens of donors in light of the new challenges posed by the pandemic. Here are the key takeaways.

December 10, 2020 by Laura Abadia, OECD Development Center, and Soumyajit Kar, OECD Development Centre
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5 minutes read
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Students reading outside at the Angthlork Reang Sey School in Cambodia. Credit: GPE/Livia Barton
Students reading outside at the Angthlork Reang Sey School in Cambodia.
Credit: GPE/Livia Barton

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly challenged education systems around the world, and is fast-tracking the exploration of new approaches in education delivery. But this drive for change and systems adaptation is conditioned by human and financial resources. In this context, the responses of private philanthropy and official development assistance (ODA) donors have stirred up considerable interest.

Philanthropic giving for education has traditionally been modest compared to ODA. Even so, between 2017 and 2018, aggregate philanthropic giving for education ranked amongst the top ten largest providers of development funding for education, next to other bilateral and multilateral donors.

Beyond funding, the agility of foundations gives them a comparative advantage to fill critical gaps and pilot approaches that can inspire, inform or trigger wider reform.

Through risk capital, expertise and networks, foundations often play a key role in strengthening the innovation capacity of educators, communities and schools – particularly in resource-constrained settings.

To better understand how COVID-19 is changing education funding, the OECD Centre on Philanthropy analyzed years of OECD data on ODA and private philanthropy, and interviewed dozens of donors in light of the new challenges posed by the pandemic. Here is what we learnt:

Education funding could dry up in the coming years

Recent estimates suggest that the funding gap for education in low- and middle-income countries could increase from USD39 billion annually in 2015 to USD200 billion annually in 2020.

Shrinking fiscal space, declining remittances and household income and a possible decrease in aid due to the crisis, could hit education budgets hard, especially if trade-offs benefit other sectors such as health, social protection or economic recovery.

Since 2004, education giving has been lagging behind other ODA sectors and stagnating. Compounding this, historically, ODA funds earmarked for education have been volatile and unpredictable at the country level, with countries like Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and Niger seeing aid fluctuate by as much as 50% up or down from one year to the next.

Meanwhile, the deep global recession may also hit foundations’ revenue streams, including those active in developing countries, given that their most common sources of income are endowments or individual donations.

Rigorous evidence should become the guiding compass for investing limited resources

Today we know a lot about cost-effective approaches that can boost schooling and learning. Raising awareness on the benefits of education among local communities and families, providing incentives that help students return to school, and targeting instruction to students’ learning levels can ensure children go to school and learn well.

However, decision makers in government, non-profits and schools do not always have the time or skills to explore how findings from existing studies could apply to their own local realities.

By working closely with “evidence brokers” – EdTech Hub, The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) to cite only a few– donors and philanthropic actors can help decision makers understand how the global evidence may offer solutions to their specific needs, and be tailored to work through their own, local systems.

In this regard, the appetite for education research shown by private foundations in recent years and through the COVID-19 crisis is a welcomed move.

Education has been losing ground as the gateway to gender equality

Although data on girls’ learning loss and dropout rates stemming from COVID-19 school closures remains limited, we know that girls are likely to be disproportionately affected.

With higher burdens of unpaid care and domestic work, and lower access to technology, girls may have fewer opportunities to engage in remote learning. They also face an increased risk of pregnancy and early marriage, reducing their chances to return to school as they reopen.

Against this backdrop, recent data on development aid and private philanthropy show education has been losing ground as a critical entry point to support gender equality.

Between 2010 and 2018, total ODA for gender equality almost doubled, increasing from USD23 billion to USD44 billion (Figure 1). In the same period, the share of gender-targeted funds channelled through education fell from 16% to 10.5%.

Similarly, the education sector attracted only 5% of philanthropic giving for gender equality over 2013-15, a very low share compared to gender-targeted funds channelled through health and reproductive health sectors (which attracted 73% of funding over the same period).

Figure 1: Education has been losing ground as the gateway to gender equality
Figure 1: Education has been losing ground as the gateway to gender equality.
ODA gender-targeted funds, 2010 and 2018

Now more than ever, it’s time to prioritize social and emotional learning

To better cope with rapid change, education needs to provide learners with the habits and mindsets that promote resilience and positive attitudes towards learning. Moreover, in the context of remote instruction and social distancing, social and emotional skills, like a strong sense of purpose and autonomy, have become essential to enable more independent learning and personal well-being.

However, prolonged school closures risk the further narrowing of school systems on remediating measurable academic and technical skills.

Education donors and private philanthropy can play an important role in trialing the measurement, teaching and certification of social and emotional learning and in demonstrating the feasibility of these approaches in low-income settings, precisely because these elements appear to be deprioritized in national education response plans.

There are a number of examples, ranging from developing life skills assessments for girls, to testing innovations to help students improve their mental and physical health, life satisfaction and close social relationships. The OECD Centre on Philanthropy is conducting a survey to explore how private philanthropy is making headway in fostering social and emotional learning. The survey and report will document how pioneering foundations are financing and implementing holistic learning initiatives in OECD and non-OECD countries, improving the evidence for their effectiveness, and making them find space within education policy. Results will be available in June 2021.

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The OECD Centre on Philanthropy is a data and analysis unit exclusively focused on research into global trends and impact of philanthropy for development in the context of the 2030 Agenda. Findings outlined here draw from the recent OECD study on Philanthropy for Development: Education Giving in the midst of COVID-19. This study is led by the OECD Centre on Philanthropy, in close partnership the Education Working Group of the OECD Network of Foundations Working for Development (netFWD) and the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills.

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