Financing education cannot falter because of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic may result in millions of children dropping out of school. The international community is at a turning point. This is why 190 organizations have signed a call to action to protect financing for education in national budgets.

September 24, 2020 by David Archer, ActionAid International, and Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, ActionAid International
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5 minutes read
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Students listen to their school teacher, Shuma Das during class at the Sahabatpur Daspara Ananda school in Sahabatpur village, Bangladesh on October 12, 2016. Photo credit: Dominic Chavez/World Bank
Students listen to their school teacher, Shuma Das during class at the Sahabatpur Daspara Ananda school in Sahabatpur village, Bangladesh on October 12, 2016.
Photo credit: Dominic Chavez/World Bank

Earlier this month 190 organizations joined a Call to Action on the domestic financing of education post-COVID. Tens of millions of children are struggling to return to school this month, whether because they have been forced into child labor or early marriages.

Hundreds of millions more will return to already under-resourced schools that face potentially massive budget cuts in the coming years, with declines in GDP likely to reduce school budgets by at least US$210 billion. (1)

This coincides with a time when costs for education should be rising: for example, smaller class sizes, which we have argued for over many years as making good sense educationally, may become a requirement with social distancing post-COVID, but this means more teachers and more classrooms.

Sadly we are already seeing some of the costs for masks, sanitizers, thermometers and soap in schools being passed on to parents – which will inevitably lead to more children dropping out of school because parents, whose own income has declined, will not be able to pay.

A turning point for investments in education

The Call to Action offers a positive alternative  – arguing that COVID must represent a turning point, showing how massive new investments can be made in public education around the world. The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) could play a pivotal role both now and in the coming years.

The GPE already has a well-established requirement that countries have to maintain or increase the share of their national budget allocated to education – towards or exceeding 20% - if they are to qualify for GPE financial support.

This should be closely scrutinized in the coming months to prevent countries from diverting resources away from education. Governments will think twice about cutting their own spending on education if the consequence could be losing a $10 million or $100 million grant from GPE.

While GPE has been ahead of the game on promoting increases in budget shares to education, it has not paid sufficient attention to the size of overall budgets and the crucial role of tax justice.

There have been consistent rumblings over many years on the GPE Board, calling for action on tax and now there is a key opportunity to address this in the next GPE strategy (2021-2025) which will be agreed in December. Too many countries supported by GPE have such a low tax to GDP ratio that even if they spend 20% of their budget on education, it is not enough.

GPE needs to use this as a turning point: to build its capacity to support strategic and informed discussions on expanding tax revenues at country level.

A focus on strengthening tax systems in a fair way builds common ground between supporters of education and advocates for health and other public services.

In a moment of crisis, these are precisely the connections and win-win solutions that we should all be seeking.

Debt servicing and wage constraints may hinder education funding

In the most recent GPE Board discussions on domestic financing, there has been a recognition that the scale of the new debt crisis represents a serious risk for countries wanting to finance education. ActionAid’s own research showed that countries spending over 12% on debt servicing cut their overall public spending in recent years.

There is already some action for debt suspension from the G20, but many countries need debt cancellation and longer-term debt negotiations.

GPE needs to develop its institutional position on debt and build its analytical capacity to engage and support countries in their internal and external dialogue on debt. Certainly GPE should be vocal in finding solutions so that no country is spending more on paying old debts than it does on education.

In discussions of the new GPE strategy, there has been a particular emphasis placed on teachers – recognizing that nothing is more important to the quality of education than the quality of teachers.

To achieve SDG 4 it is estimated that the world will need 69 million more teachers (17 million in Africa alone). ActionAid's research published in April 2020 showed that 78% of countries with available data were advised by the IMF to freeze or cut public sector wage bills in the past three years.

Teachers are the largest group on the wage bill so these IMF targets cannot be met without blocking recruitment of new teachers.

We have urged a review of these policies by the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office and the new Managing Director. To be consistent with the new priority placed on teachers, GPE should continue to actively reach out to the IMF and start a sustained dialogue with them.

This should be replicated at country level by GPE partners working with ministries of Finance and parliamentarians to ensure that these contradictions are rapidly resolved.

Action on increasing budget shares, expanding tax and reducing debt will not be enough unless constraints to the expansion of public sector workforces are removed.

More broadly GPE needs to ensure there is a deeper engagement with national parliaments, ensuring education sector plans are truly owned as a central part of national development plans.

The direction of education reforms is too important to be left to a closed dialogue amongst educators – and the sea change that we need to see in financing education will only come through building wider national ownership from people and their representatives.

GPE’s replenishment offers opportunities to act

GPE has already agreed that gender equality and inclusion will be major priorities in the new strategy. There are some challenges in moving from rhetoric to practice – but a focus on gender budget and expenditure tracking could be an important part of the solution.

Post-COVID we need to ensure that education acts as an equalizing force in every society – and increasing transparency and accountability can certainly help - making sure that equity is a consideration in every part of spending in practice.

Urgent and focused action will be required by all GPE partners, working with other sectors (such as health funds), to ensure that girls who have dropped out through early pregnancy or early marriage are brought back into school. Let us not allow these girls to become a sad statistic that we routinely quote in the coming years.

In 2021, GPE will seek a new replenishment. If it takes the right steps now to ensure a more comprehensive approach to domestic financing in the new strategy, then it could play a transformational role.

GPE can facilitate better harmonization and alignment of all aid to education behind government plans to strengthen their public education systems.

Civil society organizations and coalitions in almost every country where GPE works signed up to the Call to Action on Domestic Financing and will be closely following developments in the coming months. We are determined that the COVID-19 crisis marks a positive turning point.

Working together we can build sustainably financed public education systems that can contribute to building economies and societies that deliver on the dream of sustainable development.

Read the other blogs in the "Financing our future" series

(1) According to Stefania Giannini, UNESCO ADG in webinar on 28th July 2020 (see recording from 54 minutes)
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