Global education: Ideas for the way forward

Outlining three clear steps, Julia Gillard, writing in her personal capacity, draws a picture of what the global education architecture could be to ensure that all resources and efforts are geared towards addressing and solving the learning crisis.

December 03, 2019 by Julia Gillard, Global Partnership for Education
12 minutes read
Makbel Henok, 7, and her classmate share a textbook in class. They are in Grade 2. “I like school a lot and I like all subjects. When I grow up I want to be a pilot. I think flying must be really great,” says Makbel. Ethiopia, January 2019
Makbel Henok, 7, and her classmate share a textbook in class. They are in Grade 2. “I like school a lot and I like all subjects. When I grow up I want to be a pilot. I think flying must be really great,” says Makbel. Ethiopia, January 2019
Credit: GPE/Alexandra Humme

I write this opinion piece in my personal capacity, though my thinking has been informed by my experiences as an Education Minister, Prime Minister, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), one of the three initial champions of Education Cannot Wait and a member of its High Level Steering Committee, a member of the Education Commission, a Distinguished Fellow of the Brookings Institution and a regular attendee at meetings of the Global Business Education Coalition. 

Adding together my domestic political engagement with education and my work on it globally, I have been involved intensively for more than a decade.

When I look back, I can identify many high points and achievements by the global education community.  Personally, I am particularly proud of the way GPE has strengthened and grown while I have had the privilege of being its Chair.

However, we need to do so much more.  Bill Gates recently challenged us all with a tweet saying, "education today is where health was in 1990". While my first reaction is to reply, "Bill we are working hard and doing better", my deeper response is "damn it, there is a lot of truth in those words".

And when I hear repeatedly from developing countries, donors, civil society, philanthropists, academics, multilateral agencies and others about their confusion and frustration regarding the architecture for global education and their concern that, despite all the activity, we are way off track to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4, my response is also "I agree, damn it".

Despite the stereotypes of Australians, I don't conceive of my role as travelling around the world swearing. Though I assure you I am capable of using much more colourful words than "damn".

This piece is my attempt to try to move from frustration to taking some needed steps forward.  This is not a Global Plan for Education, which many have been discussing following the adoption of a global plan in health. 

Rather, it is about some organizational first steps that in my view are vital if we are to set ourselves up as a global education community that is capable of joined-up strategic thinking, innovation, planning, delivery and accountability.

Inevitably, I will have got some things right and some wrong. I have deliberately been blunt and propositional to encourage others to be the same in response. 

The backdrop here is, as we all know, that there are now a large number of multilateral agencies involved in the education sector.  Here is the list in alphabetical order: Education Cannot Wait, the Education Outcomes Fund, the Global Partnership for Education, the International Financing Facility for Education, UNESCO, UNHCR, UNICEF, the World Bank, and regional development banks.

Of course, behind this simple list lies a more complex story, given these organizations are at different stages of development and a number have a far broader remit than education. But even just writing out the list inevitability takes us straight to the conclusion that this multiplicity of actors could be either a great strength or a serious weakness.

The risks of fragmentation, duplication, and strategic incoherence are obvious. So too are the risks that advocacy ends up as a squabble about shares of the current resourcing pie rather than unlocking new funds, and that efforts at greater innovation become fractured.

That means it is vital to work out how we get the best out of this architecture, measured by impact on learning at country level.  But that is not all we need to do.  Even if the current education architecture was firing perfectly, there are many other resourcing, knowledge and accountability challenges present in our quest to have every child learning and we need a collective approach to addressing them.

Given there is so much to accomplish, we need to be crystal clear about who is going to do what by when.  Sorting that out requires us to recognize that some of the problems we need to resolve are technical and some are political. Now, I have been around politics too long to be naïve about how these two things are connected and affect each other.  But I also know from long experience you end up in a mess if it is unclear who is focusing on which bit, and who is accountable for what. 

I therefore propose three steps, which should be taken urgently and together to ensure clarity of purpose and roles as we drive towards working coherently and becoming more visionary, strategic and effective at addressing the learning crisis. 

Step 1: Multilateral Action Platform – Working together more effectively

First, 2019 saw Chief Executive Officers (or equivalents) of the multilateral agencies working on education take the initiative to meet together on a number of occasions. This is a positive and essential step towards more effective cooperation and should become a regular occurrence.  The group, which I refer to here as the Multilateral Action Platform (MAP), should have as its mission statement improving operational performance and effectiveness through coherence, collaboration and collective action.

It should start meeting as soon as possible and develop by no later than the end of March 2020 a work plan, which is specific, task-oriented, and has clear milestones.

MAP should aim to achieve full alignment among the multilateral agencies on the following, from the perspective of a developing country:

  • Planning
  • Learning results reporting
  • Financial reporting
  • Knowledge brokering
  • Technical assistance.

Or, put another way, MAP will have failed if a representative of a developing country who engages with the multilateral system ever:

  • Does not have at their fingertips a clear guide as to what each multilateral agency does, and how they relate to one another
  • Plans extensively for one agency and then is told by another that a different plan is needed
  • Wastes time filling in almost identical forms for different agencies
  • Is asked to report on different learning indicators for different agencies
  • Flies around the world to different meetings, which could have been consolidated in time and place
  • Contacts a multilateral agency and does not receive a warm and seamless referral to whichever agency can best meet their needs.

Past work by the international community on the effectiveness of official development assistance, through for example targets on harmonization and alignment in the Paris Declaration and later agreements in Accra and Busan, can help to point the way with practical reference points.

To make MAP come alive, each multilateral agency should make effective coordination and alignment through MAP a key performance indicator for its CEO or equivalent.  Accountability for results should be a centrepiece of MAP.

Regular meetings of MAP should be easily achieved given the number of times each year multilateral agency leaders currently attend education-related events.

The temptation for agency leaders in MAP will be to conclude that everything would be better if only there was more funding available.  While it is undoubtedly true that education needs more resources, MAP should not focus on advocacy and fundraising.  Rather, it should aim to ensure that every dollar currently allocated to education through multilateral agencies buys the biggest learning impact, especially for the most marginalized children.

There is obviously a question about which agency should convene MAP and how the work required to support it should be resourced.  Getting the work of MAP done is too important for it to succumb to territorialism or inefficiency.

Many would suggest that in the current global education architecture, convening such a group properly falls to UNESCO, which is the convener and Secretariat of the SDG-Education 2030 Steering Committee.

However, MAP would have a much more limited role than the Steering Committee. It should be focussed unashamedly on education for school-age children, including associated early childhood education, not the full breadth of SDG 4. It would also in no way be a platform for setting the norms and standards of the education agenda.

UNESCO convened the most recent meeting of this group. If UNESCO is interested to continue this work, then, in the first instance, it should convene MAP. If UNESCO's preference is to focus on the Steering Committee, then it should convey this so another convener can be found quickly. A coalition of donors should be willing to step forward at the outset to support MAP and to bolster the capacity of UNESCO, or an alternative convenor, for the task.

Whichever agency acts as the convenor, there should be sustained pressure to ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of the structure. At the end of the first twelve months of operation, each CEO participating in MAP should report to her/his governing body on the performance of the convenor. If a majority does not express satisfaction, then the coalition of donors should move the support to an alternative convener, which should face the same expectations of performance.

Step 2: Global Education Forum – Getting the answers we need

While MAP is grappling with urgent operational challenges, there is a clear and central role for the recently created Global Education Forum (GEF).  This forum brings together high-level political leadership, including UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown, former Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore Tharman Shanmugaratnam, former Minister of Education of Mozambique Graça Machel, and Director-General of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay. Its initial meeting included representatives of both the bilateral and multilateral system. I am grateful to have been invited to participate.

Clearly, this group has powerful advocacy potential and that should be harnessed. But it must have complete clarity of purpose and work beyond advocacy.  In my view, its remit should be tackling the political and strategic questions that need to be resolved in achieving SDG 4.1 and 4.2.  Within that remit, it should be unafraid to specify sharper prioritization.

The GEF will also need to be clear on its structure, composition and method of operations. In particular, it will need a way of informing, consulting and responding to its members in between what will inevitably be a limited number of meetings during the year. Getting this right will enable the meetings to be propositional and decision-making, not simply discussions.

In terms of starting tasks, I think GEF should aim to answer no later than the end of 2020 the two critical questions that bedevil global education funding.

First, why do nation-state donors so dramatically prefer bilateral education programs to multilateral action in education?

Second, why are at-scale philanthropists not involved in global education as centrally as they are in global health?

Answering both questions will require frank, confidential discussions, which might best be had initially behind closed doors.

Nation-state donors might say that the current group of multilateral agencies has an overwhelmingly strong focus on priority areas that are not the main bilateral focus. Or they might say they share the same priorities but have doubts about the current capability of the multilateral agencies, and believe such work is better done through bilateral programs. Or they might say that for work on education there is a political necessity in donor countries for assistance programs to be largely badged with their funding source.

Getting the level of disclosure needed on these questions may require using independent researchers and even anonymizing responses.

For their part, at-scale philanthropists may echo the words of Bill Gates' tweet or may specify additional factors.

Whatever the answers, and no matter how uncomfortable it is to hear them, we would be far better off knowing than not knowing. That way we can have a clear plan to address what is constraining major new resources.

Addressing the expressed motivations and concerns of donors and philanthropists is likely to require both political and operational responses. To the extent it requires political responses, GEF should take charge of the work necessary to get the governing bodies of multilateral agencies to respond and the funders collectively to reassess their current choices. To the extent it requires operational responses, MAP should take forward that work.

To ensure effective coordination at all points between GEF and MAP, there should be a report given on MAP progress at every GEF meeting and vice versa.

Step 3: Data – Starting with a global education metric

During 2020, we should also solve the problem that global education does not have one key galvanizing global metric that the education community can get behind.

The World Bank, through its Learning Poverty initiative, has launched a new operational global learning target focused on children's reading attainment at 10 years old.

Of course, no one metric, including this one, will ever measure the full breadth of SDG 4.1 and 4.2. However, that does not mean having one key metric is a flawed idea. What is needed is a metric that can serve as a canary in the coal mine, meaning that if it is off track then likely the whole education system is off track. In addition, the metric needs to serve as a rallying cry, a way of galvanizing high-level political attention and community campaigning. The World Bank proposed metric can serve both these purposes.

Unless a better suggestion emerges, this metric should be adopted by all multilateral education agencies no later than the end of June 2020. Hopefully, this would create momentum for the same metric to be used by the entire global education community.

Of course, that is not the only data work that needs to be done. A major challenge is to ensure that across the whole education community, including the research community, we have the information we need on the unit costs of interventions and their impact on learning for the most marginalized children. Understanding costs is key to proper planning and performance management in global education.

Beyond the adoption of a single galvanizing metric, attention should turn to building out this unit cost data. The Global Coalition for Education Data launched recently by UNESCO and the Global Platform on Education Finance launched recently by the World Bank could both work on this question, linking up to GEF for resolutions at a political level and to MAP for actions at an operational level.

Putting developing country partner voices center-stage

As all this work is undertaken, a critical question is where is the voice of developing countries? That must indeed be central to every discussion and every decision. The real drive and impetus for change needs to come from national leadership, with the international architecture coming together to incentivize and support reform minded leadership.

As Chair of GPE, I have often thought to myself as the Board meets that we are under-utilizing the fact that such a broad cross-section of the global education community is together. Others must have been thinking the same because now GPE is very frequently asked to host side events when the broad and diverse constituencies that make up the GPE Board gather. My expectation is that this will continue, and it could provide one way of consulting on issues raised by or through MAP and GEF.

Even more importantly, in the run up to six-monthly GPE Board meetings, it is routine for GPE's developing country representatives to meet. These forums could readily be used for consultations by MAP and GEF as a way of providing efficient access to views from the 70 developing countries which are members of GPE.

On issues where there is a need to hear from countries which are not members of GPE, other regular gatherings such as the Education World Forum may offer convenient opportunities for side meetings and consultations.

Final thoughts

With the steps I have set out here, we would exit 2020:

  • with MAP hard at work driving up the collective efficiency and effectiveness of the multilateral agencies in global education, along with collective accountability for results;
  • with the potential to unlock new resources for multilateral agencies from nation-state donors and philanthropists as a result of a GEF strategy, along with underpinning operational work by MAP to build confidence in the multilateral system;
  • with a single galvanizing metric adopted by all multilateral agencies and being put into routine use;
  • with joint planning and actions to assess unit costs of learning interventions for the most marginalized children; and
  • with representatives from developing country governments routinely, regularly and fully consulted on major issues and actions under consideration by GEF and MAP.

That will still leave several dozen key issues undone. However, I am confident that once the habits of purposeful cooperation become routine other issues will become easier to address and resolve together.

To my GPE colleagues, I would add that we should exit 2020 with a new strategic plan that moves us from planning to performance management, increases our agility, improves our ability to customize for country contexts, and increases our offering of global goods.

In the global education community, we often talk about the learning crisis. Resolving it requires an urgent shift for greater impact. Much has been achieved, but there is so much more to do. That should start with better organizing of our work, while holding ourselves more accountable for results.

Let's get on with it.

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