Yesterday, representatives from multilateral organizations, civil society, philanthropic foundations and the private sector gathered in Brussels for the Global Education Meeting (GEM) – a conference, convened by UNESCO, that focuses on the most pressing issues facing education today. For the first time since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goal for Education (SDG 4) in 2015, policy makers and education experts came together to take stock of the progress made towards achieving this goal, and the challenges that remain. Their discussions couldn’t come at a more critical time.
A learning crisis that needs to be fixed
The world today is facing a learning crisis, with more than 260 million children, adolescents and youth not in school, and 617 million (six out of ten) not being able to read a simple sentence or perform basic maths.
Yet education remains critically underfunded across the world. If we are to achieve SDG 4, low- and lower-middle-income countries will need to close an annual funding gap of US$39 billion. It is therefore urgent to explore current trends in education financing, and to identify challenges and opportunities to invest in quality, equitable education.
Investment is key
This is exactly what we did in one GEM workshop, which focused on how to bridge the funding gap to achieve SDG 4. The workshop brought together representatives of the Global Partnership for Education and the OECD, as well as UNESCO colleagues and representatives from a wide range of countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, China, France, Kenya, Mongolia and Norway. Representatives from civil society and private foundations also participated in the workshop.
We discussed three key issues:
- How to increase domestic resources for education without adding to the burden of poor households
- How to increase international resources for education and improve aid delivery mechanisms
- How to allocate and use resources for education more effectively to ensure equity.
The workshop opened with an overview of current trends in education financing, including the latest data on aid to education, and domestic resource mobilization and spending. We also explored which funding policies lead to better quality and equity in education. Participants recommended policy solutions to ensure that funding to achieve SDG 4 not only increases dramatically but is effectively allocated and targeted to reach countries and populations with the greatest needs.
Mobilizing more domestic resources for education
We also examined how to mobilize greater domestic resources, and effectively distribute them to help achieve countries’ educational objectives. Countries still need to do more to meet their commitments on education spending, while focusing on spending resources well and ensuring that they reach the most marginalized populations, including migrants.
Domestic resources account for most global education expenditure, and their share is rising thanks to increased tax revenue. But national governments are not prioritizing education, and education budgets are not reaching those in greatest need. As a result, the household costs associated with education remain a disproportionate burden for families who cannot afford to send their children to school.
Innovative mechanisms to increase aid for education
Development assistance plays a key role, as well. Aid to the education sector, by both volume and as a share of total aid, has reached its highest levels since 2002. But current levels are still not enough to close the US$39 billion annual financing gap to achieve SDG 4, and humanitarian aid to education still falls short of the recommended 4% of all humanitarian aid. We discussed what must be done to reverse these trends, including innovative, non-traditional sources of development assistance, results-based aid and triangular cooperation.
At the end of our discussions, our moderator, Fanny Benedetti of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France, summarized the main takeaways from our workshop. She noted that the world needs to mobilize additional resources and increase domestic spending for education. Heads of state and finance ministers must take the lead on this, and donor countries must mobilize more foreign assistance for education.
Donors must honour their commitment to aid targets (0.7% of GNI) and allocate at least 10% of their development assistance to education. Ms. Benedetti also identified the need for national governments to more effectively allocate and deploy domestic and foreign resources for education, targeting those who are most disadvantaged. Peer learning among countries can help meet this goal.
By the end of the GEM, it became clear that if we are to achieve SDG 4, the international community will need to draw from both domestic and international resources, as well as non-traditional sources. Most importantly, to have the most sustainable impact, it is critical for all major funders of education – governments, aid agencies, philanthropic organizations and the private sector – to align their financing behind strong national plans to provide free, and quality education for all.