Finance appears to be the most contentious area for education targets after 2015. At UNESCO’s Global Education Meeting in Muscat, Oman last week other areas do not raise much debate, even though proposed targets, such as making sure all poor, rural girls complete lower secondary school and are learning, are extremely ambitious. But when it comes to money, everyone has a view.
"Many poorer countries at the meeting in Muscat expressed willingness for targets to be set that will hold them to account for the amount they will allocate to education -- provided donors are also held to account. Some donors, however, were strongly against finance targets in education, especially if they include commitments for them."
Reasons for resistance to post-2015 education financing targets
1. Goals and targets should be about outcomes not inputs
One reason against a finance target in education is that the focus of global goals should be to achieve outcomes in access and learning, and that the means should follow these ends. However, without accountability for sufficient finance there are serious dangers that the goals will not be achieved.
This has been a lesson from the Education for All framework (EFA) and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which did not include specific targets for finance. As the EFA Global Monitoring Report has shown, over the past decade the poorest countries have increased their allocations to education. Donors have, however, failed to fill financing gaps and so fulfill their commitment in the EFA Dakar Framework for Action that ‘no country will be left behind due to lack of resources’. And the economic crisis that has hit these countries has led to a decline in aid spending in recent years.
2. Financing should be part of a broader post-2015 framework
A second argument put forward for why financing targets should not be part of an education framework is that it would be more appropriate to include them as an aspect of a broader development framework. This would make sure resources are available for all the goals (whether education, health, water and sanitation, environmental sustainability, or other areas). Their inclusion in a broader framework would also enable ministers of finance to be held to account.
Currently, the main official UN processes for broader post-2015 frameworks are adopting goals and targets for finance to varying degrees, with proposals in particular to include a 0.7% of GNP to be allocated to aid (see box) - a target that EU countries set themselves most recently in 2005 to be achieved by 2015, with varying degrees of compliance.
"Even if the broader framework ultimately does include finance, it doesn’t seem as if education specialists are sufficiently part of debates, which is likely to mean that resources will if anything be squeezed."
Indeed, experience of recent times is that aid to education has declined more rapidly than aid to other sectors. There is therefore unfortunately little reason to expect those responsible for addressing finance in broader post-2015 frameworks are sufficiently concerned with, or informed about, the needs of the education sector.
3. Spending existing resources better will result in improved learning outcomes
A third argument, put forward by the World Bank in its paper on financing post-2015 goals, is that “learning outcomes can be improved with the right institutions without increasing spending”. There is no doubt that spending existing funds better can make sure they have a greater impact. However, improved accountability alone will not be enough to ensure the 250 million children currently not learning have the chance to do so, let alone extend ambitions to appropriate learning outcomes for all adolescents in lower secondary schools.
On a related point, over the past decade principles for effectiveness of development financing have been developed which deserve more attention in discussions on post-2015 goals. But they still cannot take attention away for the large financing gap that the EFA Global Monitoring Report has identified, reaching around $26 billion per annum, which is likely to increase further when more ambitious goals are established.
4. Other sources of finance, including from the private sector, are important
A fourth argument is that the financing landscape is changing, with new opportunities for private and other sources of finance.
"These alternative sources of finance of course need to be considered, but they are no panacea. It will be difficult to hold the private sector to account in a post-2015 framework as ultimately it does not bear the responsibility for public goods – nor should it."
And putting aside the fact that some private companies seek to find ways to avoid paying tax in ways that limit the resources available for public goods, their contribution to education goals is currently extremely limited - only equivalent to 5% of the resources available from aid.
Why we do need an education financing target
Overall, the arguments put forward against financing targets for education cannot divert from the need for long-term, predictable financing to ensure the agreed post-2015 outcomes can be delivered.
This is why I would argue that education targets need to include one that holds policymakers to account for financial commitments to achieve identified outcomes. These targets need to make sure that resources are distributed to those most in need. They also need to look progressively at the potential of financing gaps to be filled by domestic resources – with the strengthening of the tax base along with adequate allocation of domestic resources to education. Only then will we make better progress towards giving everyone the chance for a good quality education.
A stepping-stones approach to a post-2015 education financing target
Sustainable financing should be the ultimate aim for a post-2015 framework – as tax revenue along with economic growth increases, more domestic resources will hopefully be available by 2030. In the meantime, a ‘stepping stones’ approach could be applied to financing.
"One possibility for education financing targets is to ensure that, by 2030 all countries will allocate at least 20% of GDP via taxes (as analysis for the MDGs has identified as necessary), with 20% of these resources being allocated to education (which countries that have made greatest progress towards EFA have achieved)."
Aid should then fill the gap in the interim for countries most in need, and for any remaining gap that remains for these countries by 2030. Both domestic and aid resources in turn need to prioritize the most marginalized within countries.
The details of an education financing target, and how it could be operationalized and monitored, can be discussed – but first we need to agree that such a target is needed. Hopefully this is an area in which progress can be made during the Global Partnership for Education’s replenishment meeting in the coming weeks.