Inside the battle for replenishment at the Global Partnership for Education

A student reads a textbook in Niger. Photo by: Kelly Lynch / Global Partnership for Education / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — As the Global Partnership for Education gears up for a record replenishment, education advocates are predicting 2018 could be a “pivotal year” for global education which could see the sector enter a “golden era” of support, as experienced in global health.

However, questions remain as to whether key donors will come up with the cash; if the financial ask is ambitious enough to create meaningful change within the sector; and whether the GPE in its current form is the best mechanism for the job, with some suggesting it should consider divorcing itself from the World Bank, where it is currently housed.

Q&A: Julia Gillard on raising funds for the Global Partnership for Education

Former prime minister of Australia and current chair of the Global Education Partnership, Julia Gillard talks to Devex about why she thinks the United Kingdom will keep funding education, efforts to raise new billions, and the importance of country-led models.

GPE’s leadership team, which includes former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, is on the fundraising trail. They were in Europe for high-level meetings earlier this month in the run up to the GPE financing conference, set to take place in Senegal in February, and co-hosted by France, where the partnership hopes to raise a record $3.1 billion to fund its activities up to 2020, and help it become a $2 billion a year fund.

That has led education advocates to speculate that 2018 could be a pivotal year for global education funding, which has long languished behind global health. The GPE, which was established in 2002, is the only global multilateral funding platform dedicated to education. By comparison, the Global Fund’s most recent replenishment raised $12.9 billion.

Speaking to Devex, the GPE’s Chief Executive Officer Alice Albright talked about an “education crisis,” warning that if it remains unsolved “it will have ripple effects in many larger areas” of development. She went on to describe the upcoming conference as a “litmus test moment” for global education.

“We are putting every single ounce of energy we have into making the Dakar event a success, not just because of the GPE’s replenishment but [because] it is a litmus test moment for the leadership of the world … to come together and say we must solve this problem, much the same way leadership came together in the early 2000s around some of the health challenges,” she said.

An estimated 260 million children and young people are still not enrolled in school. According to the recent World Bank education report, a further 330 million may be in school but are learning little. Yet global funding for education is falling woefully short: The United Nations has estimated an annual spending gap of $39 billion in what is needed to reach the Sustainable Development Goals’ education targets.

The United States’ recent decision to defund UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural, scientific, and educational organization, has also put the spotlight more firmly on the GPE as the education sector struggles to establish leadership as well as finances.

But experts disagree on whether the GPE is likely to reach its fundraising target in Dakar — and whether, if it does, it will be enough to create meaningful change for the sector.

Momentum on education

The GPE, a multilateral global partnership initially called the Education for All Fast Track Initiative, first emerged in response to commitments made by governments at the World Education Forum in Dakar in 2000 to provide quality basic education to all children, youth, and adults.

In contrast to global funds in other sectors, it was set up as a "compact," working in close partnership with developing countries to support credible plans for their education sectors. It maintains a strong emphasis on in-country donors and governments to mobilize resources.

Its model has won attention from a number of quarters. GPE’s membership now consists of 65 developing country partners and 22 donors, alongside hundreds of regional and national civil society organizations, around 30 international NGOs, and about a dozen private foundation and private sector partners. According to a GPE press release, by 2015, the partnership’s funding had enabled 72 million more children to attend primary school and increased the completion rate from 63 percent in 2002 to 76 percent. Furthermore, as of 2015, nearly 80 percent of GPE partner countries had kept their national education budgets at or above 20 percent of total public expenditure — the level recommended by the partnership — or increased their education budget.

Momentum around the education agenda has been growing in recent years in relation to what experts describe as a crisis in global education. As the only international mechanism dedicated to the issue, the GPE has been growing in visibility, boosted by the endorsement of major donors including the United Kingdom, and now France.

The 2015 independent interim report on the GPE, carried out by the Universalia Management Group and Results for Development Institute, warned of a lack of clear definitions of “what constitutes ‘success’ in view of its broad and ambitious mission,” and also found “considerable disconnect between the Global Partnership’s ambitious mission and its narrow financing base.”

But the GPE has been working hard to reform and evolve in response to these criticisms and others, in a bid to become a leading global education player.

Battle for funding

Education experts disagree about whether the partnership is able to meet its $3.1 billion target. Earlier this month, the European Commission became the first pledger, committing an additional 100 million euros ($118.4 million) and bringing its total contribution for the 2018-2020 period to 287.5 million euros ($340.4 million). The Commission’s announcement came at the start of the GPE board meeting in Paris. While experts said they had hoped that other countries would also use the opportunity to make pledges — in particular France, Sweden, and the U.K., whose governments have been supportive of the GPE's efforts — they added it was to be expected that most would wait until the February conference.

But past replenishment rounds have fallen short, raising $1.65 billion of the hoped for $2.5 billion in the first round for 2011 to 2014; and $2.1 billion out of a proposed $3.5 billion for the second round, which had been intended to cover activities between 2015 and 2018. In addition, the GPE lost approximately $360 million in exchange rate fluctuations over the last replenishment period, which a spokesperson said contributed to the decision to head into its next replenishment phase a year early.

This track record could explain why, despite the apparent growing momentum behind global education, the GPE has opted for what the spokesperson described as a “conservative” target of $3.1 billion, which would largely be spent on grants to support developing countries to design and implement comprehensive education sector plans. According to a case for investment document, the funding will enable 19 million additional children to finish primary school and 6.6 million children to complete lower secondary school. In addition, 1.7 million teachers will be trained; 23,800 classrooms built; and 204 million textbooks handed out.

Symbolically, achieving the $3.1 billion target would be “hugely important” in terms of creating “visibility and recognition” for the GPE and the global education agenda more broadly, according to Pauline Rose, professor of international education at Cambridge University.

Education is so underfunded that while setting an achievable target may prove “wise,” it also means “there’s only so much they can do with the money,” Rose said. But other experts pointed out that the GPE’s approach — which requires developing partner countries to increase domestic funding for education to at least 20 percent in order to be eligible for support — means the partnership mobilizes more financing than some other multilateral funds. The GPE says it also works to leverage additional education funding from investors and multilateral development banks.

“The GPE way of working is more about working with governments and system reform,” compared to health spending, according to David Archer, head of education at Action Aid. Even if the partnership has a “smaller pot” compared to major health funds, the amount of money it is able to leverage is “probably more,” he said.

Gayle Smith, former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development and now head of the ONE Campaign, described the GPE as a “a multilateral vehicle that hopefully can be a force multiplier,” and can also provide “a vehicle for a lot of donors who don’t have bilateral [education] programs.” She said ONE would be assisting the GPE’s efforts by “pushing African governments to put more money into education,” while at the same time campaigning to “protect the education line item in the U.S. budget.”

Spend more on education — but be careful what you choose, report tells DFID

The parliamentary International Development Committee has published its inquiry into U.K. aid spending on education — with a loud call of support for the Global Partnership for Education, but skepticism about investments in private schools.

Many replenishment hopes have been pinned on the U.K., the GPE’s largest donor. The International Development Committee, the parliamentary committee that oversees the work of the U.K. Department for International Development, has been lobbying heavily for an early pledge to the partnership, and and for DFID to provide the full requested amount of $500 million. This could help encourage other donors to follow suit, according to Stephen Twigg, chair of the IDC and a Labour member of parliament.

“The GPE’s unique funding model makes it an absolutely crucial part of any solution, and supporting it boldly would demonstrate the credibility of the U.K.’s commitment to global education,” Twigg said, adding “that’s why we recommended to government that this strong partnership continues, and the U.K. leads the way.”

However, the abrupt change in leadership at the top of DFID will likely mean the U.K. pledge comes at a later date, political insiders said. Gillard was slated to meet with senior DFID officials last week.

Education’s health sector moment?

While total global official development assistance has been increasing, education’s share of this funding has been on the decline since 2010 and is still 4 percent lower than 2010 levels, according to a recent UNESCO Global Education Monitoring report. Preprimary and primary education has been hit hardest, it says. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data puts the three-year annual average in aid commitments for education during the period 2013 to 2015 at $15.7 billion, while in health the figure is $29 billion for the same period.

Several of the experts who spoke to Devex talked about the need for a “health sector moment” for education.

According to Smith, the education sector needs to attain the kind of political and financial “traction and scale” achieved by the global health community, most notably in relation to HIV/AIDS under U.S. President George W. Bush.

Aaron Oxley, executive director of the advocacy group RESULTS, agreed and described the last 10 years as a “golden decade” for health financing with increasing budgets year on year, something the education sector has never seen, he said.

While both Oxley and Smith agreed education interventions can be more difficult to measure and track, and tend to require longer-term funding than health programs, Smith said she was optimistic that education could be about to enter its own golden decade.

“I think it’s an uphill struggle but then nobody ever thought the world would mobilize that much money for HIV and AIDS or that poor countries could really improve their maternal health, so I think we’ve got to make a run at it,” she said.

Finding a Gates for the education sector?

At the meeting in Paris this month, the GPE board agreed to a new strategy to attract greater private foundation funding and engagement — a move that has been welcomed by education experts.The strategy was developed to address the fact that the “GPE is not yet a partner of choice for foundations,” and that generally speaking “foundations remain unclear on the value of partnering with GPE, or the means to do so,” according to the strategy document.

“Trying to figure out how to get more private foundations involved at various levels is really critical” for the education sector, Oxley said. Rose agreed, saying “we need a Gates for the education sector” but that, to date, the sector has struggled to attract private funding. Where foundations have provided resources, it has been comparatively little and has often come “with strings attached,” she said.

However, the move has also prompted concerns among some experts that this could “rupture” the balance on the GPE board, inadvertently giving private education actors a more prominent role within the partnership, as the debate over the role of private education in developing countries has become increasingly fraught in recent years. Currently, the private sector and foundations share a board position.

While a GPE spokesperson told Devex that the new foundation strategy “has no bearing on the Board seats [or] representation arrangements,” advocates expressed concern.

“Separating [foundations] off from the private sector could be controversial … [and] cause some potential tensions,” Archer said, especially among those who are keen to see the GPE continue its focus on supporting public sector education, rather than low-cost private alternatives. Oxley said that civil society groups such as RESULTS should watch the issue closely to make sure it does not lead to “mission creep” within the GPE.

However, Archer said he also wants to see the GPE “think more creatively” about how to engage the private sector in a positive way through groups such as the Global Business Coalition for Education. Business can play a “championing” role for global education by committing to good tax reporting, for example, which provides greater resources for education, and also through investments in technology.

The person nominated to fill the alternate board position for the private sector and foundations seat — David Boutcher — is on the executive board of the Global Business Council for Education and attended the Paris meeting as an observer, a GPE spokesperson said.  All board seats have two representatives, they explained.

Further reforms were outlined during last week’s board meetings, including a new knowledge and innovation exchange mechanism to “enable new insights and the sharing of best practice on improving education;” and an advocacy and social accountability funding mechanism to help strengthen civil society’s ability to hold government’s accountable for education promises,  according to a GPE press release.

Graduating from the World Bank

Whether the GPE should continue to be housed within the World Bank as a trust fund — whereby all hiring, banking services, and other administrative tasks are handled by the bank from its Washington, D.C., office — or spinoff into its own entity with a structure similar to that of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance or the Global Fund, was also discussed at the board meetings. As a result, the GPE Secretariat has been asked to draft an analysis paper to be presented at the next meetings in June, a spokesperson for the GPE told Devex.

The partnership’s relationship with the bank has been a source of tension within the GPE for years, experts said. In 2011, the GPE board commissioned the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank, to review potential hosting arrangements. The ODI’s report recommended that the GPE remain within the World Bank due to the high costs associated with running its own outfit. Gavi and the Global Fund are themselves due to move into a shared office space in an effort to reduce their costs.

However, the issue is now being revisited for a number of reasons. Archer said high World Bank salaries were problematic for some members of the GPE board, especially after the bank decided to up its fees for trust funds, costing the GPE an additional $2.5 million, according to minutes from the July board meeting. Archer described this as “an abuse of GPE funds.”

Being housed within the World Bank has also created identity problems for the GPE, Archer said, with some actors perceiving the partnership as part of the World Bank rather than a multilateral initiative in its own right. This was especially evident in countries where the World Bank was also the GPE grant agent, and may also have led to the GPE displacing World Bank education funds, he said.

The partnership’s significant losses on currency exchange are also a result of its position as a World Bank Trust Fund, which means it deals exclusively in dollars, when much of its funding is received in European currencies. The GPE is prevented from hedging against this.

Graduating from the World Bank would be a logical step if the GPE hopes to grow into a larger player, Oxley said.

“It boils down to … what is your overall level of ambition, sooner or later if you are serious about getting large amounts of new financing into education … then in the long term it doesn’t make sense to have it remain [within the World Bank],” he said.

The GPE’s CEO told Devex that while the partnership was initially “heavily embedded” in the World Bank, it has “since taken steps to make it more of a global partnership,” more closely resembling Gavi and the Global Fund. “It’s been a gentle journey,” she said.

Read more Devex coverage on education.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.