Q&A: Julia Gillard on the future of the Global Partnership for Education

Julia Gillard, chair of the board of directors of the Global Partnership for Education. Photo by: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — The Global Partnership for Education — the only multilateral funding platform dedicated to education — is grappling with questions about its future.

Those discussions — which include potentially divorcing from the World Bank, where it is currently housed as a trust fund; its relationship with other education funds; and its engagement with the private sector — are now firmly on the plate of chair Julia Gillard. Though she was nearing the end of her term, the board confirmed last week that her appointment would be extended by two years, until 2021.

GPE replenishment misses targets, but sees 'turning point' in education financing

GPE sought education financing from donors, in addition to renewed commitments from developing countries to deliver quality education and increase access. There were mixed emotions after $2.3 billion was garnered, which fell below a target of raising $3.1 billion for the 2018-2020 financing cycle.

In February, Gillard, the former prime minister of Australia who has headed GPE since March 2014, oversaw the partnership’s most lucrative replenishment to date, picking up $2.3 billion to fund its operations from 2018-2020. Low- and middle-income countries also made historic pledges to increase public expenditure on education at the conference in Dakar, Senegal — committing $110 billion for the funding period, up from $80 billion at the last replenishment. That is a key part of GPE’s model, with much of its funding conditional on partner countries dedicating more of their own resources.

However, civil society groups were disappointed with the total amount raised, which fell below the $3.1 billion that had been hoped for. Speaking to Devex, Gillard was upbeat about the replenishment and the fund’s plans for the future.

“We’ve certainly come out of the replenishment with a real sense of energy … We’ve got a huge couple of years in front of us, where we will really be mobilizing new money for big impact,” she said.

Global education has been climbing up the development agenda in recent years, in response to a “learning crisis” described by the World Bank’s World Development Report.

The sector has seen a flurry of activity, including a number of new financing initiatives set to launch in the coming months, such as the International Finance Facility for Education and the Education Outcomes Fund. That has led some to worry about fragmentation within the sector. In 2017, GPE launched its own funding mechanism, the GPE multiplier, which offers to mobilize $1 for every $3 a country can attract from other sources.

Gillard spoke to Devex about what’s next for GPE, and how it’s taking on some of the big questions. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The GPE replenishment in February was seen as disappointing by some civil society groups since it fell short of the target. But what do you think?

I was very pleased with the replenishment event in Dakar and the pledges made. I started as board chair [just before the previous replenishment in June 2014] ... and this one was in every sense a completely different experience. The global community is more focused on education than it ever was before, and the work of GPE is far more recognized. Having a replenishment hosted in a developing country was an innovation which I think caught people’s imagination. Having the highest level leadership between the Senegalese President Macky Sall and the French President Emmanuel Macron [who co-hosted the conference] was a wonderful, visible embodiment of the spirit of partnership that drives GPE.

“The global community is more focused on education than it ever was before, and the work of GPE is far more recognized.”

— Julia Gillard, chair of GPE’s board of directors

To see $2.3 billion raised on the day was a good result. Compared with the funding we had available for the three years before, it was an enormous uplift … However, we’ve still got more fundraising to go, there’s no doubt about that.

The United States has given us our first new pledge since Dakar, pledging $87.5 million, which is a 16 percent increase. They do it a year at a time. Unlike other donors, they are never in a position to come and make a reliable multiyear pledge but … in this environment, I think it is a terrific result.

While it is positive to see major commitments from lower-income countries on domestic expenditure, how does GPE help to track those commitments and hold countries accountable?

GPE tracks public spending on education on an annual basis and also makes data on pledges available on its website for civil society organizations to help monitor and track progress, including through the social accountability funding mechanism currently being developed.

We’ve sharpened up our ability to hold countries to account for the domestic expenditure pledges. We’ve also sharpened up our requirements around increased expenditure when a country gets one of our implementation grants. This means we’re in a better place to track and trace against the commitments given.

How can GPE encourage governments to allocate more to domestic education budgets?

There is a part that GPE can play here, but part of it is broader than us. We can obviously do the advocacy part, emphasizing the priority for education in government expenditures, and also through the conditionality that our major grants only flow if countries are increasing [domestic education] expenditure. The benchmark we use is 20 percent of government expenditure flowing to education.

Obviously, for many developing countries there are issues with taxation flows and systems … I’m pleased there’s more activism around how government revenues can be deepened and better collected. There’s also now much international discussion about the taxation of mobile capital and global corporations. However, as a global partnership for education, we are never going to be the ones with the technical expertise to assist with those discussions.

GPE is currently hosted within the World Bank but the partnership is considering graduating, much like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance did from UNICEF.  Where are we with that process?

There are two processes in train at the same time, and they will need to come together.  

At GPE, we are thinking about the functions and capabilities we will need going into the future as part of our ongoing effort to tighten and improve our operational model and challenging ourselves to get better and better. When you begin to map that, it does start you on the thought process — “can we have all of those capabilities while being hosted solely at the World Bank?” That’s the journey we are on, and no decision has been made.

At the same time, the World Bank hosts a number of bodies, of which GPE is one. The bank is currently doing a broad review about how it conceptualizes itself as a host in the future. At some point, our thinking and what the World Bank decides it is learning from its review will need to come together.

What would be the rationale for graduating from the World Bank?

“GPE is growing and evolving and one thing we’ve been exploring is whether it could potentially be the host of Education Cannot Wait.”

GPE is growing and evolving and one thing we’ve been exploring is whether it could potentially be the host of Education Cannot Wait [a $3.85 billion fund established in 2016 to provide education to children in crises, currently hosted by the United Nations]. Hosting ECW means you have to think about how would you have the functions and capabilities to disperse funds in humanitarian contexts to humanitarian actors.

[ECW disburses funds directly to local NGOs in humanitarian crises but GPE’s current legal status as a financial intermediary fund means it can only pass funds to accredited agencies.]

We’re also looking at the diversity of developing country partners we work with and seeing if there needs to be more diversity in aspects of our operational model. For example, if there is a country in which there is a pooled fund which donors are operating and it’s operating well, would it make most sense for GPE to disperse into such a fund? We are looking at those sorts of things under the banner of what we call “effective and efficient partnerships.”

There is also a set of questions about currency hedging. We get money in currencies from all around the world but predominantly expense in U.S. dollars, so currency fluctuations can cost us a great deal.

GPE is working on a new private-sector strategy. Will it take a position on for-profit and commercial schools, which have been a major source of controversy within the sector?

“It’s not our role to make global declarations from an office tower in Washington, D.C.”

GPE’s strategy and impact committee is developing a new private-sector strategy, due in December. The strategy will look at questions around working with the for-profit sector, but will also look at how GPE relates to the private sector in a whole variety of ways, for example, how businesses with knowledge of data systems can bring that to the table as developing countries are building education management systems.

On the question of private actors, the GPE board has had to confront these kinds of questions before, for example, when we made a grant to Haiti, because the provision of education there is very much in the hands of nonstate actor. As a result, the GPE grant did work with them.

But it’s not our role to make global declarations from an office tower in Washington, D.C. It’s for us to work with our developing country partners who have made different decisions about the engagement of the private sector in their education systems. Some countries take a view that they don’t want for-profit providers; some have welcomed for-profit providers; and you’ve got every graduation between that. It’s never been our approach to adopt a global policy that says “you must do x” and seek to apply it in every country.

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.