Q&A: Oxfam's Byanyima calls for more funding for public education

Winnie Byanyima, executive director at Oxfam International. Photo by: International Monetary Fund / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — The head of Oxfam International Winnie Byanyima has called on the World Bank and other donors to focus on “tried and tested” quality public education models over what she called other “fashionable” education options, including low-cost for-profit schools.

Devex spoke to the Ugandan NGO boss after she took part in a panel session organized during the annual World Bank/IMF meetings taking place in Washington, D.C. The session drew heavily from the World Bank’s new World Development Report, titled ‘Learning to Realize Education’s Promise,’ launched last month.  

The report refers to a widespread “learning crisis” where despite spending several years in school, millions of children cannot read or write, and concludes that in many low-income countries “schooling is not the same as learning.” The WDR finds that better learning outcomes will come if schools have better management, children have access to early childhood care and nutrition, and better teacher training and support programs are offered.

The report has been welcomed by many education groups including Oxfam International, who described it as “thoughtful” and “nuanced” in a recent blog. However, the group also criticized the bank for seeming to downplay the importance of financing in the report by saying that resources lead to better learning outcomes only under specific circumstances.  

Devex sat down with Byanyima after the session to find out more about what she thinks governments and donors such as the World Bank should be doing to improve learning outcomes in developing countries, and where she thinks they are going wrong.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the role of financing in improving learning outcomes?

Currently 263 million children are not in primary or secondary school, and this has a lot to do with underinvestment in education and so our key message is about the importance of resources because without adequate money we cannot improve learning.  

UNESCO estimates that the minimum cost for delivering primary education [in lower-income countries] is $200 per child but most low income countries are putting in about $70 per child, so it’s less than half of what is recommended. But we see that some countries make the choice and invest more and then we see the outcomes — Ethiopia and Mozambique are putting the gold standard [by spending above 20 percent of their budget on education] and if they can do it then so can the others. It’s a policy choice.

Furthermore, Oxfam also has a new measure — The Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index — which is a new global ranking of governments based on what they are doing to reduce inequality. It includes assessment of a country’s social spending on public services such as education and we find that countries which invest in education also reduce inequality and so equitable investments in education and learning go hand in hand.  

But funding levels are still far below what they need to be  where can the money come from?

At Oxfam we say it is possible to pay for all children to go to primary and secondary school if we tax the rich and stop tax dodging — the money is there. If governments start to tax progressively and collect the revenues that are due to them from companies then the money for education is there. In Africa alone we estimate that one third of wealthy people’s money is stashed away in tax havens worth about $500 billion. If that money was taxed that would provide about $13 billion a year which would pay for all the teachers we need and leave money left over for health spending.

Are donors like the World Bank doing enough to drive financing for education?

The World Development Report actually shows that there is a link between resourcing and learning outcomes and yet what we see is the World Bank and other donors shifting away from the tried and tested and sure way of providing education through access to quality public education. Instead, they are now looking for more fashionable options like giving money to private, usually commercial, low-cost schools which have not been tested. The bank’s own research shows that there is no evidence that private education leads to better outcomes, and so we need the donors to put more of their aid into education, and not be tempted to go to private sector operators.

The World Bank has defended its investments in low-cost private schools by saying that the status quo in terms of education is not working in developing countries and so it is necessary to experiment with other possible solutions.  How do you respond to that argument?

Many times the experiments of the World Bank and the IMF have been disastrous and they have cost us our lives. I would say this is another experiment which might cost us a generation of children. Africa is the youngest continent and by 2025 more than half our population will be under the age of 21, and so this is the time when we must give them the tools to live a good life.

We cannot be experimenting with these untested low-cost commercial schools when we know that quality, equitable public education works. Experimenting with the lives of the poor is wrong and donors should go for the solution that is tested and we know has worked in their own countries.

Update, October 13: This story was updated to clarify comments on the link between resourcing and learning outcomes

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About the author

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    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based out of Washington D.C. and London where she covers global development news, careers and lifestyle issues. 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.