Schoolgirls in a classroom in Pakistan. Education is a foundational component in eradicating poverty, the overarching objective of the development goals. But, despite the importance of education in achieving the SDGs, fewer than 50 percent of respondents in the more traditional donor countries believed supporting education was very important. Photo by: Lana Slezic / DFATD-MAECD / CC BY-NC-ND

Education is something that most people in wealthy countries think they understand — most attended schools themselves and have their own personal experience of what education is, what it does and what the experience means. We have all heard rhetoric from politicians about education being critical for growth and competitiveness, and at some level, most people accept that there is a connection between success later in life and a good education.

So we “know” education is important. And a recent survey Ipsos conducted with nationally representative samples across 17 countries confirms what we know — a majority of people, 53 percent, think that ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all is very important, and another 37 percent think it is somewhat important.

There are stark differences by country, however, as 94 percent of respondents in the United Arab Emirates and 72 percent of respondents in South Africa and Brazil believed it is very important, while only 29 percent of Japanese respondents and 34 percent of South Korean respondents did. What do these differences indicate about how we perceive the role of education in our families, communities and nations?

The Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals has stated that the overarching objective of the SDGs is to eradicate poverty. Education is a foundational component in achieving this goal — specific knowledge and knowing how to learn underpin achievement of other goals, such as those related to health, sustainable agriculture, sanitation and natural resource management.

Education systems are also an important means of transmitting and inculcating social and cultural values, which can support or hinder progress toward gender equality and peaceful and inclusive civic processes. And while economic growth alone is not sufficient to eliminate poverty, it is a critical element in its eradication, and the links between education and increased household income are well-documented.

In a recent Ipsos survey, a majority of people, 53 percent, think that ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all is very important. View larger version.

Despite the importance of education in achieving the SDGs, fewer than 50 percent of respondents in the more traditional donor countries — Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States — believed supporting education was very important. Substantially more respondents in countries that have more recently become donors, several of which have themselves been aid recipients, rated the importance of this goal highly. In the UAE, South Africa, Brazil, Turkey and Russia, it is rated as highly important by 70-95 percent of respondents. Thus, there seems to be an imbalance in what donor nations (or their voters) will be willing to fund and what recipient nations may need to achieve the goal.

Although government expenditures on education vary substantially, a number of countries report education expenditures exceeding 20 percent of all government spending — an indication of strong commitment on the part of those governments to prioritize investments in education, but also perhaps an upper limit on what can be supported with local resources.

So what will it take to get there? In the short term, JBS sees the need for a three-pronged strategy to ensure progress toward SDG 4: effective outreach to potential supporters in donor countries to ensure strong commitment to SDG 4; establishing parameters of what it means to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education; and adoption of policies at national and local levels that set the legal framework for access to quality education.

The last of these, creating legal frameworks that provide entitlements to education, is in progress in most countries — supporters in key constituencies, national and local governments, and donor communities have made significant strides in this area, and with continued focus and attention, will be able to establish legal and regulatory environments conducive to facilitating SDG 4.

The second prong of this strategy is underway as well with the development of indicators for SDG 4. This task is challenging because it requires the use of normative indicators, which to have any validity across communities and countries must be highly specified and clearly understood.

Continued consultation with diverse audiences, with a clear focus on what the desired outcome of education should be — for example, holistic personal development enabling individuals to attend to their personal well-being, financial self-sufficiency, and civic engagement within their communities — should yield a number of indicators that will help communities and governments assess and address gaps in education system performance. This needs to be paired with continued generation of evidence as to what works in education in which circumstances and how it can be scaled.

The first prong of this strategy, mobilizing the political will to maintain the levels of funding needed, may be the biggest challenge of the three. Many misperceptions about the resources donor countries dedicate to foreign aid persist. Ipsos’ survey of 17 donor countries also asked respondents about their perceptions of foreign aid spending, and most respondents significantly overestimate the funds dedicated to foreign aid. In the United States, for example, 59 percent of respondents believed that 10 percent or more of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid, when the actual figure is approximately 1 percent.

So it seems that better awareness and education on funding facts in donor countries will be critical to achieving the SDGs as well — ensuring that domestic constituencies have accurate information, not just about programming and results achieved, but also about associated program costs and cooperating country support for education. We look forward to working with partners in the international development community as we all undertake renewed efforts to generate evidence and improve education for children and adults around the world.

Visit the Ipsos news center to see the data and other articles in this series. Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Christy Allison

    A senior principal and senior research associate at JBS International, Christy Allison co-leads the organization’s international division, conducts and oversees research and evaluations, and supports business development in both international and domestic lines of service.
  • Maria Brindlmayer

    Maria Brindlmayer is a senior knowledge management specialist at JBS International and is an expert at leveraging technology and content to generate business value and meet the needs of the target users.