UNESCO assigns homework on education targets

A kindergarten student practices writing in Myanmar. Only half of the world’s nations could boast success on the marquee target of universal primary education, according to a UNESCO report. Photo by: Kibae Park / CC BY-NC-ND

A global initiative called Education for All 2000-2015, running parallel to the Millennium Development Goals, just received a report card similarly marked by incompletes for its six-point curriculum.

Merely one-third of the world’s nations achieved all of the measurable goals set 15 years ago, and only half could boast success on the marquee target of universal primary education, according to a UNESCO Global Monitoring Report titled “Education for All 2000-2015: Achievements and Challenges.”

Covering everything from early childhood programs to adult literacy, EFA was “broader and more holistic” than the MDG for education, according to GMR Director Aaron Benavot in an exclusive interview with Devex.

“There are few if any examples of countries that took on all of the EFA goals,” the UNESCO official noted. “What we see are particular countries that concentrated on and achieved success on particular goals.”

Weighing in at over 500 pages, the report will provide a basis for discussions about the sustainable development goals for education at the World Education Forum next month in Incheon, South Korea, and beyond as world leaders put the finishing touches on the post-2015 agenda. This time around, the EFA process is more closely aligned with the SDGs than it was with the MDGs.

The report is quite blunt about the future: “The world will likely remain far from key targets if recent trends continue.” But it ends on a more upbeat note, with a list of “lessons for implementing the new agenda” that draw from the efforts of the past decade and a half.

The five points amount to a homework assignment for world leaders if they are really serious about meeting the projected SDG targets for education. Here’s a rundown:

1. Find new ways to sustain political commitment.

The EFA process suffered from two main political problems, according to the GMR.

First, as with the MDGs, it was assumed that the targets and prescriptions applied only to poor countries. Just as the SDGs are intended to apply to everybody, so will any additional future goals for education. Not only that, but the two initiatives will be designed to better complement each other.

“The two tracks, EFA and the MDGs, were not well-aligned,” Benavot said. “The idea is to maximize the alignment in the post-2015 process for the educational and development communities.”

The second issue was accountability — or rather, the lack thereof. For example, it can be hard to track whether governments use foreign aid for education as a supplement to the domestic budget for schools, thereby adding to total spending, or as a substitute, moving domestic funds elsewhere and leaving education spending where it would have been anyway.

“There needs to be greater transparency about how in-country expenditures are being done,” Benavot noted.

2. Further diversify knowledge, evidence and expertise.

This essentially boils down to forging more and better partnerships with people outside the educational sphere. For example, according to the GMR, improved education can offer an assist toward meeting SDGs in areas such as sustainable consumption. Conversely, poverty reduction can help fuel improvements in education.

Again, better alignment between the EFA and the SDGs should help.

“By and large we have succeeded in setting goals that represent a fairly comprehensive agenda [within the SDG process],” Benavot said. “Many people in the international educational community are pleased with that.”

3. Further strengthen national policy and practice.

The two main issues here are equity and quality, according to the GMR. Few national programs measure the former. While hard to quantify, the latter seems clearly lacking in many places.

Translated as equal access for everyone, “equity is a big concern,” Benavot shared. This affects many marginalized or vulnerable groups, but perhaps the best (or worst) example can be drawn from adult literacy.

“There is very little money for adult literacy,” the UNESCO official noted. “Campaigns do not make a huge dent. Countries tend to focus on schools [rather than on adults outside the school system].”

Quality too can be a slippery issue. At the moment, even families with modest incomes “vote with their feet” by sending their children to often costly private schools, he explained.

If countries concentrate solely on getting everyone in school, “you end up with 100 [children] in a classroom.” To improve quality, there should be less emphasis on teacher salaries and more on teacher training, for example, according to the GMR.

4. Effectively mobilize far more financial resources.

GMR estimated what it would cost to achieve the projected education SDG targets by the new 2030 deadline. The answer: $22 billion more a year.

While that figure might represent a mere drop in the bucket compared with global military spending, it will still be hard to come up with.

“Obviously the funds are not there,” Benavot flatly stated.

Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs favors a Global Education Fund, patterned on experiences in the field of health. Others aren’t so sure.

One thing is certain: Finding the cash to fill the gap presents a major challenge.

5. Bring the monitoring and reporting of progress to a new level.

New data gathering and analytic technologies must be adopted to help ensure that investments indeed help those most in need.

“Data gathering has to be more disaggregated by region and group,” Benavot said. “This data is not always available. It needs to be if we are going to monitor whether the marginalized groups are being targeted.”

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    Bill Hinchberger

    Bill Hinchberger is a global communications professional and educator. He studied at Berkeley and has taught at the Sorbonne. Based mostly in Paris, he spends quality time in Brazil and the United States, and works extensively in Africa and Latin America. He has served as an international correspondent for The Financial Times, Business Week, ARTnews, Variety, and others. One current focus of his work is content creation for foundations, NGOs and other organizations, especially those working on issues related to international affairs, the environment and development. He also runs training programs for professional journalists, notably in Africa, and is an associate of Rain Barrel Communications, a leading consultancy for social justice projects.