Wanted: The 'Bill Gates for education'

Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia and chair of the board of directors of the Global Partnership for Education. Photo by: nznationalparty / CC BY-NC-ND

Global education champions are looking for a benefactor, one who can help pull the sector out of its funding slump and turn a disappointing track record into an ambitious — but achievable — agenda. Step one is greater transparency.

The Millennium Development Goals committed the world to achieving universal primary education by the end of this year. Fifty-eight million children remain out of school, according to UNESCO’s MDG report card 2000-2015, and primary school enrollment has slowed in recent years. Of those who do go to school for five years, 245 million do so without achieving basic literacy. The proposed sustainable development goals expand the world’s ambition beyond primary school to universal secondary education, and they tackle challenging questions about educational quality, in addition to access.

Is the world setting itself up to fall short again?

“We’re at quite a curious watershed … We’re about to adopt this very ambitious set of new goals: universal secondary, universal childhood education, access to technical and vocational provision — and that’s all great,” said Kevin Watkins, executive director of the Overseas Development Institute at an event in London last week.

“But we’re adopting these goals having failed to achieve a much more modest set of goals about universal primary education … the backdrop is not great,” he added.

Recent weeks have seen education — particularly girls’ education — thrust into the spotlight, with some big names attached to the cause. U.S. first lady Michelle Obama toured London last week and announced a set of new initiatives and nearly $200 million in joint funding with the U.K. government, intended to benefit girls’ education in the conflict-prone Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The recent momentum belies a hazier, less optimistic funding reality.

“We have got this massive ambition … and it’s going to take a massive step change as well … but donor investment is falling,” Anna French, head of education at the U.K. Department for International Development, said at the ODI event.

In 2013, total official development assistance rose by 11 percent, while aid to basic education declined by 7 percent, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“[Education is] very much the poor cousin, in comparison with health,” Watkins said.

Michelle Obama was not the only prominent education champion in London last week. Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia and chair of the board of directors of the Global Partnership for Education, joined Obama at The Mulberry School, and she spoke with attendees at ODI the next day.

“We need to think very forensically about the capabilities that will have to be added to ... the world’s global education community, if we are going to bridge the gap between the Millennium Development Goal, as yet unrealized, and the full power of the sustainable development goal,” Gillard said.

Global education efforts have something to learn from their less poor cousin, the global health community, Gillard noted. Increases in donor spending on global health have consistently outpaced overall gains. In part that has to do with the health community’s success in attracting new partners.

“We haven’t engaged the business community in a meaningful way,” Gillard said of education, noting that while health and education are fundamentally different — a globally standard vaccination versus a locally tailored lesson plan, for example — some opportunities do translate.

Books, new technology, teacher professional support and professional development modules lend themselves to development and distribution through global supply chains the private sector can provide, Gillard said.

“Many of these things could be susceptible to development in global platforms and more sophisticated modes of supply … we can have a healthy conversation with the business communities,” she added, noting that controversies over private sector involvement in education have often forestalled such collaboration.

But before education champions can expect to find more success in raising funds for the sector, they will need to do a better job of showing where money currently flows and what it is accomplishing, according to Gillard.

Better transparency needs to permeate three areas in particular, she said: “total education budgets and how they are being deployed,” children’s performance in school, and the identification of at-risk populations most likely to go unserved by national or global education campaigns.

I’m enough of an optimist that if you make express manifest unfairness and it is absolutely clear to everyone … that the most advantaged kids are getting the biggest share of the resources, people will step in ... to render that politically unviable for the longer-term and to demand the reorientation based on need,” Gillard said.

“It’s when you don’t have that data and everything’s opaque that it gets harder and harder to have the conversation,” she added.

Transparency can also make it easier to attract the big names, with large sums to donate — so long as they feel their donation will spur real impact.

“We haven’t as yet found the Bill Gates for education,” Gillard said, describing the “patient, long-term time horizons” and “paucity of the metrics” as obstacles to attracting a global funding champion of the caliber global health has found in Gates, the Microsoft mogul turned health philanthropist. Coincidentally, Gates, who co-chairs the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will address ministers of Parliament in London on Wednesday about the need to sustain and expand the U.K.’s commitment to global development.

“If we can fix some of those things so it’s clearer for that big philanthropist that he or she is making a true difference, then I think we will get them, but we haven’t made it as compelling a proposition for them yet,” Gillard said.

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Global education champions will have to confront another troubling reality: out-of-school children increasingly reside in conflict-torn countries, and the global architecture for supporting them has not been up to the challenge. Thirty-six percent of out-of-school children worldwide are estimated to live in areas of conflict, according to UNESCO.

Syria, a country that used to enroll nearly all of its children in school, has seen civil war drive more than half of them out of the classrooms — one of the greatest reversals in education fortune, according to Watkins.

“We clearly lack the architecture that we need to cater to those kids and to support those kids, and if we don’t get that right, then I guess all bets on the SDGs are off,” he added.

For years experts, policymakers and crisis-affected populations have spoken about the need to better integrate humanitarian relief with long-term development, so that short-term efforts feed a longer-term strategy for recovery and self-sufficiency. Education in crisis contexts is another example of that disconnect. The “first-instance response” efforts do embed in them education programs, but as a crisis persists and lingers, educational programs tend to “fall in a hole,” Gillard said.

“By the time the gap has been lived through, that gap is sufficient to be the lives of at least one generation of children … so how do we respond to that gap?” she asked.

2015 presents an opportunity to step back and look at those questions about global architecture and global financing commitments. The third International Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa next month will provide plenty of ideas to campaign on, Gillard said, but “Addis is going to open the conversation, not finish it,” she added.

Many have criticized the SDG negotiators for producing a list of goals so expansive and wide-ranging that the political — as well as arithmetical — possibility to achieve them by 2030 seems remote at best. As Watkins put it, “governments around the world like nothing more than to sign up for targets … and 2030 is remote enough that you’re never going to be held to account.”

According to Gillard, “you can tell if a politician is serious about a long-term target is they not only spell out the aim of the goal, but they actually lay out an implementation plan to get there.”

“I think the world has to do that too. Otherwise it’s not going to be credible,” she said.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.