We must grade donors by how they spend their aid, and not how much

Education for all by 2015 posters for international UNESCO conferences. Pauline Rose, director of the EFA Global Monitoring Report, argues that it is not only the amount of aid that counts, but also whether it is used most effectively to ensure that disadvantaged children are in school and learning. Photo by: William Ismael / CC BY-ND

Following the release of our latest EFA Global Monitoring Report, Devex assessed whether and which education donors had “made the grades.” The article asserted that it wasn’t “all bad news in the education donor landscape,” and pointed out that some donors are not only increasing their aid to education, but also channeling the vast majority of their education aid to basic education.

To add further to the conversation, we dug deeper into the data. The crux of the story as regards aid to education must focus on where this aid is being spent, and whether it is reaching those who need it the most.

Looking behind the overall totals of the aid figures from 2010-2011, for example, analysis shows that low-income countries witnessed a larger decrease in aid to basic education than middle-income countries. Nine of the 15 largest donors reduced their aid to basic education for poor countries between 2010 and 2011. As a result, aid to basic education in sub-Saharan Africa — home to more than half the world’s out-of-school population, declined 7 percent between 2010 and 2011. This decline is equivalent to $134 million and would have been enough to fund good quality school places for 1 million children.

Put another way, this fall in basic education aid to low-income countries has resulted in the resources available per child falling from $18 in 2010 to $16 in 2011. The amount available per child in Tanzania fell by $13 from 2009. It is only in breaking down totals that you find the real story for whether aid is sufficient to help children into school or not.

Focusing on totals, therefore, misses the picture. Devex mentions the European Union as a donor that is “largely protecting its contribution in aid to education” in 2011-2012, for instance. While it is true that its overall aid to education has gone up, looking more closely shows that it has decreased its allocations to basic education. This affects the poorest families and girls the hardest who are most likely to still be out of school.

The totals mask the fact that many low-income countries, which rely on aid to keep their education systems going, will have been hit by cuts in their aid. Given that a large proportion of education spending is on teacher salaries, sudden reductions in aid can mean that teachers are not paid on time, or that teachers leaving the profession are not replaced. Cuts in aid risk seriously harming the quality of education.

Breaking down the headline figures in the Devex article even further, our analysis shows that one quarter of aid to education never leaves donors’ borders and is instead spent on students studying in universities in rich countries. In addition, 15 percent of aid is in the form of loans that countries have to pay back at concessional interest rates, depriving them of resources that could be spent on education in the future.

Countries such as the United States do not count such spending as aid, partly because most of this funding actually goes to richer countries. In 2010-2011, for instance, China was the largest recipient of scholarship and related funding, receiving around 77 times the amount of aid disbursed to Chad for basic education over the same period. If this “aid” was discounted from the totals submitted to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for 2010-2011, Germany would have dropped four places from being the largest donor in direct aid to education to being the fifth-largest. France would have dropped two places. The World Bank would have dropped from third to 14th place.

These breakdowns show beyond doubt that it is not only the amount of aid that counts, but also whether it is used most effectively to ensure that disadvantaged children are in school and learning.

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

About the author

  • Pauline Rose

    Pauline Rose is the director of UNESCO's EFA Global Monitoring Report (GMR) since August 2011. Prior to taking up this post, she was senior policy analyst with the GMR team for three years, leading the research on the themes of governance, marginalization and conflict. Before joining GMR, Pauline was a reader in international education and development at the University of Sussex.