With SDG 4 out of reach, World Bank launches more 'feasible' education target

World Bank President David Malpass at the launching of the “Learning Poverty” measure. Photo by: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — As the global education targets set by the Sustainable Development Goals slip further out of reach, the World Bank is calling on countries to focus their efforts around a new, simpler target — to at least halve “learning poverty,” defined as the number of 10-year-old children unable to read a simple story, by 2030.

More than half of all children in low- and middle-income countries — and nearly 90% of those living in sub-Saharan Africa — are not able to read proficiently by age 10, according to new research by the bank. The bank calls this “learning poverty” and says it is a significant problem because reading is a “gateway” to other subjects and skills; kids who haven’t mastered it by grade four are less likely to catch up.

In response, the multilateral development bank launched a new initiative on Thursday calling on countries farthest behind to at least halve their learning poverty rate by 2030, with the ultimate goal of reaching zero learning poverty. The initiative comes as data from the United Nations statistics reveals that progress toward meeting the SDG 4 education targets — which include universal literacy and numeracy — are too far off track to be met by 2030.

“More than half of all 10-year-olds in low and middle-income countries can’t read [and] that is unacceptable. Wiping out learning poverty ... is an urgent matter and a key to alleviating poverty in general, boosting shared prosperity, and key to helping children fulfill their potential,” David Malpass, president of the World Bank, said during the launch event.

“That’s why we are setting a new target today of cutting at least in half the global level of learning poverty,” Malpass said, adding that while hitting the target won’t be easy, it is “achievable,” and will require “stepped up coordination and resources.”

Part of this problem is also that the SDG 4 targets are too ambitious and broad for some policymakers to get behind, according to Jaime Saavedra, global education director at the World Bank.

“SDG 4 has a large number of indicators but it’s not good for a whole of government approach, we need something more concrete and which everyone can understand,” Saavedra said.

In contrast, halving learning poverty — which will require some countries to triple their rate of progress on literacy — is “tough but feasible,” while also being easy to understand, he said.

The target comes with a broader “literacy policy package” that urges countries to set clear literacy goals, and also commit to measuring them, and to improve teacher recruitment, training, and practices. The bank also wants educators to teach early-grade children in their home language since research shows it leads to better learning outcomes.

Global education experts welcomed the move but also raised questions about how the new target will align with the SDGs and the work of the U.N.’s beleaguered education agency UNESCO, which is responsible for coordinating and measuring progress on SDG 4.

Katie Malouf Bous, senior policy advisor at Oxfam International, said it “shouldn't be allowed to distract attention away from SDG 4, an agenda that ... was agreed through an inclusive consultative process.”

David Evans, senior research fellow at the Center for Global Development, said he sees the target as complementary to, but not a replacement for, SDG 4, and stressed the importance of building equity into the target.

“It may be tempting for education systems to start with the kids who are easiest to teach … so it would be useful to hear how the bank will seek to avoid leaving the most vulnerable kids behind,” Evans told Devex.

According to Saavedra, the learning poverty indicator has “equity embedded in the target” since the objective is to have all 10-year-olds reading, but he acknowledged countries will need to spend more resources in order to reach those farthest behind and ensure equal opportunity.

Speaking at the event, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said she welcomed the World Bank’s new target but said that early education needs to be prioritized too — and called on governments to commit to providing children with at least a year of early childhood education, which will ensure children are “readier to learn” when they get to school.

“The class of 2030 is already in second grade so there is no time to waste,” Fore said.

While no one from UNESCO attended the launch, the learning poverty indicator was calculated in partnership with the agency’s Institute for Statistics, according to a press release, and will be supported by a new World Bank partnership with UNESCO to help countries strengthen their learning assessment systems and education data.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. 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.