The Education Financing Gap Requires Citizen Support

The past week (9-18 July) was critical. New York City hosted the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development[1](HLPF).  The United Nations established the HLPF in the Rio+20 meet in 2012 with the release of the report “The Future We want.” At the HLPF, member states conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels and report to the UN. These Voluntary National Reviews are presented and discussed at the HLPF. These may include successes, challenges, and lessons learned with the premise that this process will hold the countries accountable and fast-track towards meeting the SDGs. In 2019, 47 countries (7 for the second time) presented country-led VNRs. Just as a reminder, 193 countries promised to meet Agenda 2030. These 47 reporting countries do not include India, Nigeria, and other such significant countries.


“Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality,” the theme for HLPF-2019 was apt as the meeting was to discuss the progress towards specific SDGs. More specifically, these SDGs included Goal 4- Education, Goal 8-Growth and Employment, Goal 10-Inequality, Goal 13-Climate Change, Goal 16-Promote peaceful and inclusive societies, Goal 17-Partnerships. Tall agendas and a big ask! The member countries are striving to meet the SDGs. The progress towards these goals was to be reviewed in 8 days, by more than 90 ministers and officials, in 130 panels in the presence of more than 2000 participants.


GEM report- Meeting Commitmentsaccompanied the presentation of the VNRs. Are Countries on Track to Achieve the SDG 4 (Education Goal)? The report presents updated statistics on all the SDG 4 indicators. The report paints the picture that if business-as-usual continues the world is set to fail on Agenda 2030 for Education. In 2017, 262 million children or 18% of all children and youth (6 -17 years) were out-of-school. Based on trend-lines, this number may only slightly drop to 225 million (14%) by 2030. 61 million children or 16% of adolescents of lower secondary school age (12-14 years) are out-of-school. The countries and we are still failing to send EVERY child to school. Many sub-Saharan countries are pulling down the enrollment averages. Primary School completion numbers have increased to 84% in 2018 and are up from 70% in 2000. However, many millions are still dropping-out before they complete primary schooling. The lower secondary school completion rate is at 72% with upper secondary being 48%. From the lucky pool of children who get to enroll in primary school, only about half of them remain to complete upper secondary. If these trends continue, the GEM Report predicts that 81% will complete lower secondary and only 58% will complete upper secondary by 2030. While the benchmark for all these indicators is 100%, the actual levels are falling short by huge margins.


The children who attend school, what are they learning? Target 4.1 on learning is far behind as many countries are still discussing the best metrics to measure learning. GEM Report states that countries have made progress in “defining ways in which different national and cross-national assessments map to each other, as well as in establishing a minimum level of proficiency at each of the three points of measurement (grade 2, or 3, end of primary, end of lower secondary) and for two subjects measured in this target (reading and mathematics)” (p.4).  While discussions on learning metrics are under-way, some countries like India have been reporting learning on a large scale since 2008. India’s ASER report from 2018 shows that nationally, about half of all children can read and less than a third can do basic arithmetic[2]. Where are the countries going wrong? Are the children starting early enough to avoid this learning lag? UNICEF’s Early Childhood Development Index (ECDI) measures the school readiness on 4 domains- physical, socio-emotional, learning, and literacy-numeracy. The GEM Report shows that for low-income countries, only 62% of 3-4-year-olds are considered “on-track.” Malnutrition in many low-income countries impacts the ECDI’s physical domain. The cognitive domain is as low as 11% in low-income countries. Lack of exposure to any reading material in children’s homes could be one factor for low cognitive preparedness in the early years. GEM Report notes that only 0.3% of those in the poorest 20% of the households live in homes with at least 10 books. Not surprisingly, many emerging countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia, struggle to get their children ready for school.


Children are not alone in the literacy darkness; there is a missed generation of adults and youth who remain illiterate in this 21stcentury. Currently, there are 750 million adults who lack basic literacy. There are more women in this category and again, more economically weaker countries in this category. Why will anyone in this day and age want to remain illiterate? Why will parents not want to send their children to school? Why are countries still failing to provide these essentials? One primary reason is the financing of education. If we look at the indicators, developing countries are failing to meet the indicators. Countries need financing help. They need aid and not loans since loans need to be repaid with interest.


GEM Report notes that the annual spending on education in low-income countries is US$22 billion of which Government accounts for 79% of the total spending and households 20%. To meet the SDGs, 6% of the GDP needs to be allocated to education as opposed to the current 4%. Poverty remains high especially in the Sub-Saharan region with 41% of the population living on less than $1.90 a day in 2015[3]. Therefore for poorer countries, re-allocation of more education funds may not be feasible since they are already struggling to provide even the 4% to education. At this rate, SDG 4 is a distant dream for many low-income countries.


UNESCO’s costing model estimates an annual total cost of US $340 billion will be needed to achieve universal pre-primary, primary and secondary education in low and lower-middle income countries by 2030[4]. The average annual per-student spending for quality primary education in a low-income country is estimated to be US$197 in 2030. UNESCO estimates an annual gap of $US39 billion between 2015 and 2030. This financial gap calls for action from private sector donors, philanthropists, and international financial institutions. Jeffrey Sachs, University Professor at Columbia University, has called for an African Education Fund. He explains that this is an Education Window in a new Africa SDG Fund. Sachs urges contributions by partner governments, foundations, and high-net-worth individuals to increase the aid to education.  In particular, he calls out to the world’s 2,200 billionaires who have a combined net worth of $10 trillion to do their share of improving global education.  According to Sachs’s calculations, the billionaires alone could easily finance the $39 billion per year gap – just 2,200 individuals, enabling 260 million children to be in school and to have a viable future.  Financing this gap would cost the billionaires less than one-half of 1% of their net worth each year.


Making the governments accountable and asking them to increase the education sector allocation could be a blunder given their current weak economic position. Between many competing priorities and challenging demands, Agenda 2030 and in particular SDG4 will soon be lost and forgotten. To achieve the education goals, the billionaires of the world must unite to increase international aid. Mr. Bezos are you listening?










[3]IMF Staff Discussion Note: Fiscal Policy and Development: Human, Social, and Physical Investment for the SDGs.

[4]Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Policy Paper 18. Pricing the right to education: The cost of reaching new targets by 2030.

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