Economic Progress

How can we fund education for all?

Gordon Brown
United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education; World Health Organization Ambassador for Global Health Financing, The Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown
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Economic Progress

This year is a critical one for education worldwide. Despite a commitment by the international community to guarantee universal primary schooling, some 58 million of the world’s most marginalized children remain out of the classroom. And, as we seek to expand the international community’s commitment, so that by 2030 every child has the opportunity to attend secondary school, we must work hard to provide the necessary funding.

This is why the upcoming four-day World Education Forum in South Korea, the homeland of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is so important. According to most estimates, providing universal secondary education will cost international donors an additional $22-50 billion a year, even after developing countries ramp up their commitments. If we fail to raise that money, the hopes and ambitions of millions of children are certain to be crushed.

The Forum will focus on how to bridge the funding gap. Later, on July 7, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Foreign Minister Børge Brende will convene a summit in Oslo with the aim of raising education’s profile among global priorities, reversing negative trends in financing, and identifying ways to support students more effectively. Other conferences, including the Addis Ababa International Conference on Financing for Development, the Education International World Congress, an #UpForSchool Town Hall during the UN General Assembly, and the 28th Session of the General Conference of UNESCO, will provide forums for action and discussion.

It is fitting that the first of these events is taking place in South Korea and that Ban will be one of the key speakers. Ban’s personal story illustrates the difference education can make in transforming a life.

Raised in war-torn Korea in the 1950s, Ban’s elementary schooling – made possible by help from UNICEF – took place under a tree. UNESCO provided the books, which bore an inscription that read, “Children should work hard, and by doing so they will repay their debt to the United Nations.” No one could have imagined that one of those students would repay his debt by becoming Secretary-General and using that position to lead a campaign, the Global Education First Initiative, to provide others with the opportunity he received.

Education is central to achieving all of the other Sustainable Development Goals; it unlocks gains in health, women’s empowerment, employment, and overall quality of life. The trouble is that providing for a proper education system requires at least 5% of a country’s GDP and usually about 20% of public spending. Few developing countries have undertaken spending on this scale.

For the time being, outside help will be essential. There are clear limits to poor countries’ ability to mobilize the domestic resources needed to provide secondary education for all. The international community must help make up the difference by looking to private foundations, businesses, charitable organizations, and global and national funding.

The cause of education still lacks a major philanthropist like Bill Gates. And, although the Global Partnership for Education raised more than $2 billion in its replenishment effort, health programs have more funders, reflected in, for example, the $12 billion Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Only recently has Norway assumed a vanguard role in making education of all children worldwide a national priority.

Currently, education accounts for only 1% of humanitarian aid in emergencies, despite the fact that millions of children are refugees in need of help, not just for days or weeks, but often for years. Nearly half of the out-of-school population – some 28 million children – now reside in conflict countries, with millions trapped in refugee camps or tent cities.

Among the proposals being discussed at this year’s meetings is the establishment of a fund for education during emergencies and a coordination platform to help channel resources to places like Syria, where the conflict has left nearly three million children out of school. Likewise, in Nepal, 25,000 classrooms are in urgent need of reconstruction or retrofitting to withstand earthquakes.

The effort to provide humanitarian aid in emergencies is just one part of the agenda for global education. Just as the International Finance Facility for Immunization provides front-loaded funding mechanisms for health, we now must consider innovative financing instruments, like social impact bonds, that promise not only to increase enrollment, but also to improve student retention and learning.

Today, the richest countries in the world spend about $100,000 educating a child to the age of 16. In Sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, an average child from a poor family will receive less than four years of education, at a cost of $150 per year – only $12 of which originates in the richest countries.

Our long-term aim must be to ensure that citizens of the world’s poorest countries have not only the same educational opportunities, but also the same educational attainment rates as their counterparts in richer countries. Only when this is accomplished will we be able to say that the struggle for the right to education has been won, and that we have created a world in which all children can realize their hopes and ambitions.

This article is published in collaboration with Project Syndicate. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom, is United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education.

Image: Students sit for an exam at the French Louis Pasteur Lycee. REUTERS/Vincent Kessle.

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