It may be true that every journey begins with a single step. But when it comes to education, especially in low- and middle-income countries, we have a long way to go. Fortunately, many efforts are now underway to help these countries cover the distance and reach the Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring quality education for all by 2030.
As a special envoy for the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, I have led high-level delegations to 14 countries across Africa. On those visits, I witnessed firsthand the commitment of the continent’s leaders to undertake reforms and boost investment in education.
But if the SDG on education is to be achieved, African leaders’ commitment must be matched by commensurate support from the international community, potentially through an International Finance Facility for Education (IFFEd). As matters now stand, the international community is falling short in this area – particularly when it comes to financing.
Even as many countries in the developing world have stepped up their commitment to improving and expanding education opportunities, education has remained chronically underfinanced, with funding levels far below what is needed to achieve education benchmarks. Since 2002, education’s share of official development assistance (ODA) has actually fallen, from 13% to 10%.
The Education Commission’s groundbreaking Learning Generation report makes clear what is at stake, particularly for African countries that have long suffered from education shortfalls. By 2050, Africa will be home to a billion young people. By 2030, if current trends persist, only one in ten young people will be on track to gain basic secondary-level skills in low-income countries, the majority of which are in Africa. Simply put, we now risk compromising the future of an entire generation.
But that outcome can be avoided. The Education Commission’s report also shows that progress on education reform, coupled with more effective spending, could increase access to education, boost completion rates, and improve learning outcomes considerably.
To advance these goals, the Education Commission proposes a financing compact whereby low- and middle-income countries would agree to increase domestic public expenditure on education from an average of about 4% of GDP today to 5.8% of GDP by 2030, while implementing reforms that ensure the efficient use of resources. In exchange, the international community would increase its financing over this period, from about $16 billion per year to some $90 billion, as well as provide coordination mechanisms to ensure the most efficient use of funds.
ODA would have an important role to play in delivering on the compact. And, indeed, the Education Commission calls for increasing education’s share of ODA to 15%. But even with such an increase, more funding will be needed. That is where the IFFEd comes in.
The IFFEd would bring together bilateral donors, the World Bank, and regional development banks in a coordinated manner, enabling them to pool their resources and leverage idle capital where appropriate. Once in operation, the IFFEd could, by 2020, mobilize $13 billion annually in additional resources for education in countries determined to invest in and reform education.
The IFFEd would not be a handout. It would support countries, many of which already invest a significant portion of their national budgets in education, in their efforts to achieve the SDG on education. It is the biggest, boldest, and most profound step we can take to ensure that the next generation is not lost, but learning.
In partnership with Education Commission Chair and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, I have taken several steps to advance the creation of an IFFEd. The first step was to determine which countries, if any, saw the need for it and would be willing to do the work needed to benefit from it.
So, when visiting an African leader, I would ask a simple question: In light of the Education Commission’s report and action plan, would they be willing to commit to the levels of education investment and reform required to qualify for IFFEd assistance? The leaders of all 14 countries I visited said yes. Indeed, they not only expressed their interest in becoming “pioneer countries”; all of the leaders I met declared that such a breakthrough was both critical and long overdue.
Now comes the hard part: turning rhetoric into reality and commitment into progress. With the demand for an IFFEd well established, we are ready to bring the call for a mass mobilization of international finance for education to those who can make it happen. We will do so at the IMF-World Bank Spring Meetings this week, at the G20 summit in July, and at the United Nations General Assembly in September.
We will continue taking steps to advance education reform and development where it is needed most. We hope that, before long, the international community will join us, by participating in the IFFEd. Only if we all work in unison can we fulfill our promise to have all children in school within a generation.
As we take further steps to achieve this vital goal, we should be inspired and guided by the words of Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” We can achieve a world-changing education revolution within a generation. But everyone needs to play their part.