Calling Time on the MDGs

By Maggie Black, writer and editor on international social issues.

mdgFifteen years ago, the UN’s member states committed themselves to a dramatic reduction in global poverty by 2015, signing up to a set of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The verdict is now in, and – surprise, surprise – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has announced that, despite a few glitches, the campaign has been a roaring success. A billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. The proportion of undernourished people has dropped from 24 to 13 per cent. And so on, through a carefully qualified list of MDG achievements.

The mainly full, slightly empty glass depicted as the MDG outcome was utterly predictable, and the statistics used to illustrate it were picked for that purpose. It would be easy to select others to show the outcome in less rosy hues. But it seems invidious to do so because the UN and its Game of Goals is the only vehicle for international commitment to improvements in the human condition, as opposed to neoliberal adulation of the market and economic growth. That is a powerful argument for letting the Goals soldier on – a classic example of illusion trumping reality in the murky business of international development.

But reality has to be addressed too. First is the serious doubt, especially if you count from the conveniently backdated MDG baseline of 1990, whether there really has been a significant reduction in the numbers of the very poor. Then there is the question of the measurement of this poverty – less whether the sums are right than whether measuring it has become a displacement activity for doing something about it. And finally comes the most important question. Why is this exercise rooted in a top-down, donor-driven vision, not in an analysis informed by the actual situation, views and opinions of those ‘poor’ the whole campaign is supposed to be about?

These are among the questions addressed in International Development: Illusions and Realities, one of the new titles in New Internationalist’s relaunched NoNonsense series.

In the last 15 or 25 years – is this a coincidence? – the development industry has undergone a process of professionalization and ‘academicization’. This has enabled large amounts of aid to be absorbed by university departments, research institutes and private consultancies created to expand donor influence and pay cheques. Even NGOs have been affected. The industry’s soul has been captured by quasi-corporate entities whose concern for the predicaments of the ‘global poor’ is synthetic. They have become data sets, anecdotal case illustrations or, simply, pawns.

Irrelevant goals

Meanwhile the ‘development’ experience of many of them has been negative. True, a significant number, especially in China, have joined the economic mainstream and climbed a rung or two up the economic ladder. In other cases, ‘development’ has stolen their resource base and destroyed their livelihoods. Dispossession has been accompanied by violence, not by reasonable compensation or a decent job. If your land has been grabbed or your community torched, Goals are irrelevant. This anti-poverty agenda was established by experts who have never familiarized themselves closely, or even at all, with the varied situations of the rural, urban, indigenous, female, child or ethnic minority poor.

Suppose you are one of the millions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America who can only afford to eat five meals a week. The global percentage reduction in hunger will be immaterial. If you are drowning off the coast of Libya or watching a bulldozer flattening your home in slum-dog Mumbai, your child’s vaccination against measles or bed-net against malaria is irrelevant. In the Goals context, such deficits are only noticed as regrets that ‘inequalities’ are growing.

Visit a slum in Kinshasa, Dhaka or Port-au-Prince, or a mega-dam or mining site where communities are being erased, and the degradation and brutality of poverty is tangible. No statistics can do it justice. But statistics is what Goals are all about. And so, inevitably, the statistics mislead. The much-vaunted billion people lifted out of $1.25-a-day poverty were mostly in China during its economic miracle of the 1990s.[i] Since 2000 little has changed. Today, at least a billion people are still living on $1.25 a day. Is this really something to applaud?

The figures are constructs anyway, not head counts. They are derived from formulae based on population figures, purchasing power, dollar equivalents and other variables. Their assumptions are arbitrary: poverty thresholds in Europe and the US are five times as high. Recently, the development industry has made a fetish out of mathematical poverty, refining thresholds and methodologies and calling for an end to ‘extreme poverty’ by 2030. How on earth could attainment – even mathematically – be proved?

At the end of this month, the MDGs will be replaced with the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), consisting of a broader agenda with 169 targets compared to the MDGs’ modest 18. There is a full-scale debate about how they will be monitored and what this will cost: one estimate is $254 billion, twice the current annual global aid budget.[ii] ‘If we want to end poverty, we need to be able to measure it properly,’ says Sabina Alkire, Director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), busily promoting the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) her researchers have created – courtesy of aid.

The MPI has the merit of factoring into the definition of poverty ‘overlapping disadvantages’ faced by poor people, such as poor sanitation, hunger, and lack of education and healthcare, instead of only computing shortage of cash. This statement of the blindingly obvious takes one’s breath away, especially as many of the very poor live in an invisible, resource-based economy where cash transactions barely feature. You would expect poverty experts to know this.

The MPI will be like the Human Development Index (HDI), a breakthrough idea of 1990, whose variables the United Nations Development Programme has since spent several fortunes redefining. Measuring poverty has become more important ‘professionally’ than doing something about it. Data analysis is the development racket of our day. Who measures the anti-poverty contribution of the measurers?

Waving wands

 No global agenda can transform the lives of seriously poor people. The idea that it could is a confection. Improvements in the lives of the poor can only happen on the ground. Action at the global level is confined to a supporting role, providing funds and forums to carry on policy debates and other exercises connected, sometimes tenuously, to practical action. No global stratosphere exists where wands can be waved that will miraculously short-cut the frustrating, difficult, incremental process of poverty transformation where it has to take place.

Goals cannot tackle predicaments of exclusion, family breakdown, violence, exploitation, or the collapse of traditional protective systems and once-viable ways of life. Attempts to assist communities overcome the worst problems they face, besides providing healthcare and education, and to design their own targets and agendas, are eclipsed. What happened to democracy and ‘people-centred’? Why have we forgotten that no development process succeeds unless the people it targets actively participate?

Regrettably, the Game of Goals supports the gravitational pull of the idea that the macro-level is where it’s at and that we in the privileged world can fix up people’s lives in ways they have not envisaged or asked for. In this scenario, the third of humanity living in poverty are players with non-speaking parts in the drama of socio-economic transformation as written by ourselves.

There is another way. Activities carried out in development’s name should be grounded in existing economic and social realities, build bridges to the mainstream, and recognize that local idiosyncrasies have the strongest influence over whether programmes to assist people out of poverty succeed or fail. We need to rediscover ‘small-scale’ and ‘diverse’, and ensure that ‘participatory’, ‘equitable’ and ‘just’ are fully in the picture.

Never mind the Game of Goals. Let it go on. But make sure also to trump illusion with reality. Let, as well, a thousand flowers bloom.

This blog is heavily based on an article that first appeared in the New Internationalist Summer 2015, Issue 485, pp. 42-43. It is reproduced with consent.

Maggie Black is a writer and editor on international social issues and former editor of UNICEF Publications in New York. Maggie Black has written books for OUP, UNICEF, and Oxfam and has written for the Guardian, The Economist and BBC World Service. Her most recent publication is International Development: Illusions and Realities (New Internationalist, September 2015). Email:

[i] Jason Hickel, ‘The death of international development’, Red Pepper, February 2015.

[ii] Bjorn Lomborg, ‘Cost of gathering data on new development goals could be crippling’, Guardian Global Development, 25 September 2014.

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Technology for Sustainable Development: Towards Innovative Value Driven Solutions

By Joost Monks, NORRAG, Geneva.

confOn 8 July 2015, at the United Nations Headquarters, the UN Academic Impact Initiative (UNAI)[1] and Amrita University[2] (India) co-hosted a one-day conference on Technology for Sustainable Development. NORRAG was invited to participate and joined over 700 participants in the event.

In the opening address, Helen Clark, the Administrator of the UN Development Programme, said ‘Sustainable development is at the very heart of the new global development agenda being negotiated at the United Nations this year…In the current set of proposed Sustainable Development Goals, there are goals and targets which relate to economic growth, infrastructure, energy, and strengthening capacities to trade and attract investment. The agenda tackles the challenges of environmental degradation and rapid urbanisation. It prioritises tackling inequalities – indeed the importance of leaving no one behind is a defining feature of the new agenda. …These challenges call for big partnerships to tackle them head-on. The communities of endeavor represented here today must be part of these partnerships’.

In her key note, humanitarian leader Sri Mata Amritanandamayi, urged the scientific community to approach their research with a balance of awareness and compassion, stressing the importance of keeping the upliftment of the poor and suffering in mind when they undertake technological research. ‘Today, universities and their researchers are ranked mainly based on the amount of funding they receive or the number of papers they publish and their intellectual caliber. Along with this, we should take into consideration how much we have been able to use their research to serve the lowest and most vulnerable strata of society. In our approach to sustainable development, we should not forget that it is by strengthening the people at the base of the pyramid that the entire edifice of society becomes healthy and strong’.

Combining the objectives of traditional incentive structures of academia with impact on the poorest populations is challenging but not necessary incompatible as the conference precisely showed. It featured presentations of pioneering research by experts from the world’s top academic institutions, including Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the National University of Singapore, on specific areas of technology and innovation in a wide area of topics, including nanoscience, molecular medicine, biotechnology, wireless networking and haptics[3] (Reuters).

A topic of particular interest for NORRAG, as part of its programme of work on Technical and Vocational Skills Development and, in particular the innovative role of technology and ICTs’ in vocational education, related to the presentation by Prof. Bhavani, Director of Amrita’s AMMACHI Labs, and Prof. J. Kenneth Salisbury, Jr., Research Professor, Department of Computer Science, Stanford University.  They presented their joint efforts related to the creation of low-cost, tablet-based training simulation for vocational training courses accessible to all. These novel approaches show potential as scalable, cost effective, and implementable means of contributing to the SDGs. This issue is of concern for NORRAG as part of its ongoing work on Technical and Vocational Skills Development and the post-2015 SDG agenda, in which the transversal role of education and training on achieving the other SDGs is emphasized by NORRAG.

Prof. Bhavani moreover pledged with Dr. Silvia Hostetller, of the EPFL, for further collaboration in their skills development work in rural villages of India as a part of Amrita’s LIVE-in-Labs educational programme. This programme enables international students, both undergraduates and graduates, to spend two weeks to a semester as a member of a multidisciplinary team of students and faculty at one of the program sites across India. It aims to expose international students to problems faced by rural communities in India through experiential learning opportunities that put theory into practice by generating innovative solutions and facilitating critical and collaborative problem solving abilities of participants. EPFL has already sent a number of students, whose work in India was briefly presented at the conference, and which showed how simple technological solutions and creative thinking can have great impact. This kind of learning opportunity reflects a trend that NORRAG has been observing in the frame of the project that it has launched on building a new vision on Development Studies and International Education in the post-2015 era. It shows the increasing demand by students to gain genuine practical understanding of challenges in development and the increasingly applied nature of Development Studies. By the same token, it illustrates that increasing efforts are made by academia to combine both classical academic approaches and incentive structures with academic work and learning seeking to impact the poorest populations directly.

Joost Monks is the Managing Director of NORRAG, Geneva. Email:


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[1] UNAI is a global initiative that aligns institutions of higher education with the UN in furthering the realization of the purposes and mandate of the UN through activities and research in a shared culture of intellectual social responsibility.

[2] Amrita University is the first university to co-host a new series of initiatives launched by UNAI in its efforts to create an opportunity for leading international universities to present groundbreaking developments with scope for helping the UN to meet its proposed Sustainable Development Goals.

[3] Haptic devices apply forces, vibrations, or motions to the user; this stimulation can be used to assist in the creation and manipulation of virtual objects in a computer simulation.

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The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Education and Decent Work

By Myles A Wickstead, the Open University and King’s College London, advisor to Hand in Hand International and Honorary Vice-President of VSO.

On 2 August, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was agreed by UN member-states and will be ratified by a meeting of Heads of Government in New York at the end of September.

These (17) new Sustainable Development Goals are much more comprehensive than the (8) Millennium Development Goals they replace, and are underpinned by 169 Targets and a set of Indicators that are yet to be determined. If that all sounds potentially rather difficult to memorise, the Preamble to ‘Transforming Our World’ packages it into ‘Ps’:  People (leave no-one behind), Planet (ecosystems need to be nurtured and used sustainably) and Prosperity (Economic Growth). It won’t happen unless there is Peace, and the development of Partnerships is essential for implementation.

The underlying Process was also important, and the Goals and Targets reflect widespread consultation with both Governments and civil society. It comes as no surprise to learn that, when asked, people put access to education and health at the top of their priorities. Perhaps less obviously, jobs and decent work came next on the list.

Look closer, however, and the reasons why become clear. Of course young people leaving the education system want jobs – but so too do people coming up to retirement age in countries that have not yet developed social protection or pension schemes. That priority is fully reflected in paragraph 27 of the Preamble to ‘Transforming Our Lives’:  ‘We will work to build dynamic, sustainable, innovative and people-oriented economies, promoting youth employment and women’s economic empowerment, in particular, and decent work for all.’

These are, importantly, universal goals.  It is an Agenda for all countries in the world, rich and poor, though clearly in many areas the less well-off countries have a further distance to travel (the Financing for Development Conference held in Addis Ababa in July recognised the concept of ‘Common But Differentiated Responsibilities’ in respect of the burden of addressing global public goods such as the environment). Clearly, the main task of national implementation in less developed countries is for Governments (who should determine policy and will bear most of the funding consequences through domestic resource mobilisation) with support from the international community. That will come in part through a shift in education policy, focusing not just on primary education but, as paragraph 25 of the Preamble says, ‘inclusive and equitable quality education at all levels’, including technical and vocational training.

International NGOs should also think about how they can support job creation. For some, that is their raison d’êtreHand in Hand, for example, has trained large numbers of people (typically poor, women farmers), developed their technical and financial skills, then linked them to markets, creating more than 2 million jobs in the process (largely in India, but increasingly in Africa and Afghanistan too). Other international NGOs will have different priorities – but they should all be thinking about training and skills development. Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), for example, is helping local people to develop entrepreneurial skills in countries such as Tanzania.

The development of local capacity and skills is a crucial element of making progress towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and their overall objective of eliminating absolute poverty by 2030.  It will be equally important in achieving the ultimate aim of official aid agencies and international NGOs – which is, job done, to make themselves redundant. That certainly sounds like an agenda the readers of NORRAG News should be keen to support.

Myles Wickstead CBE is a former Head of the British Development Division in Eastern Africa, British Ambassador to Ethiopia, and Head of Secretariat to the Commission for Africa.  He is Visiting Professor (International Relations) at the Open University and King’s College London, and Advisor to Hand in Hand International and Honorary Vice-President of VSO.  He is the author of ‘Aid and Development: A Brief Introduction’ (OUP, 2015).


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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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Skills Development vs. TVET vs. Education vs. Work: Who is the Winner after Shanghai, Incheon and Kuala Lumpur Conferences?

By Michel Carton, NORRAG.

The participants[1] at the 3rd International Congress on Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) (May 2012) adopted the Shanghai Consensus: Transforming TVET, Building Skills for Work and the Future, where they note “the ongoing conceptual debate around the definition of TVET,” including the use of other terms such as “technical and vocational skills development (TVSD)”. The Shanghai Consensus also invited the UNESCO Director-General (DG) to “facilitate the debate on the place of TVET and skills for the world of work in the post-2015 international education and development agenda.” They also recommended “the international community ensure better visibility and support for TVET”.[2]

Three years later, one can wonder whether the Incheon Declaration: Towards Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education and Lifelong Learning for All (May 2015) has taken advantage of the debate that the DG was supposed to facilitate, and whether the way TVET is presented secures its visibility. One can also wonder whether the Asia-Pacific Conference (August 2015) on Education and Training: Making Skills Development Work for the Future, that has adopted the Kuala Lumpur Declaration: Quality Education and Skills Development for Sustainable Future, has clarified the respective notions of TVET and skills development (SD), and consequently the related policy and strategy issues.

Before answering these questions, one must turn to a flashback on the work of the Second World Congress on Technical and Vocational Education, held in Seoul in 1999, entitled Work, Education and the Future. The debates led to some Recommendations: TVET – A Vision for the 21st Century, in which – in the same way as in Shanghai (2012) and Kuala Lumpur (2015) with TVET and SD – there was an open debate as to the term that was more appropriate: TVE and/or TVET. On top of this debate, one can find in the Recommendations the notions of TVE for All, Life Long Learning and Training as well as of Education and Training Systems, which are based on different rationales. Things were as confused at that time as today!

 This demonstrates that for the past 25 years, some very important international documents keep raising conceptual and language questions that are not properly answered, in spite of their consequences on the TVE/TVET/TVSD/Education/Work -related policies and practices. An in-depth analysis of the consequences of such a language mix-up over the last 25 years needs to be done, as a wording imprecision is the reflection of a conceptual confusion and an ignorance of the realities in the field. Fortunately these documents also lead to hopes and create opportunities to assess the constructive changes that have occurred in the past 25 years, as demonstrated for the three more recent ones:

  • Shanghai 2012: even though the notion of Skills Development is to be found in the Consensus, the term ‘TVET’ is more widely used. This might be explained by the fact that UNESCO is officially dealing with TVET, but one can wonder what is the difference in meaning between UNESCO’s TVET and TVSD? The difference lies in the very definition of SD as proposed in the Africa Economic Outlook 2008: TVSD is the acquisition of knowledge and practical competences and know-how in a continuum of locations starting from the formal to the informal sector. In that sense TVET is a subcomponent of TVSD. ILO uses TVSD as it has the legitimacy – that UNESCO does not have – to deal with not only the sate but with all the key stakeholders (states, employers, employees, and special arrangements for the “informal sector”) because of its tripartite constituency.  Hence the ambiguity of the UNESCO’s position in that picture, as illustrated by the convergence of TVET and SD in the title of the
  • Incheon 2015: the (very) short Declaration – in spite of its self-assessed “historic, aspirational, transformative, ambitious, innovative and holistic” nature – is very much a set-back from the Jomtien (1991) and Dakar (2000) documents (Declaration and Plan of Action), in which TVE(T) and SD were much more visible. As a reflection of the low profile of TVET in the Incheon Declaration, TVET is only mentioned once! This is a pity at a time when the economic, social and political necessity of SD – in connection with the changing globalised world[3] is expressed everywhere – including in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8.
  • Kuala Lumpur 2015: the evolution of the wording used for and during this Conference is worth commenting on, in connection with the previous three events. The title of the Conference is Making Skills Development Work for the Future, while the title of the KL Declaration is: Quality Education and Skills Development for Sustainable Future. This move reintroduces Quality Education as a key element for the success of SD, but sets aside the importance of Work and its dramatic changes. Let’s hope that the 2015 Human Development Report devoted to Work (not ‘Jobs’, as the 2013 World Development Report focused on) will reflect on the relations between SD and Work!

Interestingly the title of the Seoul Congress (1999) was already articulating Work and Education, whereas the Shanghai’s and the Kuala Lumpur’s ones are only referring to SD. This is an illustration of the ever-changing dual relations between the three poles of the triangle composed of Education, Training and Work. For example, because of the urgency to deal with the under-/un-employment of many youths leaving basic education today, many organisations such as the Swiss Development Cooperation insist on the necessity to link Education and Training/SD.

This situation leads to a (re)opening of an issue that has been left aside for many years: can UNESCO and ILO keep treating quality basic Education, SD and Work as separate issues despite their interdependence in reality? Is the UNESCO-based UNEVOC properly reflecting this necessary interdependence? Is ILO investing enough in the relations between Work and SD? Is it not time to (re)open the debate for the sake of efficiency? This will disrupt the present bureaucratic silo situation, where three sectors (Education, SD, Work) have their autonomous visions, rationales, budgets, projects and staff. The initiative has to be taken soon if we don’t want SDGs 4 and 8 to be managed at the expense of the needs and demands of youths and adults.

Finally, UNESCO is presented in the Incheon Declaration as the appropriate global coordination mechanism, the focal point able to lead the education 2030 agenda within the overall SDGs coordination architecture. This vision does not acknowledge the fact that education is more and more a vector rather than a sector. It also does not take into account the rapidly evolving international education and training governance arrangements, where the World Bank, UNICEF, Global Partnership for Education, OECD, private foundations, think-and-do tanks and enterprises are challenging the government’s responsibilities – and hence UNESCO’s – in the policy definition and implementation of education. This is particularly relevant for SD if we consider the previous concerns about the way TVET/SD is being dealt with in the Incheon Declaration. Let’s hope that the preparation of the next UNESCO strategy for TVET (2016-2019) will open an opportunity to overcome the bureaucratic borders. And let’s hope that the next UNGA (New York, September 2015) will adopt the same perspective, by opening the way for an intersectoral, transversal perspective for the governance of the SDGs, as well as that of Education and Training.

NORRAG is ready to contribute to this urgent evolution and play its part in convening, brokering and incubating new ideas, which it had been doing between 1996 and 2008 with the Working Group for International Cooperation on Skills Development, as well as with the latest issue of NORRAG NEWS 52: Reflections on the WEF and Financing Education and Skills.

Michel Carton is the Executive Director of NORRAG. Email:


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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

[1] NORRAG has participated in and contributed to the 4 conferences under discussion in this Blog

[2] See the full report of the Congress : Unleashing the Potential : Transforming TVET.

[3] See: Rethinking Education : Towards a Global Common Good ?

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NORRAG NEWS 52: Reflections on the World Education Forum / Financing Education and Skills


NN52The August 2015 issue of NORRAG News (NN) – NN52 – covers two topics:

Though much of what is happening in education and skills financing is arguably not directly linked to the post-2015 agenda, the different routes towards post-2015 all have implications for finance, and especially official development assistance (ODA) financing. Thus the national and regional Education for All (EFA) assessments which came together in the World Education Forum in Incheon Korea (May 2015), a year after the Muscat Agreement, all have financing dimensions. Incheon’s ambitious Goal and draft Targets, most of which found their way into the agreed Outcome Document of the September 2015 Sustainable Development Summit, also have very serious implications for financing.

The EFA Global Monitoring Report 2015: Education for All: Achievements and Challenges 2000-2015, contained a key chapter on aid and financing; it analysed the financial resources available to education, taking into account the roles of governments, international development institutions, households and the private sector.

The Open Working Group’s (OWG) Report (July 2014) and the UN Secretary General’s Post-2015 Synthesis Report (December 2014) have both underlined the importance of ODA financing targets and national financing commitments. The post-2015 intergovernmental negotiations January-July 2015 also addressed the financing dimension of the post-2015 agenda, even as they waited for the outcome of the Financing for Development Conference in mid-July.

Beyond these different routes towards post-2015, there are financial challenges more generally for resource mobilization for education. These include demands upon ODA for DAC donors, as well as new targets for the Global Partnership for Education, and other initiatives such as the Global Education First Initiative. There have also been renewed concerns about the priority of domestic financing for education. Emerging non-DAC donors, including the BRICS countries, will be under pressure to relate to any new financing agreements post-2015. So too will private philanthropic foundations.

Apart from these, and from the continued priority focus on the funding of education as a global public good, it is crucial to look critically at the world of private education, including the mixes of the public and the private in shadow education environments, as well as the so-called low-fee private school regimes, and the no-fee school provision by non-government and civil society organizations. The extent to which the private sector and private firms are part of the solution to education finance needs to be carefully interrogated. This includes the interest several bilateral donors have in relating much more closely with the private sector.

It is also necessary to examine what has happened to the apparently promising world of innovative financing for education. Which of the many creative schemes are actually delivering finance for education, and what others have the realistic potential to do so?

There is also a need to review the particular challenges of the financing of education in conflict, post-conflict and emergency situations.

Running through the review of various financing modalities and mechanisms, we need to highlight specific financing approaches which are more suited to some sub-sectors of education and skill, than to others. Again, there are particular schemes related to life-long learning, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) financing and even early childhood education financing.

A final, but key concern, in this issue of NN relates to the way different types of financial resources for education are allocated. Development partner concerns with resource allocation and monitoring of education have produced a series of schemes which have promised a good deal, from Cash on Delivery to Results-based Financing for education, and skills development funds. Running through all of these is the concern with value for money (See NN 47). But, perhaps even more importantly, there is the need for further analysis of the way that domestic resources for education are actually allocated; how efficiently and equitably are these managed, now that these have become a central priority of financing for development?

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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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Drifting Basis for International Norms in the 3rd Financing for Development Conference

By Zhang Chun, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

moneyThe 3rd Financing for Development (FfD) conference has just concluded (July 16th 2015) and agreed an action plan. While there is much criticism on the hallmark failure of the conference to agree on the creation of a global tax body, there were under-reported, yet historic, changes regarding international norm-building that will themselves have a significant impact on the evolution of the international system.

Since the creation of the Westphalian system nearly four centuries ago, international norms have been dominated by the Western powers or the developed world. With regard to building the post-2015 development agenda and a related mechanism of financing for development, the international community faces three challenges: upgrading the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the collective rise of the developing world, or the Rest, and the relative decline of the developed world or the West.

In sum, there is a fundamental challenge for the international community, that is, who should play a leading role in international norm-building. For the developing world, how to participate effectively in the norm-building process and play a bigger role is the key concern; for the developed world, how to maintain its traditional leading role in norm-building is of great importance.

Four historic trends in international norm-building

From the discussions in the 3rd FfD conference, we can conclude four historic trends in international norm-building, which definitely have adverse impacts on the developing world.

First, the moral standards for international norms have been raised to a higher level. Under the MDGs, the key goal was to reduce extreme poverty (measured by 1.25 USD per day); along with other goals, the MDGs were a kind of ‘negative growth’ goal to prevent the worst case scenario. When negotiating sustainable development goals (SDGs), the international community has argued for an integrated approach to economic, social, and environmental development. The SDGs pursue not only ‘negative growth’ but also ‘positive growth’ goals, with lots of ‘quality’ goals, such as reducing inequality, improving the quality of primary education, promoting sustainable consumption and production, among other things.

From a perspective of the moral basis of international norms, the MDG approach is much lower than that of the SDGs. In other words, MDGs’ moral standard is some kind of ‘baseline’ to meet the most basic needs of human beings; while the SDGs’ is a kind of ‘benchmark’ to meet certain quality requirement. In the context of developed vs. developing worlds, such a movement of moral standards of international norms hints at a development ladder: in the past, the difference between the developing and the developed worlds lay in ‘more’ or ‘less’; now, the difference is shifting to ‘more’ or ‘better’. Obviously, normative initiatives based on ‘better’ are more preferable than those based on ‘more’ (now mainly advocated by the developing world) in terms of moral correctness, which serves the continuing normative leadership of the developed world.

Second, multi-stakeholder partnerships begin to overtake governments as the legitimate source of international norms. The building of MDGs was dominated by Western governments. However, with the collective rise of the developing world, especially the emerging powers, Western leadership in international norms is challenged significantly. Fully aware of the power shift from the ‘West’ to the ‘Rest’ in inter-state affairs, the developed world has chosen to focus on another power shift, from the ‘State’ to ‘Society’, when dealing with global issues. Hence the inclusion of more and more actors into the building of SDGs and the FfD process. I call this an ‘enlarging norm-building community’, composed of governments, NGOs, civil social groups, transnational companies, academics, etc.

The developed world does have a great comparative advantage in terms of their non-state actors’ strength. However, this norm-building community does not limit itself to the developed world. Indeed, through funding innumerable NGOs and civil society groups and supporting various vulnerable groups including, for example, women, the aged, and disabled, the developed world has built such a community within the developing world as well.

For the developing world, they have done their best to catch up and to build up its capacity of norm-building in the past 15 years. However, after the setting of SDGs, the developing world will find the old rules changed once again. Governments or official actors are no longer the dominant actors in international norm-building; the developing world will very likely lag behind again due to its weakness in NGOs, civil society groups, transnational companies, or non-state actors’ capacity.

Third, the technicalization of norm-building puts the developing world at a disadvantage. Traditionally, norms have been more about morality and legitimacy; with the collective rise of the developing world, the West is losing its leverages in morality and legitimacy in leading international norm-building. The less important element, techniques, now is explored as a new comparative advantage of the developed world in terms of norm-building.

In the case of the SDGs, the report of UN Opening Working Group (OWG) is a compromise between the developed and developing worlds as the debates of inter-governmental negotiations repeatedly highlighted; such a compromise exemplifies the decline of the West’s dominant role in morality and legitimacy in the SDGs. To maintain its leading role, the West showed little willingness to accept such a compromise since the start of inter-governmental negotiation in early 2015. From the very beginning of inter-governmental negotiation, the West has been calling for assigning technical experts with all the tasks of translating goals and targets into indicators, circumventing any political guidance from governments and the UN. Given its disadvantages in technical capacity, such a trend sets a new obstacle for the developing world’s participation in norm-building.

The Fourth historic change of international norm-building that frustrates the developing world is the decoupling of cost-bearing and the leadership of norm-setting. While maintaining a comparative advantage in moral standards, legitimacy, and technical capacity in norm-building, the developed world anticipates a decline of its share in global official development aid (ODA). How is it possible to realize this strategic goal of keeping a leading role in international norm-building with reduced cost-bearing?

The developed world has developed three tactics in this regard. The first is to belittle the importance of ODA from emerging donors by emphasizing the importance of domestic resources and highlighting total official support for sustainable development (TOSSD). The second is to enhance the leverage role that ODA and other official flows can play, which is exemplified in the World Bank’s Program-for-Result (PforR) and Development Supporting Loans (DSL). And the third is to grasp the moral high ground through focusing ODA on least developed countries, especially fragile states, as exemplified by the “New Deal” Plan of G7+ group.

The above four historic trends of international norm-building are very likely to exert long-term impacts on the developing world’s participation in global governance, yet they are largely overwhelmed by the global attention on the failure of a global tax body creation. If ever, here is an opportunity for both the developed and developing worlds to appreciate such sneaky changes for better cooperation. After all, it serves no one’s interest if the world remains a North-South one in the globalized age.

Prof ZHANG Chun is Deputy Director, Center for West Asian and African Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. He specializes in African peace and security, China-Africa relations, UN Post-2015 Development Agenda, and international theory. Email:


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NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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Quality Education – at all Levels – for Everyone? Education in the Outcome Document on Post-2015 Development Goals


clappingYesterday the Outcome Document of the September 2015 UN Summit to adopt the post-2015 development agenda, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, was adopted by consensus (and much applause) at the UN in New York. This post is just a quick review of what the outcome document says on education.

What does this final outcome document have to say about education?

The outcome document is certainly ambitious, and envisages ‘a world with universal literacy… A world with equitable and universal access to quality education at all levels’ (p.3).

It contains a whole paragraph spelling out more of what this means:

‘We commit to providing inclusive and equitable quality education at all levels – early childhood, primary, secondary, tertiary, technical and vocational training. All people, irrespective of sex, age, race, ethnicity, and persons with disabilities, migrants, indigenous peoples, children and youth, especially those in vulnerable situations, should have access to life-long learning opportunities that help them acquire the knowledge and skills needed to exploit opportunities and to participate fully in society. We will strive to provide children and youth with a nurturing environment for the full realization of their rights and capabilities, helping our countries to reap the demographic dividend including through safe schools and cohesive communities and families’ (p.6)

13 education targets across 4 Sustainable Development Goals

In the agreed outcome document, education has its stand-alone Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) with 10 targets, in addition to 3 other education targets under SDGs linked to health, work and climate change.

The full list of agreed education-related targets appears below:

Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

3.7 By 2030, ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including for family planning, information and education

Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

4.1 By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes

4.2 By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education

4.3 By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university

4.4 By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship

4.5 By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations

4.6 By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy

4.7 By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development

4.a Build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all

4.b By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States and African countries, for enrolment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries

4.c By 2030, substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing States

Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

8.6 By 2020, substantially reduce the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training

Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

13.3 Improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning


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