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Everything is in Place to Track Global Progress on Education: Except the Data

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics and Dankert Vedeler, Co-Chair of the SDG Education 2030 Steering Committee

The global goal for progress on education (SDG 4) has been set: an inclusive and equitable education for every child by 2030. The individual targets that must be achieved if we are to reach the goal are in place, from learning outcomes to teacher training. And experts and organizations working on education data have developed the detailed indicators that will signal whether or not the world is on track to achieve the global goal by the deadline.

So researchers and statistical offices worldwide know the final destination, the route-map and the milestones along the way. Surely it is just a matter of scooping up the required data, crunching the numbers, and plotting a neat and smooth course towards 2030? Wrong. We can have the clearest goals, the best methodologies and the most perfect indicators, but we’re not going anywhere without the data.

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), which is in daily contact with national statistical offices and line ministries around the world, knows only too well that the lack of data – and of the capacity to gather and analyse data – risks holding back global progress on education.

We see two meetings this week in New York – the High-level SDG Action Event on Education and the Third Meeting of the SDG-Education 2030 Steering Committee – as opportunities to put this crucial issue on the table and make the case for far greater investment in data.

To say this is urgent is an under-statement. Right now, we have only one-third of the data we need worldwide to tell us whether all children are reaching a minimum level of proficiency in reading and mathematics (Table 1).

Table 1: Data availability for Indicator 4.1.1: Proportion of children and young people in Grade 2 or 3; at the end of primary education; and at the end of lower secondary education achieving a minimum proficiency level in reading and mathematics[1]








Data coverage falls to just 27% for access to quality early childhood development, including pre-schooling. And it gets worse: just 18% coverage for technical and vocational skills, and 12% for data coverage related to youth and adult literacy and numeracy. And when it comes to SDG target 4.7, on whether learners have the knowledge and skills they need to promote sustainable development, data coverage is precisely zero.

What’s more, we cannot assume that good data coverage means good quality data. Overall, even when countries report data, the coverage varies across questionnaires and regions.

An assessment of the UIS key performance indicators confirms that countries and regions are at different stages of development in terms of their capacity to respond to UIS annual surveys in all fields (education, science, culture and communications). We have found that while 98 countries regularly respond to all of our surveys and about 50 countries generally respond but not always. Yet as shown in Figure 1, 63 countries rarely respond, including 15 of those which never respond at all. Sub-Saharan African countries face the greatest general data challenges in responding to UIS questionnaires.

Figure 1: Response profile for all UIS data collections






Responding to a questionnaire is just the first part of the process. Are countries providing all of the information needed to produce international indicators? About 23 countries provide nearly all the necessary data for key education indicators (identified by the UIS to track data data quality). Yet the coverage for about 43 countries is less than 45%.

Changes in reporting patterns over the past 10 years indicate problems with sustaining regular responses, and there are also issues around timeliness. UIS surveys are aligned to national reporting cycles to collect the most recent data available at national level. We compare the age of the data when it is submitted to us as compared to the reference year, and the younger the data the better. While most countries report data within 12 months of the reference year, some struggle to provide timely statistics.

The UIS works directly with countries to tackle chronic national data gaps on education. We understand their data challenges and when they need help – from completing a survey to tools to improve the production, quality and use of their data – they come to us. We also work directly with the people producing the data – the statisticians – and those who use the data for education policymaking and planning.

We have advanced the debate on who spends what on education at national level – highlighting the burden of spending by families, for example – to get a full picture of education finance around the world.  As well as working directly with countries to compile education expenditure data through our annual surveys, we help them to improve their national statistical systems and adopt new methodologies.

We help countries improve their data on out-of-school children, stressing the need for consistency, with current variations between different types of estimates skewing the numbers – often by millions – depending on the data source.

We build alliances at the global level, working on state-of-the-art methodologies and standards to generate the data needed to reach the education goal. Over the past year, for example, UIS is leading the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML) and co-chairing the Technical Coordination Group on SDG 4- Education 2030 Indicators (TCG).

And we develop new ways to use existing administrative and household survey data to develop indicators on equity, which lies at the heart of the SDGs. As the official source of SDG 4 data, the UIS has established the International Observatory on Equity and Inclusion in Education to foster and develop the methodologies, guidelines and research needed to build a global repository of data and standards to measure equity in education. This information is vital to help countries, UN partners and civil society groups to effectively reach the most marginalised groups.

The bottom line is that national and global development goals will remain just goals without data to keep all stakeholders accountable. That takes money.

To maintain its current data services, the UIS needs $10.5 million each year. But the SDG agenda requires far more – and far more detailed – data than anything that has gone before. And if the UIS is to develop the methodological tools and produce all of the SDG 4 global and thematic indicators, it needs $13.5 million per year. Far from seeing its funding increase at this crucial time, the UIS is facing a budget crunch that threatens its operations, just as the global demands for its data are escalating.

The international education community – from countries and UN agencies to donors and civil society groups – relies on UIS data to direct policy, set targets, drive advocacy and monitor progress. Our hope is that the international education community will recognize the need to preserve and increase the support we can offer.

[1] This table is based on the extent to which countries participate in cross-national learning assessments such as  PISA or TIMSS.

Silvia Montoya (@montoya_sil) is the Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

Dankert Vedeler is the Co-Chair of SDG Education 2030 Steering Committee.

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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 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.


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The Pressure is On! Powering Ahead with the Technical Cooperation Group for SDG 4 – Education 2030 Indicators

By Silvia Montoya and Jordan Naidoo, Co-Chairs of the Technical Cooperation Group for SDG 4.

The pressure is on! This is the conclusion of the recent meeting of the Technical Cooperation Group (TCG) on SDG 4 – Education 2030 Indicators. While discussions covered a range of issues, the question on everyone’s mind was how we will measure learning globally given the tremendous gaps in data, methodology and capacity-building. For example, only 32% of the developing countries receiving support from the Global Partnership for Education take part in learning assessments and their results cannot be compared globally.

So there was a real sense of relief following an update on the latest developments of the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML), which is developing the methodologies and tools needed by countries to strengthen their assessments while reporting on learning outcomes internationally. With GAML leading the work on learning indicators, the TCG could focus on the remaining issues related to indicator development, capacity development and country reporting. These topics are the subject of a series of TCG working groups, which had plenty to share.

Working Group on Indicator Development

At its second meeting in Madrid in October 2016, the TCG identified 22 global and thematic education indicators requiring further methodological development. Seven of these measure learning outcomes and will be further developed by task forces of the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning.

The TCG’s Working Group on Indicator Development is working on another seven indicators right now, with another eight indicators in its sights. The first seven either have an existing methodology that is already being used by somebody, somewhere (for example, in OECD countries) but that needs refinement to reflect the needs and contexts of a wider range of countries, or because the working group can draw on considerable expertise in the particular area under review (Tables 1 and 2).

Table 1: Indicators already in the process of being developed


Table 2: Indicator with established methodologies


As shown in Table 3, another two indicators may be relatively easy to handle by more precisely defining the items to be collected.  For example, 4.4.3 on educational attainment has an established methodology but it covers many different concepts, which the TCG believes can be simplified. So discussions will focus on the extent to which UIS attainment data will be broken down for specified age groups, education levels and – although it may be more problematic – economic activity.

Table 3: Indicators that can be developed relatively easily



The final two indicators need more extensive work and, perhaps, guidance from external experts (see Table 4). But we do have a starting point. On indicator 4.c.5, for example, the OECD has a methodology, but its parameters may not apply for developing countries. It compares the statutory salaries of teachers with those of other public-sector professions (such as police officers and nurses) – a comparison that may not be appropriate in all non-OECD countries.

Table 4: Indicators requiring extensive further methodological development



Working Group on Capacity Development

One issue cut across all of the topics discussed by the TCG – capacity development. The best indicators in the world will amount to little if countries are unable to produce and use them. So during the meeting, countries, such as China, and Argentina, discussed their challenges while partners, like the World Bank, OECD, UNICEF and the GPE presented their initiatives in specific areas and how they can contribute to the wider efforts of the UIS.

The UIS works on a daily basis with countries around the world – from Pacific Island States to sub-Saharan Africa – not just to collect data but to help them strengthen their statistical capacities. In particular, ten countries recently joined a new joint UIS-UNESCO project, CapED, which is designed to bridge the gap between national education policies, data collection and use.

The UIS has developed a range of tools to help countries assess and improve the quality of their data by making the best use of relevant sources and applying international standards and best practices. This work lays the basis for countries to develop their own National Strategy for the Development of Education Statistics.

To leverage these tools, the TCG Working Group on Capacity Development will offer countries guidance on existing tools and resources while helping to identify and consolidate any other capacity development issues flagged up by countries and development partners.

Working Group on Data Reporting

As previously explained, countries are faced with an unprecedented demand for new and more complex indicators given the SDG focus on equity and learning. In reality, however, many line ministries and national statistical offices (NSOs) and line ministries are unsure about where to get the information needed for international reporting.

The TCG Working Group on Country Reporting is grappling with the questions that crop up repeatedly. For example, how do you report data on learning if few NSOs deal with assessments? In general, ministries of education deal with international studies or conduct their own tests or engage in citizen-led assessments. So this is new territory for NSOs, many of which must also deal with household surveys for the very first time in order to find information on equity-related issues.

To show the way forward, the working group will produce a mapping tool to show who collects which data, how data are reported, when the reporting will take place and where the resulting indicators are published. It will also prepare protocols and general guidelines to help countries and organizations find their place within, and manage, these data flows.

Expertise and pragmatism

By bringing countries and technical partners together, the TCG plays a critical role in the larger SDG measurement agenda for all 17 goals. Given the challenges ahead, there is a clear need to mobilize greater support. But most of all, we are learning from one another, as the TCG brings a unique mix of expertise and pragmatism in monitoring progress towards SDG 4.

Silvia Montoya is Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Jordan Naidoo, is Director of the Division for Education 2030 Support and Coordination, UNESCO, Paris. They both serve as co-chairs of the Technical Cooperation Group for SDG 4.

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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 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.


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Creating Productive Jobs for Africa’s Youth: A Huge Challenge with Global Implications

By Birger Fredriksen, Results for Development.

Jua Kali Worker, Nairobi

In an article in the Financial Times (“Africa’s youth, frustrated and jobless, demand attention”, April 13), Mo Ibrahim – chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation focusing on leadership and governance in Africa – rightly called for more attention to the rising unemployment among young Africans. The article discussed several factors that risk “turning sour” Africa’s “demographic dividend” including “…the worrying mismatch between the skills our young people are taught and those needed by the contemporary job market”.

Clearly, education must do a much better job in preparing young people for work. But, as I noted in a letter to the FT editor (April 19), current efforts to address skills mismatch are largely limited to the tiny modern sector of the economy. To make a real difference in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), such efforts must also address skill needs in the informal sector where most people work. This blog expands on this theme.

  1. The magnitude of the youth employment challenge is much greater in SSA than in other regions. This is largely due to the juxtaposition of two increasingly SSA-specific conditions: Continued rapid population growth and very slow modern sector job creation. Between 2015 and 2030, the age-group 15-24 years is projected to grow by 48% in SSA as compared to 4% in South Asia, and to decline by 4% in Latin America and 9% in East Asia. In addition, urbanization is still low in SSA but accelerating (from 40% in 2015 to 47% by 2030). This further adds to the increasing demand for employment in urban areas.

Those who will enter the labor force up to 2030 are already born. Thus, the only way to affect supply is to improve peoples’ employability. And the informal sector will remain the main employer, including for most secondary and higher education graduates. Therefore, efforts to generate employment must give much more attention to investing in that sector, including in training relevant to informal sector jobs. This will help improve young peoples’ ability to find jobs/create their own jobs, increase their productivity, and facilitate their access to more productive jobs higher up the value chain.

As regards labor demand, the transformation of SSA dual economies is in its infancy; 80-90% of the labor force is still engaged in the informal farm and household enterprise sector. Even in middle-income Nigeria, in 2011, 86.5% of those employed were in the informal farm (57.6%) and non-farm sector (28.9%). As much as 33% of the labor force had never attended school, reaching 45% in agriculture. On average for SSA, the manufacturing sector’s share of employment has remained around 6% the last three decades.

  1. The challenge is multi-sectoral; there is no quick “education alone” fix. This said, radical improvements in education survival, quality, relevance, and coverage are essential. On average, only about 60% of those starting primary education complete the cycle (unchanged since the 1970s) and, of those who complete, a low share acquires basic literacy and numeracy (only 40% on average for the 10 Francophone countries covered in the 2014 PASEC survey). Adding that one in five children of school age is out of school, together this represents a massive failure in basic skills development, especially in rural areas.

As regards relevance and coverage, SSA’s high youth unemployment largely reflects the failure to generate jobs. This said, “skills mismatch” is a serious problem. Countries are addressing this mostly by making technical and vocational education and training as well as tertiary education more responsive to modern sector jobs. However, the most serious “skills mismatch” results from training policies that mostly neglect skills needs in the informal sector.  As a result, while most secondary and higher education graduates end up in jobs for which they are “overeducated”, as illustrated by the figures quoted above for Nigeria, a high share of the agricultural labor force is illiterate. And, while SSA obviously must develop the post-basic education skills needed to support national development, the labor market for, especially, tertiary level skills is very narrow. For example, a recent study for Ghana found that less than 2% of the about 250,000 tertiary graduates joining the labor market annually found modern sector jobs (Ansu, 2013).

This broader “skills mismatch” challenge calls for major skills upgrading in the informal sector. Given the low level of basic human capital, especially in the rural sector, this is a massive and complex task. Public sector training providers often serve poorly the particular needs and conditions in this sector. Further, in addition to basic literacy, numeracy and technical skills, to strengthen young peoples’ ability to become entrepreneurs and innovators, they must also acquire basic “21st century” life and career skills.

  1. Developing agriculture holds the key to unlocking many of SSA’s development challenges including generating jobs. Several recent reports call for addressing the general neglect of this sector since the early 1990s. For example, the 2014 Report of the Africa Progress Panel, led by Kofi Annan, calls on governments (p. 83) “…to take off the handbrake that has been holding back agricultural growth. That means investing in infrastructure, removing barriers to regional trade, and applying the lessons of science to embrace a uniquely African Green Revolution”. Similarly, the 2014 “African Transformation Report” from the Ghana-based “African Center for Economic Transformation” emphasizes the key role increased agriculture productivity plays in the industrialization process. But, again, to rise productivity will require massive investments, including in skills development at all levels, from enhancing the basic skills of subsistent farmers to agricultural research capacity.

In addition to generating employment, enhanced agricultural productivity is also a precondition for achieving other key development objectives, such as improved agricultural yields, rural incomes, and food security. The 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report notes that (pp. 45-46) in China “…agricultural growth is estimated to have been three times more effective in reducing poverty between 1980 and 2011 compared to growth in other sectors of the economy. Similar magnitudes are found in studies examining other developing regions” including 3-4 times in some SSA countries.

  1. Education must improve its ability to enhance young people’s employability. This issue figured prominently at ADEA’s (Association for the Development of Education in Africa) recent flagship education and training conference (March 15-17, 2017, Dakar, Senegal). Perhaps more strongly than at any previous such conference, African ministers of education and other high-level officials called for reforms to align education programs better to national economic, social and cultural realities. This is important. Countries must reset education priorities to better serve the large population groups and economic sectors that benefit little from education spending (including aid). To develop the basic skills of people who have not even benefitted from primary education – and who eke out a meager living in insecure, low productivity jobs in the informal sector – is a basic development stage that SSA countries cannot “leapfrog”.

Birger Fredriksen is senior fellow at Results for Development and a leading expert on the development of education in developing countries.

Other references

Ansu, Y. (2013) “Skills development for economic transformation” in The Africa Transformation Report, ACET. Accra.

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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 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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Skin in the Game: Employer’s Ownership in Skills Training for an Emerging Workforce

By Santosh Mehrotra, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The mismatch between the demand and supply of technical and vocational skills is a global concern. The private sector, being the principal user, has a critical role in skills training. However, in most developing countries, the role of the government in the formal sector of skill provisioning is more prominent than that of the private sector. At the same time, in a globalized world where nationalism-driven protection, restrictions on immigration, rapid automation and changing workforce demographics are narratives shaping our future, it becomes all the more crucial and urgent to establish the employers’ skin in the game (i.e. real financial and management interest) to ensure mismatches in development of skills do not occur.

In countries where the demographic trends suggest a rise in the size of the labour force well into the next few decades (especially in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa), young entrants into the workforce will be unable to meet the new challenges of a globalized labour marker in the absence of growing levels of skills and a growing demand for skills. Hence the effectiveness of the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) ecosystem and of employers in imparting skills will become increasingly critical to the employability of youth.

Nations like Germany have shown that employer ownership of skill development can be a key differentiator and a competitive advantage for a country’s skill base. They have avoided building a TVET system that is supply-driven and government-led (which is too often a problem in many developing countries), and developed a demand-driven, industry-led model.

In respect of private sector participation in TVET, two broad models – the Anglo-Saxon and the Germanic models – are used by different countries in their own unique context and requirements. Before taking steps to respond to the skilling challenge of this second decade of the 21st century, developing countries need to keep in mind two sets of challenges they face simultaneously. Most of them have a significant share of the workforce in the informal economy, in self-owned enterprises, or even in tiny, micro-enterprises. With some notable exceptions (e.g. some parts of India’s informal sector or Kenya’s jua kali) the workforce here has low levels of education and similarly low levels of vocational skills. On the other hand, the developing economies have a dynamic, technologically more advanced, relatively capital-intensive sector of enterprises, where much higher levels of education and skills are required (in Sub-Saharan Africa this sector is mostly foreign-owned, though not so in South Asia). Navigating the pitfalls of creating a skills development ecosystem that caters to the needs of different types of enterprises, with varying levels of technology, is a huge challenge for the organizational capabilities of skill system planners in government. They tend to go with what they are used to, and end up building supply-driven, government-financed TVET systems, largely dominated by pre-employment providing training institutions.

However, most experience in industrialized and emerging countries tells us that such systems are doomed to be failures. What they need to do instead is to systematically examine policies, institutional frameworks, incentives, and regulations governing employer’s ownership in the two hegemonic TVET systems, and try and draw the appropriate lessons for their specific country-context.

Employer ownership of skill training starts with identifying their skill concerns and then ensuring that they address those same concerns. The industry is not a bystander; it should be an active contributor, shaper, designer of skills policies and help to deliver them.

Skills financing policies in many countries vary in this regard; they affect how skill development markets evolve and in many cases cause market failures. Hence, the skills financing models of emerging market economies, in particular Brazil and other Latin American countries, South Africa and Asian countries (e.g. Korea, Malaysia, India) should be examined.

One of the key ways to bring all employers onto a common platform for skill financing is by addressing the moral hazard problem (“I don’t skill my workers as you will poach them, and vice versa”), which leaves each employer worse off. One instrument to bring their skin into the game is a “Reimbursable Industry Contribution” (RIC), a financing mechanism that is known by different names in different countries. Linking financial benefits for employers to elicit key compliance for skill development can be a good start for a more intensive employer role. The normal mechanism of such ‘skin in the game’ for employers is where industry pays a levy, that goes into an ear-marked fund for training purposes, over which industry should ideally exercise control. Industry benefits when it conducts in-house or pre-employment training, since they are reimbursed the costs of such training, at least partially.

A key issue must be the size of the formal private sector. If the size is small, too few resources will be generated; but if it is large, then it can serve as an effective means of mobilizing additional resources for skilling.

However, there will always be a government role even in a demand-led, employer-driven model. The government’s role in funding is limited to balancing social equity goals while the private sector funds TVET to enhance its productivity. Other key methods for enhancing ownership can be by pre-employment internships, on-the-job training or apprenticeships, gifting/sharing of machinery and equipment to vocational schools, first-right on phased-out equipment and machinery for educational institutions before being scrapped, providing experienced trainers, helping design course curriculum and finally ensuring assessment are as per their needs. These should be carefully examined by policy-makers.

Skills are the key to overall economic development. The tangibles of business – land, taxation, capital – regularly overshadow the skills intangibles. However, skills are the software of business. The hardware is only as good as the software makes it. The private sector understands this software best; it knows when to repair, how to update and what its requirements of the future will be.

Santosh Mehrotra is Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Senior Fellow, Just Jobs Network. Email:

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We Need a Wide Range of Providers to Quickly Overcome the Huge Shortage of Schools Across Africa

By Marcus WLEH, Head of Liberia, Bridge International Academies.

Most Sub-Saharan African countries are struggling to improve their education systems. The UN says that across Sub-Sahara Africa there are about 55 million children not in school. Legacies of war, famine, disease and political uncertainty have all contributed to the current situation of education failing almost a generation of African children.

Governments, companies, charities and organisations have sought to improve education access and quality; to help find a solution to the huge shortage of provision. But, in many regions, the number of children not in primary school is still increasing.

Like so many others, we at Bridge are working to pioneer reform that will, in turn, drive the learning, growth and prosperity urgently needed.

I believe that a mixed education eco-system is becoming evident as a large part of the solution. The challenge is too great for any single model or actor to take on alone and have a meaningful impact.

A mixed model that includes the public system, affordable private schools, expensive private schools, community, faith, and public private partnerships (PPP) will help as many children as possible benefit as quickly as possible. For me, it is the public private partnerships that are offering some of the most promising developments in education reform.

Where I live and work, Liberia, is an example of this, where a reforming government led by President Sirleaf and The Ministry of Education have embraced an innovative PPP model that holds strong potential of delivering academic gains. And at no extra cost to the families. The Partnership Schools for Liberia program is a radical initiative that has the potential to leap-frog education progress and rapidly give pupils the best possible education.

Nigeria is another example of partnership between the public and private sectors. Bridge has just entered into a new partnership with the Lagos State Government in a program called CodeLagos. The programme aims to equip one million young people with coding skills and transform the state into a major technology hub over the next decade. Twenty three Bridge academies and 3,000 pupils will take part in the initiative.

PPP models are not unusual and have been around for decades, be it in health, energy or infrastructure. They enable growth and provide countries with skills, experience and investment that they may otherwise fail to attract. The private sector has much to offer when it comes to delivering change and reform. However, in the context of education, the criticism of PPPs seems somehow deafening by an entrenched status quo.

Delivering PPP education models can be complicated not least because in African countries there are a range of issues which affect the delivery of education such as: reaching the most marginalized, attaining gender parity, fund raising, feeding programmes, and political challenges. Some who look at what is being delivered often criticize reform because they don’t feel that the reforms taking place are perfect and solving a multitude of indirectly connected issues. For example, in Liberia the challenges of feeding programmes become a challenge within education reform and critics judge the success of one by the progress of the other. Another example may be critics deriding education models that only enable some of the most marginalized to be reached initially, rather than all immediately. However, reform is a process, and what is important is that the journey to large scale improvements has begun.

Education is the most effective, self-sustainable way of ending the cycle of poverty in the long term. Investing in children’s education through capacity and capability building, will drive learning gains and give young people the tools they need to leave the cycle of poverty.

We could all sit back and allow the status quo to continue. We could allow the snail pace of public sector reform to continue without utilizing the private sector. We could allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the naysayers and consider that education reform is too complex to even attempt. However, at Bridge, we believe that children deserve a chance, they deserve an opportunity and they deserve an education. Not tomorrow, but today.

Thought leaders around the world have recognized that the status quo is not sufficient to meet demand for quality education, and that new innovative approaches must be made, including by harnessing the contribution of the private sector.

Changing public systems, wherever you are in the world, can often happen slowly and instead of engaging in the redundant debate of whether public or private systems are better, we should engage in the debate of how to utilize both more efficiently and effectively to ensure that our children are no longer failed.

Marcus Wleh is the Bridge International Academies Country Director for Liberia. @BridgeIntlAcads

Related NORRAG NEWSBite Blog:

>>As Liberia Privatizes its Schools, An Unforeseen Result: Hungry Students, By Ashoka Mukpo, Freelance Journalist. May 18th, 2017

>> Outsourcing Liberia’s Education System: A New level of Absurdity in Education Provisioning, By Salim Akoojee, Independent Education and Training Analyst, South Africa and Hong Kong. February 21st, 2017

>> View all NORRAG NEWSBite Blogs on the privatisation of education

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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 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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Russia and Education Assistance: Searching for its Role as a Returning Donor

By Tuomas Takala and Nelli Piattoeva, University of Tampere, Finland.

The topic of Russia’s development assistance in general, and specifically in the education sector, has seldom been of interest among researchers – even in analyses of “emerging” donors (e.g. Mawdsley 2012); in the case of Russia, the appropriate term is rather “returning”. This situation is partly understandable as resulting from a language barrier, although much of the relevant material on the policies and activities of Russia is available in English, but it also reflects a lack of research-oriented interest – in quite a contrast with the proliferation of other Russia-related commentary in the Western media. Also within Russia, research on issues of development assistance has to date been rare, and even more rarely published in English (e.g. Larionova et al. 2016).

After the fall of the Soviet Union (which had a history of being a donor, see e.g. Bach 2003), there was a brief interlude during which Russia qualified as a recipient of ODA; actors in the education sector were the World Bank, the EU TACIS program, the Open Society Foundation and some bilaterals (see Takala & Piattoeva 2012). A World Bank-funded Education Reform Project was implemented in 2002-6, but then in 2008 Russia entered a new arrangement by becoming the funder for the (Russia Education Aid for Development (READ), 2008-2015) Trust Fund, implemented by the Bank with a total funding of US$32 million, of which 35 percent was set for global-level activities and 60 percent for country-specific work (e.g. Gardner & Clarke 2015).

The aim of READ was to contribute to improving the quality of basic education through assessment of learning outcomes. The participating countries were selected from among the endorsed beneficiaries of the EFA Fact-Track Initiative, but additional criteria for the selection of these recipients are not explicit in the READ documents. However, the participants represented a combination of former Soviet republics (Armenia, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan) and developing countries that had a history of a socialist orientation and some linkage with Soviet educational assistance (Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Zambia, Vietnam).

Activities undertaken within READ ranged from country-specific workshops and training sessions to international study visits, conferences and long-term training. The role of Russian expertise in the READ –funded activities was small overall, and mostly confined to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries where Russian could be used as the language of communication. Elsewhere the program was generally not identified as having a connection with Russia. At the same time, the Trust Fund arrangement enabled a group of Russian administrators and education experts to develop their knowledge in the realm of Western-dominated development assistance and models of assessment of educational outcomes. Training material for this purpose was developed, and a small Centre for International Cooperation for Educational Development (CICED) was established in Moscow. Apart from the in-country activities, READ funds were used for developing the World Bank’s SABER Systems Approach for Better Education Results program as a new “global product” embedded in the key points of the Bank’s Education Sector Strategy 2020.

In a previous analysis we identified four roles of Russia as an education sector donor: Learner, Intermediary, Teacher, and Regional Expert (Piattoeva and Takala 2015). That analysis highlighted how Russia balances between different roles, on the one hand, revealing its ambitions for a more prominent and independent posture in development and, on the other, showing clear signs of willingness to be socialised into the conduct expected by the traditional donor community. In this context it was thus not at all surprising that the World Bank could assume a central role in initiating Russia into both the donor conduct and the global policy of learning assessment – which Russia then helped to promote through READ by transmitting the World Bank’s ideas and tools to the recipient countries. In this light our analysis concluded that of the four examined roles, the Learner and the Intermediary were the most prominent at the time.

The last Annual Report of READ covered the year 2012 and the program was formally closed in 2015. The countries that had participated in it surely had an interest in a continuation of READ, but it was not obvious that the Russian Government and the World Bank would share this interest. By this time the geopolitical situation had changed quite dramatically with the annexation of the Crimea and enforcement of economic sanctions against Russia. Of significance for Russia’s links with international development assistance was the enactment of a law that banished the operation of “foreign agents” within Russia and led to the closure of the offices of USAID, the Open Society Foundation and some other NGOs in Moscow. The Russian authorities also asked UNICEF to terminate its programs in Russia by the end of 2012 due to Russia’s changed status from recipient of development assistance to a donor who is looking for a new, “equal and mutually beneficial partnership” with multilateral agencies. Nevertheless, Russia continues to support UNICEF activities, donating one million USD in voluntary contributions annually since 2006 (see Raibman 2012; Denisova 2017).

 In April 2014, President Putin approved the newest program on development assistance, entitled ‘Concept of Russia’s State Policy in the Area of International Development Assistance’. This document questions the prevalence of multilateral channels over bilateral relations and consequently places international assistance within the broader field of foreign policy, thus seeking to shift the balance between multilateral and bilateral assistance in favour of the latter (see also Gray 2014). It highlights the centrality of national interests in determining the choice of countries and the forms of development assistance. It should be noted that the first official document that sought to define Russian development assistant strategy was published seven years earlier (‘Concept for Russia’s Participation in International Development Assistance’), while before that ministries initiated short-time, ad hoc assistance projects on their own terms without any general, binding guidelines (see Ermolov 2015 for an insightful overview). Despite the publication of these two official documents, a recent study that particularly paid attention to the institutionalization of development assistance and the status of bilateral partnerships concluded that “The process of creating a Russian framework for assistance in international development remains incomplete. Consequently, Russia uses aid delivery channels that primarily belong to and are managed by international organizations, and its own channels for implementing aid programmes are weak…. Russia’s bilateral partnerships with aid recipients are based on ad hoc decisions without any long-term planning to achieve targets.” (Ermolov 2015, 154)

 After negotiations, decision on a second phase of READ was finally made in 2016 with essentially the same objective than with READ 1. The second phase is to run through 2019 and the group of participating countries were selected from among 17 submitted proposals. The chosen participants include four countries that were already part of READ 1 (Armenia, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Vietnam) and four newcomers (Cambodia, India, Mongolia, Nepal). In comparison with READ 1, it is noteworthy that no African countries are included and that the new additions (as well as the re-selected ones) are countries that are geographically in the Eurasia region where Russia has stronger geopolitical interests than in Africa. As in the previous phase, also READ 2 has a Reimbursable Advisory Services component included, which will pay for Word Bank support to capacity building of Russian institutions and experts to work in the field of assessment in the contexts of middle- and low-income countries. It remains to be seen to what extent Russian educationists will have a more prominent role under READ 2 in the activities carried out in the eight countries. If they are given a more prominent role, Russia’s role as an education sector donor as a Teacher and Regional Expert would be enhanced.

Other References

Bach, Q.V.S. (2003) Soviet Aid to the Third World: The Facts and Figures. Book Guild Publishing Ltd.

Denisova, O. (2017) In six years Russia gave UNICEF projects more than 33 million dollars. Ria Novosti 8.2.2017. [In Russian] accessed May 9, 2017

Ermolov, M (2015) The Russian Framework for International Assistance: An Unfinished Plan. International Organizations Research Journal 10 (3). 134–155. [In Russian] accessed May 9, 2017.

Larionova M. V., Rakhmangulov M. R., Berenson M. P. (2016) Russia: A Re-emerging Donor. In: Gu, Jing, Shankland, Alex, Chenoy, Anuradha (Eds.) The BRICS in International Development. Palgrave Macmillan, 63-92.

Mawdsley, Emma (2012) From Recipients to Donors. Emerging Powers and the Changing Development Assistance Landscape. London: Zed Books.

Raibman, N. (2012). UNICEF must leave Russia before December 31. Vedomosti 9.10.2012. accessed May 9, 2017


Tuomas Takala is a Professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Tampere, Finland. Email:

Nelli Piattoeva is a Lecturer at the Faculty of Education, University of Tampere, Finland. Email:

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