Research and Teaching in International Education and Development: New Paradigms and Perspectives in the Post-2015 Era

By Kenneth King and Joost Monks, NORRAG.

US_image_septOn 24th September, one day before the UN General Assembly confirmed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDGs 4 and 8 relating to Education and Employment respectively, NORRAG co-organized a panel with Teachers College, Columbia University and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (Geneva) on “Research and Teaching in International Education and Development: New Paradigms and Perspectives in the post-2015 Era”. The event was co-sponsored by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education and the Open Society Foundations. More than 160 participants attended this event at Teachers College in New York.

NORRAG’s agenda with its partners challenged colleagues to explore what promise the new Education SDG holds for education and training, what interactions can be expected with other sectors, what implementation issues emerge and what will change in teaching, learning and research as a result of the world’s new development agenda.   We pick out here just a handful of highlights from the rich fare of issues raised by the panel (the full video of the event can be seen here).

First, Michael Gerber, ambassador and special envoy for sustainable development of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs, insisted on the universal nature of the new Goals, as a difference with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and reminded the audience that the education agenda had dramatically widened beyond the school education as emphasized in the MDGs. Critically, it now addresses both technical and vocational education and training and basic education as well as their interrelation. This broadening of the agenda implies that partnership with the private sector has to be widened – not only in the field of TVET, as it is already the case in Switzerland – but also for covering a larger part of the education development costs.

This resonated powerfully with Peliwe Lolwana, Centre for Researching Education and Labour, Wits, South Africa. She too argued that the SDGs were dramatically enlarging the agenda beyond the MDGs and the Education for All (EFA) goals from Dakar to include technical and vocational education and training. She noted that this meant that a great deal more resources than for the schooling targets would be required. Equally, skills development was not something that could just be handed out; it meant that we had to consider the relation with labour market, jobs and employment for young people with skills.

Gita Steiner-Khamsi of Teachers College and Dana Burde from NYU were both concerned with the bridge between ‘policy talk’ and ‘policy action’, and between policy-makers and practitioners. This is critical for the SDGs, since at one level they are just policy talk, but at another level they are meaningless unless there are coherent strategies for implementation at the national, regional and global levels. It is also vital to realize that the Education Goal and its Targets have trans-sectorial implications for the other 16 Goals.

Noah Sobe, vice-president of CIES, and Loyola University of Chicago, analysed the crucial meanings of sustainability and freedom in relation to the SDGs. In a telling quotation from Chakrabarty, he argued the tension between the ambitions for freedom and the realities of the world’s unsustainability: “This mansion of… freedom stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.” Even a quick skim of the SDGs and the MDGs before them clearly reveals the host of resource and material supports that are necessary for the progress, empowerment and liberation being proposed.

[Interestingly, the word ‘freedom’ occurs just once in the 29 pages of Transforming our World while ‘sustainable’ occurs 155 times!]

Aleesha Taylor, Open Society Foundations, New York, reminded the audience of the enormous funding gaps for just three of the six former EFA Goals, and of how global education funding performed relatively poorly compared to global health. However she argued that there was significant scope for more innovative funding, and particularly for capacity building for innovative funding.

PPTAs far as the implications for teaching, learning and research in international education are concerned, there were several issues that the panel and the audience raised: the broadening of the research agenda to include the full spectrum of education covered in the SDGs and their interrelations; the new aid architecture and actors, including the private sector; the bridge between academia and practice; and, the call for a stronger involvement of partner institutions in the Global South.

As far as education and its relation with other SDGs were concerned, it was noticeable that over 250 economists had taken a full page in the New York Times on the same day as our event one day before the UN General Assembly to claim that ‘Investing in health makes economic sense’.  There was no such claim from education, but there could easily have been. This confirmed the comment from Gilles Carbonnier, from the Graduate Institute in Geneva that the global funding for education could learn from the global funding for health.

The event provided for stimulating and complementary views amongst the panellists and echoed the promise of the new SDG, despite its numerous shortcomings, for a holistic view on education and training in the frame of development, while maintaining a sound sense of realism in what can be achieved. It also reiterated the interrelation between the different education and training sectors, stretching from primary to vocational training in a lifelong learning perspective, as well as the importance of the Education goal as a vector for sustainable development running across the SDGs, themes that will be prominent on the research agenda of our field.

Kenneth King is the Editor of NORRAG News. He is an Emeritus Professor at the School of Social and Political Studies, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.

Joost Monks is the Managing Director of NORRAG, Geneva.


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Time to Think Outside the Box: Buy-Downs as an Education Financing Option

By Arjun Upadhyay and Nicholas Burnett, Results for Development Institute.

moneyLate last week, world leaders met to adopt ambitious new sustainable development goals (SDGs) that will shape international development for the next 15 years. There is a great deal of optimism surrounding the new agenda. Yet it is almost certain that the SDGs will fail if equally ambitious and innovative financing strategies such as debt and loan buy-downs are not adopted. This is especially true for education – a sector that has been slow to capitalize on the growth of alternative sources of finance.

SDG 4 is to “ensure quality education for all.” The cost of achieving universal basic and secondary education by 2030 is estimated at US$340 billion per year for low and lower middle income countries. This represents an annual financing gap of US$40 billion per year if current spending levels continue. Given this gap, there is an urgent need to find bold new financing solutions. The adoption of the SDGs presents a unique opportunity for education to break from the status quo and embed innovative finance, such as debt and loan buy-downs, as an integral part of the next financing architecture.

Although the mechanics of a buy-down can be complex, the idea itself is not. Buy-downs are an arrangement where a third party agrees to pay the interest or principal of a loan, thereby releasing the borrowing country from all or some of its future repayment obligations.

There are two types of buy-downs, debt and loan.  Debt buy-downs are current debt that is bought down by a third party. In a loan buy-down, future loans are either softened ahead of time or triggered when the borrowing country achieves pre-defined targets. For example, the Global Partnership for Education could agree to buy-down a future IBRD loan to Bangladesh if they meet the target of 100% lower-secondary enrollment.

These are attractive options for several reasons.

One, buy-downs have the potential to “crowd in” resources for education. The buy-down option based on triggers could greatly incentivize countries to meet key development targets, demonstrating effectiveness and thereby encouraging more lending.

Second, buy-downs could free up resources that would have otherwise gone to debt servicing. As a rough example, before the Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) Initiative, eligible countries were on average spending more on debt service than on health and education combined. Since the HIPC Initiative, spending on health and education is about five times the amount of debt-service payments.[1] The use of buy-downs could potentially have a similar effect.

Third, loan buy-downs could open capital to countries otherwise deemed ineligible or credit unworthy. These would include low-income countries unable to take on more debt but in serious need of external support for basic education, such as Afghanistan, Burundi, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo and Tajikistan. Any buy-downs for these countries would essentially be similar to a grant.

Loan-buy downs could also soften the loan terms for countries in both sides of the IDA/IBRD threshold. These countries also have some of the largest out-of-school populations in the world. They include countries such as Angola, Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The immediate potential seems greatest with regard to lending by the World Bank Group (both non-concessional IBRD and concessional IDA) and the Islamic Development Bank (mainly non-concessional).

Fourth, the potential of buy-downs are too immense to ignore. The World Bank estimates that loan buy-downs could “leverage funding so that $1 translates into $3 in development assistance.” In other words, buying down the interest rate and parts of the principal with $10 million today would release the borrower from $30 million in future repayments.

Why is this important? Research shows that traditional sources of finance, although extremely important, will not be able to sufficiently mobilize the needed resources to achieve the education SDGs. According to the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, government spending on basic education in low and lower middle income countries will need to increase from 3.5% to 6.3% of GDP to meet the $340 billion annual cost. Most low income countries already fall short of the required level to meet current education targets.

The recent decline in aid to education is also worrying. From 2010 to 2012 aid to total education fell by 10%, a considerable decline when compared with the overall aid decline of 1% in the same period. Countries like the Netherlands, France, and Japan have reduced their aid to education during the same period. In addition, new policies have also hardened the terms in which countries can borrow loans or receive grants – with some requiring repayment of the entire “grant.”

Given these developments, financing strategies for education will need to go hand in hand with innovative financing and buy-downs are one option that has the potential to unlock significant financial resources.

If the international community is ever to meet the education SDGs, innovative financing such as buy-downs must become part and parcel of the global financial architecture. The adoption of broader and more ambitious SDGs will only make the availability of traditional funds scarcer. Unless alternative financing options are embraced, education will continue to be underfunded and traditional – and the world will truly miss the chance to ensure that everyone has the right to a quality education.


Arjun Upadhyay is a Senior Program Associate at Results for Development Institute is an education financing specialist at Results for Development Institute. Prior to R4D, he collaborated with USAID on post-primary education programs in conflict-affected countries and also worked for The Asia Foundation Philippines and the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). Email:

Nicholas Burnett is Managing Director for Education at Results for Development Institute. He was formerly United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Assistant Director-General for Education, and Director of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Email:

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[1] International Monetary Fund

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The 100-year Background and History of the 33 Lines in the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) and Targets for Education

By Kenneth King, Editor NORRAG News.

SDGs have reached the finishing line – or rather the starting line!

Goal4It’s official! The replacement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are formally finalized today, the 25th September 2015, when the UN General Assembly (UNGA) confirms the text that was already agreed by the UN Member States in early August. Of the 17 Goals and 169 Targets, just one Goal and 13 Targets concern education and training as a sector.

The Education Goal (SDG4), its ten Targets, and three other education related targets under other SDGs, cover all the usual sub-sectors of education – from early childhood to university, from adult literacy to technical and vocational training, and from scholarships to qualified teachers.

So what? Will anything be any different after the 25th September 2015?

Does the new Education SDG4 affect educational planning in the OECD countries, in the five BRICS, or in the developing countries? Will it affect international and national non-governmental organisations (NGOs), bilateral and multilateral agencies, think tanks, education consultancies, and ministries of education and training world-wide? And what about the teaching of international and comparative education – will this capture and critically analyse the world’s latest development agenda for education?

The simple answer is NO and YES! – Of course, China, Brazil, Russia, UK, and USA are not going to change their own national education plans because of this UN decision. Nor are Oman, South Africa and Chile, to mention just a handful of countries with their own development plans.

But the NGOs, bilateral and multi-lateral agencies and education consultancies could profit from the SDG4 if there is some synergy between their programmes of work and the many sub-sectors of education and training mentioned in SDG4. It could positively influence also their future international funding.

The downside of SDG4, however, is that it covers everything! It is no longer just about securing Universal Primary Education (UPE), about Expanding Basic Learning Needs, or Eradicating Illiteracy. As SDG4 is about everything, it risks not being seen as a priority for primary education and gender equity, as with the MDGs, and not just being seen as a priority for the Education for All (EFA) goals as happened with the Dakar World Education Forum in 2000.

When there is no particular focus, as is the case with SDG4, it may be useful to look back over the last many decades of formulating global education goals, and to ask the question – why has target-setting become so universal in education just now in 2015?

There are just a few answers and reactions:

First, there is an attempt in the new development agenda to make sure that the Education Goal (SDG4) and its Targets apply to all countries everywhere. But, arguably, it doesn’t do so. Its mentions of secondary, technical and higher education are so general, and inclusive, that they cannot add anything to existing national policies.

Second, SDG4 doesn’t add much to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 and its Article 26 on Education, except that it claims that there should be equal access for all to quality technical, vocational and tertiary education (emphasis added). By contrast, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was more balanced with its sentence: ‘Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.’ Many countries cannot afford to implement this SDG pledge either now or in 2030.  If they did pledge to do so along with all other UN Member States at the beginning of August 2015, it was surely more of an aspiration or a dream than a pledge.

Third, there is no attempt to say why any of these education areas are important investment areas as they were seen to be in the UNESCO regional conferences of the  1960s, in Jomtien in 1990, or in Dakar in 2000. In other words, the research rationale for investment is nowhere mentioned for Education, though it is mentioned for other Goals such as Health in Transforming our World. It is worth noting, by contrast, the full page advertisement taken by the Rockefeller Foundation in the New York Times on 24th September claiming ‘Economists worldwide agree: “Investing in Health Makes Economic Sense”’.

Fourth, there is no explicit discussion of how education can be beneficial inter-sectorally. Though there are many opportunities to do so, education is nowhere linked in Transforming our World to its potential impacts on health, fertility, employment, enterprise, and sustainable economic growth.

Fifth, the final version of the Goals and Targets in education still recognises the national level in many different ways. Indeed all the 17 Goals and their Targets explicitly take account of the national dimension. Only Goal 4 (Education), Goal 6 (Water and Sanitation), and Goal 7 (Energy) fail openly to take account of the national perspective. This is very surprising in the case of Education, since the tension between the global and the national is one that is critical to understanding the challenge of implementation of the new global agenda. Equally, the over 100 year history of target setting in education cannot be understood without examining the very long-standing trade-offs between national and global targets.

What can we celebrate in the Education Goal and its Targets?

Even though the Education Goal and its Targets lack the specificity and precision of the Health Goal and its no less than 13 Targets, it is surely worth celebrating the fact that all sub-sectors of education have been included in the SDG4. It is also commendable that the crucially important areas of ‘Education for Sustainable Development’ and ‘Global Citizenship Education’ have been included in the world’s new agenda.


This blog is partly based on Kenneth King’s BAICE Presidential Address, delivered on 16th September 2015 at the 2015 UKFIET International Conference on Education and Development. His full address will be available in due course as a working paper on the NORRAG site.

Kenneth King is the Editor of NORRAG News. He is an Emeritus Professor at the School of Social and Political Studies, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. Kenneth is also the BAICE Honorary President for 2014-15.

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Education May Not Be a Very Sustainable Development Goal

By Steven J. Klees, University of Maryland.

Goal4In a world where social and economic goals set by the international community have been ubiquitous, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) stand out.  With their about-to-be-approved by the United Nations 17 goals and 169 targets, these successors to the 8-goal Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) include ambitious efforts to end hunger and poverty, reduce inequalities, achieve gender equality, combat climate change, promote sustainable development, and improve infrastructure, sanitation, health, and education.  The education goal states: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”  This is further broken down into a number of targets.  There are at least three important concerns.  The first two concerns raise questions about the seriousness of this effort, and the third concern questions the means to achieve these goals.

First, despite good intentions and much effort, can these goals and targets be seen as serious efforts?  In education, neither of the two education MDGs proposed in 2000 were achieved by their target date of 2015.  One was to attain Universal Primary Education (UPE) and the other to achieve gender parity in enrollment.  But the history of broken promises goes back much further.  Both of these goals were part of the 155-country Education for All (EFA) compact that was signed in 1990 with a target date of 2000.  Midway through the decade, in a relatively secret process, these and other EFA goals were unceremoniously postponed until 2015 (this was before the establishment of the MDGs).  And the history of broken promises goes back further still.  UPE has been pledged by a number of international conferences since the 1960s.  Yet there are still 58 million primary school-age children out of school (and even more at the secondary school level).  Now, both EFA and the MDGs are kicking the can down the road once more, postponing UPE and other goals to 2030.

Second, the most fundamental reason why UPE and other education goals have not been achieved is the unwillingness of the international community to supply the resources needed.  Education is not rocket science.  UPE has been within reach for decades.  Studies of resources from nations’ domestic financing and international donor country contributions (Overseas Development Aid or ODA) showed an annual global shortfall of $22 billion to attain the 2015 education MDGs and EFA goals and project a $39 billion annual shortfall to attain the 2030 education SDGs.  In the 2000 follow up meeting to EFA in Dakar, James Wolfensohn, then president of the World Bank, pledged that no country committed to attaining the EFA goals would be kept from meeting them by a lack of finance.  The World Bank reneged on that promise.  After a few years, it set up the Fast Track Initiative (FTI) in an attempt to respond to the promise it made in Dakar but FTI was plagued by problems and a lack of sufficient resources.   FTI was revamped and transformed into the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), but, to date, they have only managed to put together donor financing totaling about $.5 billion annually, 80 times less than will be needed to make the education SDGs a reality.  Given present efforts, projections show UPE will not be achieved until 2086, if then.  While there is talk of developing innovative financing mechanisms, studies of private sector contributions have shown it to be small in scale, self-interested, uncoordinated, and misdirected, and the billionaire philanthropists have put relatively little money into education.  It should be noted that no one has renewed Wolfensohn’s EFA pledge with respect to the SDGs.

A third concern is that given this dismal state of affairs, much hope is being focused on having private schools take up the slack.  While, until recently, private schooling has been mostly for the relatively rich, there has been an expansion of what have been called Low Fee Private Schools (LFPS).  Multilateral agencies like the World Bank and bilateral agencies like the U.K.’s DfID have been promoting and financing these efforts.  However, these schools are not cheap for poor people who often confront a choice between private education and necessary expenses for food and health, especially when they have several children.  Research has shown most of these private schools to be of very low quality.  The reason many poor parents choose a private school is because 30+ years of market fundamentalism has so decimated governments and, consequently, public schools that sometimes they are worse.  The answer is not to privatize a public good, further stratify education and increase inequalities, but to fully fund public schools and these private schools will go out of business like they should.  It may be privately rational to send your child to a private school, but supporting this in any way is bad public policy, and makes a mockery of broad international agreement on every child’s right to fee-free quality education.

So once again, the international community talks a good game but pushes success far into the future, is unwilling to put up the money necessary to make it happen, and tries to abrogate public responsibility for achieving its goals.  GPE has been emphasizing the need for countries to increase domestic financing of education, but there is little possibility that this can generate sufficient resources for the education goals, let alone all the other SDGs.  What is needed are for the rich countries to live up to their pledge made decades ago to devote 0.7% of GNI to development aid and to initiate global tax mechanisms for generating resources, a call that, unfortunately, went unheeded at the recent Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa.  As the SDGs adoption is upon us, the international community needs to put into place measures to ensure these new promises do not, once again, go unfulfilled.


Steven J. Klees is the R. W. Benjamin Professor of International and Comparative Education at the University of Maryland. Email:

An earlier version of this blog first appeared on 23rd September 2015 on the Project Syndicate blog.

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What will happen to the Education Christmas Tree in January 2016? Global Governance and the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goal for Education

By Robert Palmer and Kenneth King, NORRAG.

baublesThe ambitious global education 2030 agenda needs to be incorporated into national education and skills plans, and supported by a global education architecture and means of implementation fit for purpose.      

After 3 years of debate, discussion, lobbying, committees, working groups, high (and low) level panels and intergovernmental negotiation the world now has its successor framework to the Education For All (EFA) Goals and education Millennium Development Goals; last month, agreement was reached on a single Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) framework. In about 10 days in New York, it is expected that this agreement will be formally adopted by heads of state at the UN Sustainable Development Summit.

An education Christmas tree

The education SDG agenda is certainly ambitious. There are some 13 education targets across 4 SDGs: Education has a stand-alone SDG (#4) with 7 targets (and 3 means of implementation targets), in addition to 3 other education targets under the SDGs for health (SDG#3), work (SDG#8), climate change (SDG#13). The ambition is to achieve ‘inclusive and equitable quality education at all levels – early childhood, primary, secondary, tertiary, technical and vocational training’. In other words, almost the whole spectrum of education and training falls under this remit.[1]

Talking about the whole post-2015 framework, where baubles covering every imaginable issue are hung on the post-2015 Christmas tree, Melamed noted in 2012 that one outcome scenario for this framework would be that:

we’ll end up with a long list of disparate goals – all important in their own right, but together making up a list so long that governments will almost certainly ignore it.  The impact on actual lives would be close to nil.

Some might argue that what we have now certainly resembles an education Christmas tree. There was certainly acknowledgment at the UKFIET conference of the challenge of having so many education targets. Earlier this year, The Economist noted that having so many targets for the post-2015 agenda ‘means, in practice, no priorities at all’.

It will be what is delivered by 2030 that success will be judged against, and not the extent of this very ambitious education agenda.

Huge cost (and it’s bigger than is being discussed)

With huge ambition comes huge cost. The UNESCO Global Monitoring Report (GMR) team have estimated there to be a US$39 billion annual external financing gap[2] to achieve universal pre-primary, primary and secondary education of good quality in low and lower middle income countries.

This $39bn figure of course does not cover the full education SDG agenda; for example, it does not address cost implications related to targets for technical and vocational skills for employment (target 4.4), higher education (4.3), youth/adult literacy (4.6), or any of the education targets under SDGs #3, #18, #13.

Implementation concerns

In spite of all the discussion on what should be included in the Education SDG, there has arguably been:

  • no real discussion about the type of global governance structure needed to encourage and support the achievement of the education SDG and targets at the country level.
  • no adequate discussion about the means of implementation of the education SDG and targets.

We’ll address both these issues below.

An ‘appropriate global coordination mechanism’

Many of you will be aware that the Incheon Declaration of the May World Education Forum noted that to ‘support countries in implementing the 2030 education agenda’, there is a need for ‘an appropriate global coordination mechanism’ to coordinate technical advice, national capacity development and financial support.

However, no details on what this would involve have yet been divulged, only that it should include the Global Partnership for Education. In mid-August, the official SDG4 agencies (UNICEF, UNESCO, UNFPA, World Bank, and the UNHCR) met to discuss a SDG4 global coordination mechanism – but again no details have been shared yet.

If smiles are an indication, it was a good meeting.

If smiles are an indication, it was a good meeting.







Global influences and the implementation of the 2030 education agenda  

What global influences on educational planning are felt at country level that could affect education SDG implementation at country level?

Formal influences of education at the global level can include global goals and targets – such as the EFA Goals, the education MDGs and now the education SDG targets – as well as other global conventions, agreements, compacts etc. But to be effective these formal mechanisms need both:

  • a way of measuring progress/deviations from these rules/goals by tracking international indicators, and
  • a way of holding countries accountable for lack of progress/deviation.

There is now global agreement on the goal and targets of education under the SDG framework of course, but the issues of measurement and of accountability are not yet secured.

For measuring progress, global education monitoring will be via the renamed GMR, the Global Education Monitoring Report, as well as via an annual SDG Progress Report. The process of indicator development is still underway, however, and won’t be finalised until March 2016.

For accountability, there is no strong mechanism yet proposed in the SDG Outcome document, except:

  • Acknowledgement that accountability for the effective implementation of the SDG agenda lies at the country level; and,
  • An anticipated High Level Political Forum (UNGA) to oversee follow-up and review at global level.

Further, the SDG Outcome document calls for the creation of ‘quality, accessible, timely and reliable disaggregated data’ at country level. Civil society organisations, like the ONE Campaign, note that where such data exists and is transparently shared, ‘citizens [will] have the information they need to ensure that leaders keep their promises’.

Informal influences of education at the global level

There exist a set of informal influences of education that may not have been set up for the purpose of governing or regulating, but which clearly influence stakeholders when it comes to education; and, it might be argued, the power which they today exert has turned them (or the institutions which control them) into de facto governance mechanisms. Such influences include, for example:

  • the influence of data and indicators from assessments and testing (PISA, TIMSS), benchmarking and ranking approaches (e.g. uni rankings).
  • the influence of education and training strategies and policy papers, and the propagation of “best practice” knowledge, approaches, concepts (such as rate of return to education, value for money etc).
  • the influence that grants and loans have in recipient countries, and the influence that OECD-DAC countries have on the behaviour of international organisations that they financially contribute to.

These informal influences exist and will continue to steer national educational policy thinking in certain directions; whether this direction is aligned with the SDG direction is unclear.

The SDGs and means of implementation (MOI) targets

Above we referred to concerns about implementation. On the face of it, one might ask what the problem is. Unlike the MDGs, there is a stand-alone goal in the SDGs (#17) explicitly concerned with implementation, one that includes targets related to finance, capacity building, technology, trade and other issues. For example, under SDG#17, financing targets refer to the need to ‘strengthen domestic resource mobilization’, and that developed countries should implement fully their ODA commitments (including the 0.7% commitment). Indeed, if all ODA providing countries did fulfil this 0.7% commitment, then there would be no education financing gap; but the likelihood of this happening is questionable given recent trends.

In addition to this, MOI are mentioned under each of the 16 other SDGs. In fact, approximately one third of all 169 SDG targets are MOI targets! – and these are ‘of equal importance with the other Goals and targets’ (UN).

SDG#4 Implementation Targets

We noted above that there has been no adequate discussion about the means of implementation of the education SDG and targets. And we stand by this. The three MOI targets under the education SDG are summarised below.





In terms of implementing the very ambitious targets for education under SDG#4, these proposals for better and safer building, more scholarships, and more qualified teachers, don’t seem to go very far. In particular:

  • They say nothing about the need for an ‘appropriate global coordination mechanism’ that the Incheon Declaration called for or about any reform of the global architecture of education and training.
  • They say nothing of the financing needed: indeed, there were no explicit financing and funding targets for education in either the Addis or the UN Sustainable Development Summit outcome documents.

Moreover, the wording of many of the MOI targets, and not just those for SDG#4, appears to re-cast the education SDG, like the education MDG before it, as something applicable to developing countries.

Global ambition matched by national ambition?

We should not forget that the SDG ‘targets are defined as aspirational and global’ (UN), and that each Government is expected to ‘set[..] its own national targets’.

This whole issue is not about global compliance to a global set of education targets. The global targets are meant to be adopted / adapted to the country level; it is therefore about national level implementation of nationally agreed targets – that draw on the global ambition of the SDGs.

As CSOs have urged in relation to the whole SDG agenda, national strategies that incorporate the complete set of SDG education targets into national plans are needed as soon as possible.

Christmas trees in January

On 1st January 2016, when the SDG clock starts ticking, many Christmas trees around the world will be losing their pine needles and having their baubles stripped. Without a strong focus on implementation at country level – according to defined national ambition – supported by some alignment of the formal and informal global influences of education with the education SDG and targets, there could be many baubles falling off the education Christmas tree too.


Kenneth King is the Editor of NORRAG News. He is an Emeritus Professor at the School of Social and Political Studies, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.

Robert Palmer is an independent education and skills consultant. He also supports the Editor of NORRAG News and runs NORRAG NEWSBite. Email: Tweets @SkillsImpact

Further reading

Kenneth King and Robert Palmer (2015) The Elephant in the Room: Global Governance and the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goal for Education. 2015 UKFIET Conference.

Kenneth King and Robert Palmer (2014) Post-2015 and the Global Governance of Education and Training, NORRAG Working Paper #7 (December 2014).

Kenneth King and Robert Palmer (2014) The Elephant in the Post-2015 Education Room: What about the Global Governance of Education and Training? Part 1 and Part 2. NORRAG NEWSBite Blog, 3rd and 5th November 2014.

>>View all Post-2015 Blogs on NORRAG NEWSBite

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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] However issues like adult literacy and numeracy, or the issue of lifelong learning for adults in general comes through weakly in the targets.

[2] This refers to the difference between the est. cost and the estimated available domestic resources.

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International Literacy Day of Reckoning

By Silvia Montoya, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, and Andreas Schleicher, OECD.

Adult literacy mapInternational Literacy Day is an occasion to celebrate the commitment of individuals and organizations striving to ensure that everyone has the skills needed to engage with the world. It is also a day of reckoning, with new data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) showing that 757 million adults, including 115 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24, still cannot even read or write a simple sentence.

These new estimates underscore the challenges ahead as the international community pledges to “ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy” by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Activists fought hard for this ambitious target, which we fully support. But the battle has just begun to bring about a paradigm shift in policymaking and measurement.

As a first step, we can set a baseline for action based on existing data while charting a course towards the next generation of statistics. The UNESCO eAtlas of Literacy presents a series of interactive maps and charts to help evaluate the progress made since 2000, when the world first set an international literacy target for 2015, and the challenges of reaching the new SDG target by 2030.

How far have we come and how far to go?

2015 is the deadline by which the international community pledged to reduce adult illiteracy rates by 50% compared to 2000 levels as part of the Education for All goals. Yet according to UIS projections, most countries have missed the deadline.

Despite a general rise in literacy rates between 2000 and 2015, only 39 countries will probably reach the target and another 24 countries are within one percentage point of the target. Most countries projected to reach the target are from the Arab States, Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, as well as East Asia and the Pacific. However, all of these regions also include countries that are likely to miss the target.

The data show that nearly all countries that reached or are within reach of the target had adult literacy rates greater than 80% in 2000. 33 countries with data, nearly all from sub-Saharan Africa, are likely to miss the EFA target by 10 percentage points or more.

Regions with the HIGHEST illiterate populations and countries with the LOWEST literacy rates

 Slightly more than one-half of the global illiterate population lives in South and West Asia, which is followed by 25% in sub-Saharan Africa, 12% in East Asia and the Pacific, 7% in the Arab States and 4% in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is estimated that less than 1% of the global illiterate population live in the remaining regions combined.

Sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia also have the countries with the lowest literacy rates. Less than one-half of the adult population can read or write a simple sentence in the following countries: Afghanistan, Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Guinea, Haiti, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and South Sudan.

In general, youth literacy rates (for the population aged 15 to 24 years) are higher than adult literacy rates, reflecting increased access to schooling among younger generations. While the global youth literacy rate has risen steadily to reach 90%, the regional rates remain low in sub-Saharan Africa (70%) and South and West Asia (84%).

Two out three illiterate people are women – one generation after another

Women account for two-thirds of all illiterate adults (63%), and the gap is nearly as wide among youth. Young women make up 59% of the 115 million illiterate youth. So despite steady improvements in literacy rates, women are still the first to be deprived of these core learning skills from one generation to the next.

The gender gap is widest in South and West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where women aged 15 years and older are 24% less likely to be literate than men in the same age group. Barriers against women also persist in the Arab States, with the female adult literacy rate at 70% compared to 86% for males.

The next generation of literacy data

The new literacy target demands a new global measurement approach not just to monitor progress but, even more importantly, to support policymaking at the country level. The international community is working to develop the tools and data needed by countries to accurately assess literacy skills and use this information to better target initiatives and resources to those with the greatest needs.

The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) and the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills survey (ALL) were first attempts to this end in the 1990s. The Program for International Assessment of Adult Competency (PIAAC) and the Skills Toward Employment and Productivity (STEP) provide the latest generation of assessment tools and PIAAC now allows anyone to test their own skills. These programs, which are technically rigorous and respected,  are designed to measure high level skills commonly associated with enriched environments as opposed to the basic literacy skills of adults and youth in many countries, especially the least developed, where access to quality education remains limited.

The Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Program (LAMP), developed by the UIS focuses on more basic levels of literacy skills. However, field tests have shown limitations, especially in the measurement of the lowest end of the literacy scale and the need to critically address cultural differences.

We can learn from current and past experiences to develop simpler adult literacy assessments that can be linked to existing international initiatives and address both the demand for and supply of skills specific to each country. By providing a comprehensive perspective on the full range of skill levels within a national population, the data can then be used to ensure that different groups (by geographic region, socio-economic status, ethnicity, etc.), can access the support and training they need while fostering partnerships between the public and private sectors and a sense of collective responsibility to improve the skills and employment opportunities of individuals.

This new approach will require considerable investment, but those will be tiny compared with their returns in the form of better and more targeted policies.

This blog first appeared on the Global Partnership for Education Blog on 8th September 2015 (4:30 EST) and is re-posted with agreement.

Silvia Montoya (@montoya_sil) is the Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Andreas Schleicher is Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills at the OECD. Email:

>>View all post-2015 blogs on NORRAG NEWSBite

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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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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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