The World Education Forum (WEF) at Incheon: What Reflections, Memories, Legacy?

By Kenneth King, Editor NORRAG News.

WEF logoIt’s almost exactly a month since Incheon, and it’s perhaps appropriate to consider what is the enduring legacy from this huge investment of time, thought and resources, especially by South Korea but also UNESCO.

Another way of answering the question is to consider what the international education community still recall from Jomtien, 25 years ago, or from Dakar 15 years back. Arguably, they are likely to recall some of the six dimensions for suggested national target-setting from Jomtien, and they will certainly remember that there were six Education for All (EFA) Goals in Dakar. Why? Because targets appear, in policy circles, to be more memorable, more relevant, and more crucial than text.

There were in fact also ten Articles in the Jomtien Declaration, compellingly crafted, but few will remember these. There is an occasional very powerful sentence which will be recalled by some early childhood professionals, such as ‘Learning begins at birth’ (part of Article 5), or a phrase such as ‘meeting basic learning needs’ or ‘an expanded vision of basic education’.

From Dakar’s three-page Framework for Action, apart from some of focus of the six EFA Goals, if not their exact phrasing, there are perhaps one or two memorable phrases or sentences that can be recalled such as: ‘We affirm that no countries seriously committed to education for all will be thwarted in their achievement of this goal by a lack of resources.’ (Dakar FFA, paragraph 10)

In connection with this grand pledge, the Education for All Global Monitoring Report comments that ‘The pledge made at Dakar…has been one of the biggest failures of the EFA period. Donors failed to live up to their promises’ (Summary, GMR 2015: 45).

What will be recalled from the three pages of the Incheon Declaration in one month, one year, ten, fifteen or twenty-five years?

The sustainable development goal (SDG) 4 was in the Incheon Declaration, but this was already known from the Open Working Group (OWG) process and from the Muscat Agreement. Here it is: ‘…the proposed SDG 4 “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all” and its corresponding targets’ (paragraph 5).

However, there are none of these corresponding targets actually included in the Incheon Declaration. We shall come back in a moment to explain why. But what else is memorable from Incheon?

Any memorable lines in the 3-page text of the Declaration?

For me, two of the most powerful sentences are the following:

‘No education target should be considered met unless met by all. We therefore commit to making the necessary changes in education policies and focusing our efforts on the most disadvantaged, especially those with disabilities, to ensure that no one is left behind’ (Paragraph 7).

These sentences are in fact two sides of the same coin. Of course they sound familiar precisely because we have heard them before. Many of us may have read Save the Children’s Briefing: Leaving No One Behind (2014). And ‘no one is left behind’ is used no less than six times in the Report of the High Level Panel (HLP, 2013). Indeed both the faces in Incheon’s paragraph 7 are also used very similarly in this paragraph about the Twelve Illustrative Goals and their associated Targets from the HLP Report:

The indicators that track them should be disaggregated to ensure no one is left behind and targets should only be considered ‘achieved’ if they are met for all relevant income and social groups. (HLP, Executive Summary)

One of the reasons that these two Incheon sentences are so important is because of what is said in the Preamble of the Incheon Declaration after affirming the spirit of Dakar and the subsequent important commitment to education:

however, we recognize with great concern that we are far from having reached education for all. (paragraph 2)

There are only two main headings after the Preamble. The first is Toward 2030: A new vision for education.  And the second is Implementing our common agenda.

Can we put our fingers on what is new about the new vision for education at Incheon? Here, for example, is the pledge in the last few lines of the Declaration:

Building on the legacy of Jomtien and Dakar, this Incheon Declaration is an historic commitment by all of us to transform lives through a new vision for education, with bold and innovative actions, to reach our ambitious goal by 2030. (paragraph 20)

Searching in the text for what is new about this vision, we find that this new agenda – this new vision – claims to be ‘transformative’, ‘holistic’, ‘ambitious’, ‘aspirational’, ‘universal’ and ‘humanistic’. In addition to these claims, paragraph five affirms that education is a human right, a basis for other rights; it is ‘essential for peace, tolerance, human fulfilment and sustainable development’. It is also a ‘key to full employment and poverty eradication’. These huge claims about the potential of education are not entirely new; the large literature asserting that ‘’Education for All’ is Development’ and that ‘Education transforms lives’ has been reviewed exhaustively before (See GMR 2002 and GMR 2013/4).

The only sub-themes that are emphasized in bold in the Declaration are access, inclusion and equity, gender equality, quality, and lifelong learning opportunities. Each of these has a paragraph of its own. The ambitions of Incheon are captured there.

However, beyond commitments to basic education at Jomtien and the six EFA goals of Dakar of Dakar, Incheon wants to ‘ensure the provision of 12 years of free, publicly funded, equitable quality primary and secondary education’. These six adjectives in front of ‘education’ are quite a mouthful. But the first 9 years are also to be ‘compulsory’. This is a big requirement, when it is recalled from the GMR 2015 that only 27 countries made lower secondary compulsory since 2000. And in Sub-Saharan Africa lower/upper secondary enrolment stands at 50%/32% respectively. The underlining of FREE is important, but readers should recall from the 2015 GMR that ‘despite fee-free public primary schooling being enshrined in law in 135 countries, 110 still continue to charge some sort of fee.’ (p.260)

The biggest pledge of all?

The single biggest offer in Incheon comes in the paragraph about lifelong learning. Here it is:  ‘We commit to promoting quality lifelong learning opportunities for all, in all settings and at all levels of education.’ (paragraph 10). Three alls in one sentence! This is good news for adult educators, as the paragraph covers formal, non-formal and even informal education.

Oh, and what about the cost?

The section on ‘a new vision for education’ has nothing about cost. That comes later in the section called ‘Implementing our common agenda’. One paragraph (14) recognizes that the ambitions of Incheon cannot be realized ‘without a significant and well-targeted increase in financing’. It then urges adherence to the benchmarks of 15-20% of public expenditure and 4-6% of GDP for education.

A second and longer paragraph (15) calls upon a whole slew of countries and modalities –developed countries, traditional and emerging donors, middle income countries and international financing mechanisms — to increase funding to education. It then urges the members of DAC who have not yet reached 0.7% of GNP for ODA ‘to make additional concrete efforts towards the target’ [only five countries had reached this goal by 2013; and Korea, USA and Japan were at 0.13%; 0.19%; and 0.23% respectively].  Interestingly, there are no specific financing suggestions made for emerging donors and middle income countries.  And there are no indications of the large financing gaps which have been discussed by the GMR 2015, and which were reproduced in the Incheon draft Framework for Action.

Why were there no targets in the Incheon Declaration?

Given what we said at the beginning about targets being more attractive than text, how are we to explain the fact that unlike Jomtien and Dakar, the Incheon Declaration has no targets?

The reason is simple: that the SDGs and their corresponding targets are under review by the UN’s Intergovernmental Negotiations in New York. There was available from this process at the time of Incheon a set of revised targets, including four of the Education ones. The NGO Forum in Incheon readily took these proposed revisions on board in its own Incheon Declaration. But it would have been premature for the plenary conference in Incheon either to confirm the existing targets or to accept the revised ones. Within a few weeks, the UN intergovernmental process might have reached a different conclusion. Then UNESCO and the Incheon Declaration would be suddenly out of step with the UN process leading thru from New York in June, to the Financing for Development conference in Addis in July, and on to the final summit in the September in New York.

It is still useful to examine what the Incheon Declaration has actually taken from the targets in the Incheon Draft Framework for Action. This is dealt with in some detail in NORRAG News 52.

Another legacy: a better insight into South Korea

Doubtless, for many participants, and certainly for me, the legacy of Incheon was a better understanding of Korea’s extraordinary transformation from the end of the Korean War to the present. Doubtless, not all the elements in this miracle were discussed. But to be debating a new and transformative vision for global education in a country that attributed a great deal of its economic success to education and TVET investment was a privilege. At any rate in a book made available by the Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI) for the WEF, Dynamic education for individual and national development: the case of the Republic of Korea, there are three key elements of success. Significantly, the first of these is Government’s Strong Leadership, and the second and third were Competent teachers, and High emphasis on education and zeal for education (KEDI, 2015: 21-26).

Though it is now a month since Incheon, there is still a legacy to be carefully examined, and, unlike the host countries of Jomtien in 1990 and Dakar 2000 in which we learnt little about Thailand and Senegal, we do have a rich insight into South Korea.

Further detailed reactions to the World Education Forum are available in NORRAG News 52, available later in June 2015.

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.

Related NORRAG Blogs

>>World Education Forum: Songdo Takeaways, 20th May 2015

>>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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