The Need for an SDG Demonstration in Education: Why Wait Till 2030?

By Steven J. Klees, University of Maryland.

Goal4The recently approved United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for education, like all the SDGs, is set to be attained by 2030. A very important target is to achieve universal primary education (UPE).  But this was the target of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), set by the U.N. in 2000 for attainment by 2015 – and this was not achieved.  UPE was also the primary target of the Education for All (EFA) accord reached in 1990 in Jomtien with the goal of attainment by the year 2000; a goal that was missed and then re-set in 2000 in Dakar to be achieved by 2015 – and missed again. Moreover, many forget that UPE was the object of international agreements and promises since the 1960s.  Why do we keep kicking this can down the road?

There are many possible responses to this question but mine is that, fundamentally, despite good intentions, the international community has not been serious about fulfilling these commitments.  I believe that the most fundamental problem has been the unwillingness to devote the resources necessary to achieve these goals. I believe that, with the will and sufficient resources, at least some of the education SDG targets could be attainable in many countries in a relatively short time, perhaps as few as 4 or 5 years.

UNESCO estimates that an additional $39 billion a year is needed to achieve the education SDG (and this may well be an underestimate.) An important source of additional international financing for education is supposed to be the multilateral, World Bank-initiated, but now semi-independent, Global Partnership for Education (GPE, formerly the Fast Track Initiative (FTI)).  But after over 10 years of operation (as FTI and GPE), the most that GPE can raise and spend from all the international donors is a measly $0.5 billion a year. That is, we need at least 80 times more money each year than we have been raising to achieve our new goals. The international community talks a good game but has not stepped up to the plate. As one example, the former president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, promised at the 2000 EFA meetings in Dakar that no country would be prevented from meeting the 2015 goals due to lack of finance. The World Bank reneged on that promise and no one has had the temerity to reiterate it for the SDGs.  Hence, my conclusion is that we have not been and are not serious.

But we can be. It is not a lot of money we are talking about in the global scheme of things.  As Malala Yousafzai has pointed out, only 8 days of annual global military expenditures could finance 12 years of free education for all children. I believe that one important reason that the international community has not committed the resources necessary in education is because there is no convincing evidence that additional resources can accomplish our goals. The health sector gets much more money than education, in part, because they can demonstrate success.  But improving health, while difficult, is a much easier task than improving education – simple interventions like bed nets and vaccinations can make a world of difference.  Even more complex behaviour change to reduce HIV incidence is much easier than the long term task of providing a good education to our children.

However, education is not rocket science. We know how to give a child a good education.  What I am proposing is that the international community, with the support of the Global Partnership for Education, perhaps as part of a partnership with a bilateral or multilateral agency, find a country that is willing to be a partner in an intensive demonstration effort to show that removing financial constraints can make a major difference in their education system in a short amount of time.  This doesn’t mean you “throw” money at education.  Of course, the money needs to be spent wisely, but resources would go to providing every child with a good education – trained teachers with adequate salaries, small classes, good facilities and learning materials (with some access to IT), scholarships and school meals when needed, and more.

Many donors talk about “capacity constraints” to using resources in developing countries but they can be overcome (and partly they are a paternalistic excuse).  For example, literacy campaigns have been successful in a number of countries.  Similarly, a country could implement a crash, short-term, campaign-style training of primary and lower secondary school teachers and principals with intensive follow-up in-service training for certification (in cooperation with teacher unions).  Some crash school-building programs might be necessary.  While the incredible barrier posed by poverty cannot be overcome in the short-run, scholarships, school meals, and health services for children in school can help a lot.

There are, of course, problems with supporting such a demonstration.  One is that this could put off donors from providing resources until after they see if the demonstration works.  This is possible, but I don’t think it will have a big effect.  Donors are not lining up to provide anywhere near the amount of resources that are needed, some are even cutting back, and I believe a good demonstration could show encouraging effects in 2 to 3 years.  Another problem is what happens to the demonstration country after the demonstration.  Somehow, the resources provided would have to continue.  Partly, this can be done by the country agreeing to ramp up domestic financing over the course of the demonstration but my guess is that the amount of resources needed to attain the SDGs will be beyond the capacity of most countries to go it alone and that means ramping up the international finance effort as well.

Long term, the latter is key.  Policy discussions of international financing are only tinkering at the margins of the issue.  They look at “innovative” financing mechanisms which may have little hope of offering a substantial contribution to the shortfall.  Private sector contributions offer less hope still.  What is needed is a global taxing mechanism, a call for which went unheeded at the Addis Financing for Development conference last July.  GPE should become an advocate for global taxation, which is supported by economists like Thomas Piketty and Nobel Laureates James Tobin and Joseph Stiglitz, among others.  However, these are longer term issues.

The point of a demonstration would be to show feasibility in the short-term – that with sufficient funding – and political will and thoughtful choices – at least some of the targets of the education SDG are attainable quickly.  Doing so in one country is easily affordable now and demonstrating success will significantly change the policy discourse, making the case for increased domestic and international resources for education much stronger than it is now.  Why wait until 2030?!  No more excuses!

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

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One Response to The Need for an SDG Demonstration in Education: Why Wait Till 2030?

  1. Ray Harris says:

    As is mentioned in the report above a ‘peace’ tax on arms sales could be introduced to offset the damage to schools, teachers and children during conflict and the need to re-build post conflict. Polluter pays is a good starting point – those who wage war should pay for the damage.

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