Weak Institutional Capacity: A Growing Barrier to Reaching the Education Sustainable Development Goal in sub-Saharan Africa

By Birger Fredriksen, Results for Development Institute.

AfricaA blog I posted on April 27th on NORRAG NEWSbite  reflected on the massively increased funding that sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) will need, compared to other regions, to reach the 2030 education Sustainable Development Goal (SDG4), and the danger that the recent economic slowdown could severely affect countries’ ability to mobilize the resources required. The two main reasons for this higher resource need are SSA’s massive needs for education catch-up and rapid population growth.

To these two must be added a third reason: Very poor institutional capacity in the education sector. This was a key factor explaining why SSA advanced only modestly towards the EFA goals, save the one on access to primary education. For example, the 2008 EFA Global Monitoring Report noted that (not limited to SSA): “…extraordinarily limited attention has been paid to strengthening national capacity”, and “…countries need much stronger capacity to deal with the political economy of reforms and with the technical constraints on implementation” (p. 27). Further, de Grauwe (2009, p. 34) notes that the lack of planning and management capacities has been identified as a major obstacle to achieving EFA, “as important as the lack of resources”.

Poor institutional capacity in SSA is not limited to the education sector. However there are at least three reasons why capacity development in this sector deserves urgent action at this time:

First, if not vigorously addressed, capacity constraints will become an even greater barrier to reaching SDG4 than it was for the EFA goals. This is because the policies and programs needed to reach SDG4, focusing on improving quality, equity and relevance, will be much more capacity-demanding than those needed to increase access to primary education. Many countries must drastically improve their capacity to perform effectively basic planning, implementation, monitoring and accountability functions. Beyond this, new capacities are needed to manage systems that are rapidly growing much more complex, diversified, decentralized and open – accountable to and dependent on – a variety of stakeholders. Also, to effectively harness the opportunities – and avoid the pitfalls – of information technology requires capacities that hardly exist in most countries.

Second, continued poor education system performance will hamper progress towards most SDGs. The education system is the single-most important social system in any country. And this importance has grown in recent decades as societal change has accelerated, especially in developing countries. Countries’ ability to engage in, sustain and manage well these processes increasingly depends on the quality of their human capital. And the education system’s role in creating such capital is as indispensable as it is multiple. It ranges from enhancing productivity, equity and people’s ability to sustain a livelihood, adopt new technologies, and be better parents and citizens to building attitudes, skills and partnerships needed to tackle national and global challenges. In most countries, education also accounts for a higher share of civil servants and public budgets than does any other sector. In short, to develop the capacity needed to have a well-performing education system is important at so many levels and to most SDGs.

Third, evaluations show that decades of massive external aid for capacity development has had limited impact. Three lessons are particularly relevant for future aid:

  • To be successful, aid must be accompanied with strong commitment to capacity development by both countries and aid agencies. In particular, governments must develop an incentive structure conducive to capacity development. This is more often found in ministries of finance and other core economic institutions than in the corresponding education institutions where the administrative culture is often characterized by low accountability, and a high degree of patronage, politicization and even corruption. And donors, often seeking “value for money” in the short term, must commit to long-term sustained support to develop capacity to deal with both political economy constraints on reforms and technical barriers on implementation.
  • Good quality aid matters. Most aid for capacity development is financial to help countries fund training, long-term resident technical assistance and equipment. This support is generally very fragmented, lacks continuity, is often poorly quality-assured, and seldom funds south-south cooperation to facilitate peer learning and knowledge exchange. The capacity of most funding agencies to complement their financial support with sustained technical and knowledge support to address such weaknesses is very limited. For example, World Bank evaluations of its support have found that it lacked clear objectives, relying instead on fragmented project-by-project approaches, with only modest impact on institutional capacity (see World Bank-OED, 2005; World Bank, 2008).

This stands in contrast to markedly improved capacity of core economic and financial institutions in SSA over the last two decades. One factor explaining this difference is significant, sustained and well-targeted external technical and knowledge support. For example, nine IMF-managed regional technical assistance centres have been established, including five in Africa between 2002 and 2013, as part of a special initiative to improve the performance of core economic and financial institutions. Further, the World Bank-managed Financial Sector Reform and Strengthening Initiative was launched in 2002 after the East Asian financial crisis to promote financial sector reforms, with SSA as the priority region. Both initiatives are mainly funded by donors. The World Bank also manages technical and knowledge support initiatives of this type for many other sectors.

  • No comparable technical and knowledge support programs exist in the education sector where Global Public Good (GPG) functions are severely underfunded. A recent study estimates that, in 2013, only about 3% ($212 million) of global education aid was used for GPG functions compared to 21% in health sector ($4.7 billion). This illustrates that – despite increasing interdependence among countries – the growing need for joint action to address common challenges is less well understood for education than for, e.g. climate change, infectious diseases, or financial crises.

As a result, the capacity of institutions’ established to support for GPG functions – such as advocacy, knowledge generation and exchange, statistics, and technical and knowledge support – is very weak. As noted, funding agencies fund capacity development but are generally unable to accompany this with adequate technical and knowledge support. And technical GPG agencies are unable to respond to the growing need for GPGs. In particular, UNESCO has seen an unfortunate long-term decline in its capacity, caused by severe shortage of core funding and slow progress in improving management and governance. Even UNESCO’s well-performing International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) relies for 90% of its funding on extra-budgetary sources. Such excessive dependence on insecure funding makes it very difficult to develop the stable technical staff capacity needed. Most GPG institutions and networks in the education sector face core funding constraints similar to the IIEP.

The costs of further delay in radically improving education system performance in SSA will be huge, including for achieving most of the non-education SDGs. It will also lower the effectiveness of both external and domestic education spending. Thus, initiatives to make aid for capacity development more effective deserve special attention even in today’s tight aid budgets. And, similar to the experience for economic and financial institutions, much higher priority must be given to the provision of high-quality, well-targeted and sustained technical and knowledge support. Availability of global knowledge and expertise does not help poor countries much if they lack the capacity to access, adapt to local conditions and use such assets.

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

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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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