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Financing universal basic education: Where are we, what next?

Time (GMT +00) 12:30 14:30


Liesbet Steer - Research Associate, Overseas Development Institute

Desmond Bermingham - Visiting Fellow, Centre for Global Development

Lucia Fry - Policy Advisor, Global Campaign for Education

Peter Colenso -
 Head of Human Development Group, DFID
Lynn Murphy - Senior Fellow, William & Flora Hewlett Foundation


Chris Colclough - Director, Centre for Education and International Development, University of Cambridge

1. Introduction

Chris Colclough opened the meeting by introducing the speakers and highlighting the topical nature of the issue given the perilous nature of international support for education.  He set the scene by explaining that in this time the international environment is characterised by crisis, so a dialogue on where we are, how to deal with risks, how to move tonew priorities, and how to deliver on promises could not be more important.

2. “Achieving Universal Basic Education:Constraints and Opportunities in Donor Financing”

Liesbet Steer presented the draft findings from the ODI report on financing Universal Basic Education, commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation.  This asks ‘why, despite donor rhetoric, has UniversalBasic Education not been able to attract more funding’. This question was addressed by identifying factors motivating and constraining donor support, and potential strategies to increase external financing.

Steer set the scene by indicating the good news that there has been an increase in relative and absolute aid to basic services, fromless than 10% to more than 20% over the last decade.  Despite this increase a significant education funding gap remains of around USD$7billion, and the share of education funding has remained stable. Six highly interrelated factors were identified as influencing donor decisions to finance basic education;

  • Evidence and Advocacy
  • Partner Demand
  • Partner Absorptive Capacity
  • Aid Architecture
  • Donor Organisation and Capacity
  • Donor Prioritisation and Leadership

Some factors were identified as seemingly more important than others.  The biggest constraints are: prioritisation of basic education, evidence and advocacy and the aid architecture. Absorptive capacity to was found to have much less importance than was expected given it is often cited as a key factor in existing literature.  In terms of factors that have motivated donors to engage in basic education so far, demand for financing and prioritisation were perceived to be most important.  Improvements in architecture also had positive effects, followed by existing evidence and advocacy and improvements in recipient capacity.

The characteristics of eachfactor were outlined, paying particular attention to the following three mostimportant factors.

Donor prioritisation is influenced by strong leadership, international agreements, the presence of a visionary paper (e.g. Delors report), a country’s own development history, culture or religion (particularly in non-DAC countries), and foreign policy interests.  The challenge here is not only a lack of prioritisation, but also translating prioritisation into allocation of funding.  Complex organisational structures and decentralisation are identified as barriers forthese central priorities turning into financing at a local level.

There is an increased focuson the use of evidence in making decisions within donor agencies.  However, there is a perception that education lacks clear and coherent evidence. For example, the range of different funding gap estimates, or the relative effectiveness of the quality vs. quantity debate.  Furthermore, while recognising the improvement ineducation advocacy, questions were raised about its effectiveness. In particular, while appealing to the heartstrings, the human rights approach is perceived to not have traction within organisations, and there are questions whether advocacy groups are effectively using evidence on the contribution of education on the broader development agenda and topical issues such as climate change.  There is also strong competition from advocacy groups in other sectors.

Co-ordination and innovation within the education aid architecture are perceived as being strong barriers. While it is felt that progress has been made in many facets of the Paris Declaration, there is a feeling that co-ordination from high-level bodies such as UNESCO and Fast Track Initiative(“FTI”) has not been as effective. Finding ways to create space for innovation within the current architecture, and drawing upon alternative sources of financing includingnon-DAC and the private sector are recommended.

In addressing how to move forward, the following five strategies were recommended.

Creating a renewed platform to capture high-level support; eg. identify a core group of global champions that could lead the effort.

Making a better case for education; a new visionary paper on education, the establishment of a semi-permanent body to provide economic and social analysis of education (going beyond the GMR), and resolve the current debate around quality/quantity and primary/secondary education.

Expanding the tent; bringing in innovative sources of financing including non-traditional donors and the private sector.

Enhancing aid effectiveness; a stronger global platform to coordinate and monitor aid, explore models for collaborative partnerships to enable more efficient delivery of aid on the ground, and find ways to address internal organizational challenges and resolve tensions between central priorities andlocal decision making.

Strengthening recipient capacity and demand; addressing gaps in expertise in donor agencies, and strengthen capacity building programs and local accountability.

3. Discussion 1

PeterColenso opened the first discussion by agreeing with the analysis and recommendations presented by Steer.  He asserted that the challenge moving forward is “not the what, but the how, and the political will and institutional will to do that”.  Colenso discussed five reflections on the current economic climate, contribution of the US to the global agenda, relative success of the health sector, importance of remembering domestic financing and aid effectiveness.

Lynn Murphy opened her discussion by providing a brief word on why Hewlett supports financing for education.She then provided reflections on the increasing importance of evidenceand questioned whether the sector is underutilising research that already exists. She emphasized that more research is needed on implementation and “how”education objectives can be achieved. She noted the importance of “opening upthe ‘club’” and engaging broadly with people thinking about education (globally and in developing countries) in setting the education agenda.

Key themes of the subsequent discussions are represented in collaboration with those in response to Desmond Bermingham and Lucia Fry’s presentations. 

4. “Strengthening the Global Education Compact”

Desmond Bermingham presented a paper intended to make a contribution towards the debate on how to strengthen the global education compact. First, he presented the following six principles that he suggests should form the basis of the compact:

  • Serve local needs;
  • Focus on results - not inputs as currently is the case;
  • Help build local capacity;
  • Promote open and inclusive governance at a local and global level - recognising the FTI does not do this effectively for non-government bodies;
  • Prioritising neglected issues - most notably quality, fragility, access to data at a local level; and
  • Promote innovation; especially learning from successes in health.

Four options were then presented for strengthening the global education compact.These are premised upon the working assumption that the current aid architecture is not fit for purpose, and there is currently a significant opportunity to address some of the challenges within the existing system.  Bermingham recognised there may well be other options, and that at a recent presentation in Washington DC there was a strong feeling that a combination of options may be the best approach.

  • Option One:  Continue with the existing and ongoing reform of the FTI
  • Option Two:  Undertake a significant transformation of the governance, management, scale and ambition of the FTI
  • Option Three:  Create a Global Fund for Education
  • Option Four: Create a virtual fund

5. GCE-FIFA 2010 World Cup Initiative

Lucia Fry presented the vision, strategy and timeline of the 1Goal Education campaign. This seeks to maximise the opportunity of the World Cup 2010 to influence the political agenda by generating more public support for education than ever before. With over 3billion people expected to watch the World Cup, the objective is to mobilise 30million supporters for the campaign, providing the opportunity for significant political leverage.

6. Discussion 2

Peter Colenso opened the second discussion by affirming DfID’s historical existing support for FTI and the 1Goal Campaign, whilst recognising the challenges they each face. He noted that there is a need for a bigger and better education partnership, which should include the US. With respect to the FTI he noted that there a need for more money, a better link ofthe replenishment to the 1goal initiative, a need to address operational deficiencies and issues around inclusion, improve governance structure as wellas the ability to deal with fragile states.

Lynn Murphy commented on the progress the sector as a whole has made over the previous decade, despite its discussed shortcomings, having moved from being about ‘whether’ to invest in education to being about ‘how’ to invest. She confirmed the need for an opening up of the space both at theglobal and country level to include a wider number of players, including foundations. So far high level meetings have not been able to effectively engage new types of donors. There is a need for a broader view on resources andto tap into opportunities these resources offer, for example foundations likethe Hewlett foundation can be more flexible and invest in initiatives that involve higher risk.

7.The main issues that emerged from the two discussions were:

Making the Case - Learning from other Sectors

The share of funding to health has doubled over the previous decade,while education has remained stable.  Anumber of lessons that can be learnt from the health sector were identified and discussed.  Most notably, there was someacknowledgement that health has been more effective in providing a better casein terms of needs and outcomes. There isa feeling that education is something that may be taken for granted in “our Western society”, and that there is a much greater identification with health issues.  Further, there is a feeling that the availability and use of evidence is greater in the health sector.  Questions were raised as to whether the issufficiently exploiting the link between education and many ‘hot issues’ of the day, including health and climate change and utilise this greater identification and evidence.  For example, the role education plays in maternal health.

Finally, in making the case for education it was asserted that one of the risks may be focusing too much on successes and not failures. There are questions surrounding whether the more effective and accurate number of children out of school is around 500million, when taking fragile states and children that do not complete schooling.

Widening the tent /Opening up the ‘Club’

In addressing the shortcomings of education financing and a new paradigm moving forward, it was widely discussed that there is a need to widen the type and level of parties involved.The type of parties predominantly engaged with the global compact are traditional donors, leaving questions for the roles of non-DAC, emerging and private donors.  The benefit from widening the tent to have a greater involvement from these donors is that they do have some interest in education, and they can bring valuable lessons to the global compact.  For example, Saudi donors have a donor coordination system arguably well advanced beyond the existing global compact, and the private sector and foundations can often take higher risks than are allowed by the institutional systems of more traditional donors.  Questions were raised as to the importance of the FTI amongst recipient countries, and that more input at adomestic and local level is required.  It was commented that at a recent UNESCO conference the concerns of Ministers from the south were not of the FTI.Incorporating concerns at this country, local level, was thus recognised as important, as perhaps the role of aid is more strongly.  It was suggested that UNESCO could play a major convening role here.  A positive move towards this direction is the move away from the G8 and towards the G20 being a major forum for this debate.What this means for the international architecture is that this dialoguemay look very different if it was chaired by a G20 country such as South Africa or China, for example.

Domestic Financing

The majority of funding for education is sourced domestically.  Aid is a catalyst for what is going on at the country level. The papers discussed only focused on external sources of financing, which raises the question of how these sources interact, and what is the role of donor agencies in addressing the structural barriers for financing at both a national and local level.Whilst outside the scope of these studies this could be a good focus moving forward. 

Choice of Architecture

In response to Bermingham’s presentation, discussion surrounding the choice of aid architecture focused on the extent to which it addressed the previously discussed shortcomings of the FTI, in particular its relevance inlarge and fragile states.  While most remain agnostic towards the specific choice, Bermingham acknowledged the strongest amount of support for option Two or Three.

The importance of greater mutual accountability was also raised. It was noted that national governments have tried hard to keep their part of thecompact but that donors have not kept their promises. There is a need for better systems of “mutual” accountability. Bermingham noted that a genuine system of accountability is also missing within the FTI and that a moreindependent structure may be needed.

Mobilising Political Will

Mobilising additional financing and most options for reforming theglobal compact will require significant political will, especially in the current environment of economic crisis.The 1Goal Education Campaign provides an opportunity for mass mobilisation of public support, however, the challenge will be translating this support into action orientated political will and concrete channels of financial support.

Fragile states

Participants raised questions as to whether the relative importance of various factors constraining scale up of funding would be similar if the study had only focused on fragile states and which of the four options to strengthen the global compact would be most effective in these contexts. The importance of the ability to choose the best instrument that is fit for purpose was emphasized. It was also noted that in order to address challenges in fragile states greater attention will need to be paid to the declining capacity indonor agencies.


Much progress has been made since global leaders agreed in the year 2000 to provide basic education for every child in the world. Globally, primary enrolment has risen by over 40 million children. However, despite these impressive results, external financing for basic education has not grown fast enough to put most countries on track for reaching the Education for All (EFA) goals and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). There are several developments that may offer opportunities from 2010 to mobilize substantial new resources.

At this event, we presented three pieces of work that provide reflections on these opportunities and suggest ways to make the most of them, in spite of the difficult financial circumstances that are likely to affect donor countries over the next few years. The presentations included:

  • A summary of findings of a recent research project on “Achieving Universal Basic Education: Constraints and Opportunities in Donor Financing”. The project aimed to answer the question of why, despite strong political support for basic education, the sector has not been able to attract more donor funds and what can be done in the future to better achieve the targets.

  • A recent paper on “Strengthening the Global Education Compact”, which provides an analysis of the options for the global education aid architecture.

  • An update of the GCE-FIFA 2010 World Cup initiative, 1GOAL, which aims to renew global leaders’ commitment to achieving the basic education goals.