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A Payment Plan for Universal Education

DAVOS – The Sustainable Development Goals, which the international community adopted in September, include a commitment to provide every child with access to free primary and secondary education by 2030. Finding the additional $20 billion per year, or more, that will needed to deliver on this commitment is one of the central objectives of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity.

The commission was established last September by the Norwegian prime minister, and co-convened with the presidents of Malawi, Chile, and Indonesia and the director-general of UNESCO. Its members, including five former presidents and prime ministers, three former finance ministers, six Nobel Prize winners, and three of the world’s most successful business leaders – Jack Ma, Aliko Dangote, and Strive Masiyiwa – will report their findings to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the co-conveners in September. On January 24, we met in London to chart the way forward.

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The challenge is daunting. Some 60 million primary-school-age children have no access to formal education. Of the roughly 590 million who are attending school, some 250 million – roughly two in five – are failing to learn the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. And some 60% of school pupils in developing countries do not meet basic mathematics standards.

If current trends persist, by 2050, children in most regions of the world will receive, on average, ten or more years of schooling – up from three years in 1950. Some countries in Africa, however, will lag far behind, with just 3-4 years of schooling on average. If we maintain a business-as-usual approach, it will take more than a hundred years – well into the twenty-second century – before every child is provided with an opportunity to complete his or her schooling.

Even as education levels play an increasingly important role in economic growth, the funds needed to raise them have failed to materialize. International development aid for education has fallen by nearly 10% in recent years – and government spending in low-income countries has failed to make up the difference.

In 2002, education accounted for 16% of total domestic spending in poor countries. Today, the figure is just 14%. Meanwhile, outlays for health increased from 9% to 11% of total spending. And, to make matters worse, in many of the countries with the greatest need for education – including Pakistan and Nigeria – governments are spending too little on it (sometimes as little as 2% of national income).

Nor is the money – when it is made available – spent equitably. In low-income countries, almost half of all education funds are spent on the most educated 10% of children. Very little trickles down to street children or boys and girls in remote rural areas, conflict zones, or urban slums.

According to UNESCO, the ratio of pupils to qualified teachers in the Central African Republic, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, and South Sudan is more than a hundred to one. And those teachers receive little support, encouragement, or feedback. Good teachers are undoubtedly the key to quality education; but they can do only so much if they are not provided with skilled supervision, a well-organized curriculum, and access to technology.

The phrase “universal education” will mean nothing if it does not apply to children living in huts, hovels, and refugee tents. When war or disaster strikes, the international community rightly mobilizes funding for food, shelter, and health care. All too often, however, financing education is only an afterthought. With refugees spending more than ten years away from home, on average, this neglect cannot be allowed to continue.

Fortunately, progress is being made in this area. In an exciting experiment in Lebanon, schools have been put on double shifts in order to accommodate the country’s Syrian refugee population. Local children attend in the morning, and in the afternoon, Syrian refugee children study in the same classrooms.

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The program has been a stunning success, providing schooling for some 207,000 children who might otherwise have been deprived of an education. And plans are underway to expand the program to cover one million children in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. The biggest obstacle to what would be a spectacular achievement – as is so often the case – is a shortage of money.

It is to support efforts like this one that the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity was formed. UNICEF leader Anthony Lake, UNESCO head Irina Bokova, and Global Partnership for Education Chair Julia Gillard have lent their support to a platform for the provision of education in emergencies, a proposal that I hope will be formalized at the World Humanitarian Summit in Turkey in May. And it is my goal that by the end of the year we will also have a timetable to provide primary and secondary education to every child in the world – and the funding with which to achieve this most important of objectives.