COLLEGE PARK, MARYLAND – This month, the United Nations is expected to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals, 17 goals and 169 targets that will guide international development efforts over the next 15 years. The objectives are ambitious; they include efforts to end hunger and poverty, reduce economic inequality, achieve gender equity, combat climate change, promote sustainable development, and improve infrastructure, sanitation, health, and education. And yet, if the efforts covered by this last goal – education – are any guide, it will take more than promises to ensure that the SDGs are achieved.
Two of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – the global framework that preceded the SDGs – targeted education. One was to attain universal primary education (UPE) and the other to reach gender parity in enrollment. Neither was achieved by the target date of 2015.
The history of broken promises goes back much further. Attaining UPE has been pledged by participants at international conferences since the 1960s, and both goals were part of the 155-country Education for All (EFA) compact that was signed in 1990 with a target date of 2000. Midway through that decade, however, in a relatively secret process, these and other EFA goals were unceremoniously postponed until 2015.
Today, 58 million children do not attend primary school, and even more are out of school at the secondary level. The SDGs will kick the can down the road once again, postponing UPE and other goals to 2030.
The most fundamental reason why UPE and other education goals have not been achieved is the unwillingness of the international community to supply the necessary resources. UPE has been within reach for decades. But studies of domestic financing and international donor-country contributions (official development assistance) revealed that annual spending toward the 2015 education MDGs and EFA goals fell $22 billion short of what would have been needed. The same studies project a $39 billion annual shortfall in efforts to attain the 2030 education SDGs.
At the 2000 follow-up meeting to EFA in Dakar, James Wolfensohn, then-President of the World Bank, pledged that no country committed to attaining the EFA goals would be kept from meeting them by a lack of finance. The World Bank reneged on that promise. After a few years, it set up the Fast Track Initiative in an attempt to respond to the promise made in Dakar, but FTI was plagued by problems and a lack of sufficient resources. FTI was revamped and transformed into the Global Partnership for Education, but, to date, donor financing totals only about $500 million annually, or 80 times less than what will be needed to achieve the education SDGs.
Given current efforts, projections indicate that UPE will not be achieved until 2086, if then. While there is talk of developing innovative financing mechanisms, studies of private-sector contributions have shown these efforts to be small-scale, self-interested, uncoordinated, and misdirected; billionaire philanthropists have put relatively little money into education. It should be noted that no one has renewed Wolfensohn’s EFA pledge with respect to the SDGs.
Given this dismal state of affairs, much attention is being focused on private schools, in the hope that they will take up the slack. Until recently, private schooling has been mostly for the relatively rich. But there has been an expansion of what have been called Low Fee Private Schools (LFPS). Multilateral agencies like the World Bank and bilateral agencies like the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development have been promoting and financing these efforts. However, these schools are not cheap for poor people, who often confront a choice between paying for private education and covering necessary expenses like food and health, especially when they have several children.
Furthermore, most of these private schools are of very low quality. The reason many poor parents choose a private school is that more than 30 years of market fundamentalism has decimated public education. Privatizing a public good, further stratifying education, and increasing inequalities is no answer; fully funding public schools is. When that happens, most private schools will go out of business – as they should. It may be individually rational to send your child to a private school, but supporting this choice is bad public policy, and makes a mockery of broad international agreement on every child’s right to free, quality education.
Once again, the international community is talking a good game, while pushing the goal posts far into the future. It is unwilling to put up the money required to achieve its stated goals, while trying to avoid responsibility for its failures. The Global Partnership for Education has emphasized the need for countries to increase domestic financing, but there is little possibility that this can generate sufficient resources to achieve the SDGs’ education goals.
What is needed is for rich countries to live up to their decades-old pledge to devote 0.7% of GNI to development aid and to initiate global tax mechanisms for generating the necessary resources – a call that, unfortunately, went unheeded at the recent Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa. As the SDGs’ adoption nears, governments must agree to put in place measures to ensure that these new promises are not just another exercise in lip service.