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Oslo high level summit on Education for Development: initial reflections

This article was originally published on the Action Aid website on 8 July 2015.

By David Archer

The line-up was truly impressive: Ban Ki-moon, Malala Yousafzai, Gordon Brown, Julia Gillard, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from Pakistan, Prime Minister Sohlberg from Norway, countless Ministers and Executive Directors from UN bodies and NGOs. This was the much trailed High Level Summit on Education and Development and Malala opened by setting the bar high, saying we should no longer accept the low targets of the old MDGs but aspire for full financing of the more ambitious Sustainable Development Goal on education. She argued that if 9 years of education is not enough for our own children we should not accept it for children anywhere. Rather we should demand 12 years of education for every child – easily affordable if we could simply stop spending money on wars for just 8 days. With her 18th birthday coming up next week Malala recognised she would soon no longer be considered a child, but she insisted she would always retain the capacity to dream!

So, did world leaders step up to the plate? Perhaps the most tangible outcome from the Summit was the formation of a Global Commission on Education Financing, convened by Unesco and the Norwegian Prime Minister Mme Sohlberg with the backing of the Presidents of Indonesia, Malawi and Chile; this commission will be led by Gordon Brown and aims to report to Ban Ki-moon by September 2016. This Commission could be hugely significant but so much depends on how it is framed.

Hopefully the paper on “Financing Education: Opportunities for Global Action” produced by Brookings for the Oslo Summit will be the starting point. This was the paper that recommended the formation of the Global Commission, together with a Platform to scale up external support for education. It also calls for a data revolution in tracking financing and for seizing the opportunities to mobilise and mange domestic finances. This latter point is crucial and the report calls for attention to increasing the size of budgets – through increasing tax raising efforts – as well as attention to the share of budgets allocated to education, the more sensitive allocation of spending and greater transparency and accountability. This is an excellent starting point and if the Global Commission looks seriously at tax evasion. Illicit transfers of wealth and unfair pricing practices (as this report recommends) then it really could represent a breakthrough.  It is estimated the developing countries lose $138 billion a year through harmful tax incentives and aggressive tax avoidance – substantially more than they gain in aid and more than enough to address the serious global resource gaps for education

There was some progress too towards a Humanitarian Education Fund – though we will not see all the details until this is fully launched in time for the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. There is clearly an urgent need to scale up financing for education in conflict-affected and emergency contexts and it is scandalous that less than 2% of humanitarian aid presently goes to education. So it was eye catching when the EC’s Humanitarian Commissioner Christos Stylianides pledged to double the EC’s aid to education in emergencies up to 4%. This was a serious pledge, representing a significant shift, recognising the crucial role of education in emergencies.

Whether a new Humanitarian Education Fund in itself will help depends on how it works and where it is hosted. Most crucially we must avoid a situation where having a humanitarian fund for education does not mean existing funders of humanitarian work are let off the hook. Ideally this new fund should be closely connected to the Global Partnership for Education so we avoid a situation where there are two un-harmonised harmonised funds! Particularly there are many grey areas about when emergency response or protracted crises weave into longer term development funding and the challenge is to be able to bridge these effectively, avoiding duplication.

Throughout the Summit there were many positive words on girls’ education – although no specific initiative emerged.  With Michelle Obama and so many others championing girls’ education there is already much momentum on girls’ education. It would have been good for the Summit to have done more to flag up the connections between girls’ education and other equity concerns in education, for example the fact that the poorest children are four times less likely to enrol in school than the richest – and are five times less likely to complete. Or indeed that the 93 million children under 15 with disabilities face some of the biggest obstacles in going to school and staying in school. The girls who face the biggest challenges are those whose parents are pastoralists or migrant workers; those born to indigenous families whose mother tongue is not taught in school; those who live in squatter settlements or very remote rural area;  those who are orphans or themselves underage heads of households. We need a more nuanced debate about the diverse equity challenges in education and the multiplying effects of these – and there are different interventions needed to address each of these categories of girls (and boys) who presently face discrimination and exclusion.

The biggest challenge going forward is to link these different threads together: to link the urgent need for more financing to the major challenges of equity. Equitable financing does not mean spending the same amount per child – because it costs more per capita to guarantee education in very remote areas or to ensure quality inclusive education for children with disabilities. Equitable financing means making extra efforts, it means active redistribution and positive discrimination to reach out to those who face multiple disadvantages. It makes good financial sense to focus on equity  – because if the children who face the biggest challenges succeed, everyone does. It is now well established, for example through the work of Pasi Sahlberg in Harvard, that education systems that focus on equity ratchet up quality for everyone.

Most importantly, if we are serious about making ambitious progress on 12 years of education for all we need to build equitable education systems where children’s chances are not determined by their parents’ ability to pay. We know conclusively (from the school fee abolition movement in early 2000s) that where parents have to pay fees the poorest children are excluded. Education can be the most powerful equalising force in any society but we have to work to make it so. If access and achievement are premised on your ability to pay, on the relative wealth or poverty of your parents, then education systems can easily become powerful forces for entrenching inequality and injustice.

Oslo could mark a turning point if the fine words lead to sustained action; if the global commission breaks new ground and looks at equitable financing of education in new ways and if the proposed humanitarian fund builds on the Global Partnership for Education rather than creating a parallel effort. Committing to delivering on these would make an appropriate 18th birthday present for Malala.


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