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09 Sep 2013

Education Aid and the “Transformative Shifts” Called for by the Post-2015 Agenda

By Birger Fredriksen, Consultant, formerly World Bank.

The report of the High-level Panel (HLP) on the Post-2015 Development Agenda concludes that this agenda needs to be driven by five big, transformative shifts: (i) Leave no one behind; (ii) Put sustainable development at the core; (iii) Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth; (iv) Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all; and (v) Forge new global partnerships. These shifts would indeed be welcome.

For education aid to help facilitate these “shifts” (or changes) will require at least two other transformative shifts: First, education systems must radically improve their ability to play their unique and indispensable catalytic role in facilitating the transformations called for. Second, to effectively support such transformation of education systems, education aid must itself be transformed into a more strategic instrument, allocated to areas and for purposes where evidence suggest it can have the greatest impact. This means both supporting cost-effective interventions and be catalytic in generating additional domestic and/or external resources in their support. Because the volume of education aid is unlikely to increase much over the next decade, the ability of aid to play a significant role will increasingly depend on its more strategic use in this regard. To achieve this, the following three broad inter-related areas deserve particular attention.

Build basic human capital

However this term is defined, achieving the four education sub-goals proposed by the HLP would be essential to building the basic human capital required to achieve the transformative shifts called for. In fact, these four sub-goals just refocuses the world’s attention on that achieving the three neglected EFA goals – “Early childhood care and education” (Goal 1), “Meeting learning needs of youth and adults” (Goal 3) and “Improving adult literacy” (Goal 4) is a necessary basic development stage that cannot be leapfrogged by any country. These goals must be achieved even as countries struggle to build the higher-level skills needed to compete in the global knowledge economy.

Unfortunately, such a reminder is needed, especially for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) which is falling further behind other regions on the four sub-goals proposed by the Panel and where progress on these goals would especially serve the overwhelming share of the labour force which is not involved in the modern sector. For example, even if everybody were to enter primary education, as long as only two in three pupils reach the final grade of the cycle (which has been the case since the 1970s), and second-chance programs are not provided for those who miss out on primary education (over 40% illiteracy among adult women in 2010), one-third of the labour force risk being illiterate in the 2030s and 2040s. And more than one in three children may be born to illiterate mothers (the UN “median variant” population projection estimates that, by 2050, 38% of births worldwide will be in SSA). These developments are hardly conducive to “leaving nobody behind” or “achieving inclusive growth”.

There are heaps of evidence about the multiple benefits of reaching EFA Goals 1, 3 and 4: Why was so little aid and domestic resources allocated to these goals over the last decade? To change this will really require transformative change in both the principals and processes guiding aid allocation and in the political economy of domestic resource allocation to ensure that population groups with little political clout get their fair share of education resources.   

Build institutions for leadership, accountability and innovation

It is a paradox that education systems (save Singapore and a few other countries) have such a low capacity to learn and innovate, be it to improve management and accountability, pilot and innovate to develop policies and programs adapted to local conditions, or applying new technologies to improve learning. Their ability to address future challenges will more than ever depend on their ability to learn and embrace, rather than resist, change, to be more inclusive and less characterized by “silo” thinking and to make evidence-based trade-offs in resource allocation.

Over the past decades, aid has given considerable priority to capacity building. While progress has been elusive, the single most important constraint in most countries is now not severe shortage of technical expertise in planning and management (except in some fragile states) but low institutional capacity to mobilize, utilize and retain existing expertise; to monitor performance; and to hold managers and teachers accountable for outcomes. Allocation of aid needs to learn from past failures, and help support national processes to build such institutions. 

Strengthening the global society’s capacity to provide high-quality global public goods

As countries develop and globalization grows, the balance between financial and technical aid shifts in favour of the latter. Countries demand “technical aid” to help use more effective their own resources.  Such aid includes a wide range of global public goods (GPGs) – knowledge generation and dissemination, technical support, support for south-south and south-south-north cooperation – largely facilitated by regional and global institutions and networks. Even the effectiveness of country-specific financial aid often depends on high-quality technical and knowledge support.

To respond to this transformation in the demand for aid requires capable institutions, including knowledge generation and exchange networks, to identify, synthesize, and disseminate good practice experience and provide high-quality technical support. While such services are supplied by a variety of private companies and universities, these are very fragmented and complement rather than replace the need for strong global institutions and networks with adequate core funding. Unfortunately, the ability of especially poor countries to benefit from such GPGs is hampered by the chronic underfunding and resulting weak capacity of global technical agencies (especially UNESCO), and the decreasing technical expertise of funding agencies.

To address this challenge will really require transformative change in the current (often benign) neglect by member states of their global institutions, including reforms of their governance structure to make them more accountable for effective delivery of GPG. But this alone will not be enough: GPG functions are severely underfunded because the “classic” factors limiting funding of national public goods are even more severe when it comes to GPGs.

Humanity’s success in revitalize the ability for countries to work effectively together – including in the education sector – could prove to be the defining story of the century. 

Birger Fredriksen is a consultant based in Washington. Before retiring, he worked for 20 years in the World Bank including as Director for Human Development for Africa, and 12 years in the OECD and UNESCO. Email:

Further resources

Fredriksen, B. (2011) Education Resource Mobilization and Use in Developing Countries: Scope for Efficiency Gains through more Effective use of Education Aid, Results for Development Institute, Washington DC.

Fredriksen, B. and Kagia, R. (2013) Africa 2050: Attaining the 2050 Vision for Africa: Breaking the Human Development Barrier, Emerging Markets Forum, Washington DC, June 2013.



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4 Responses

  1. Gabriel Carceles

    Most interesting update on this important issue, clear and systematically presented.
    Too bad public media are not informing on those developments, so crucial for everybody’s future.

  2. Pingback : Avoiding Post-2015 Education Pipe-dreams? | NORRAG NEWSBite

  3. Pingback : Global Governance of Education and Training in the Age of Globalization: The Growing Importance of Cross-Border Externalities of National Education Policies | NORRAG NEWSBite

  4. Gabriel Carceles

    Most interesting update on this important issue, clear and systematically presented.
    Too bad public media are not informing on those developments, so crucial for everybody’s future.

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