By Leni Wild, ODI.
Rather than a sole focus on financing education and the debate over how much money is needed, Leni Wild suggests we shift our focus to building effective systems and political leadership that can deliver.
July began with new commitments to financing for education in developing countries, with the replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education. Significant re-investment was raised ($28.5 billion for global education for 2015-2018), although the target for donor contributions fell short of what was expected.
This financing for education remains vital, but it is striking that the education debate continues to focus on how much money is needed. What’s missing for me is debate on how to best spend resources, and what else might be needed for sustained improvements in learning. Recent recognition of a ‘learning crisis’, with improved access to education but shortfalls in quality globally, reinforces the need to understand what else can rebalance progress in this area.
One emerging insight is striking: that the real issue might not be how much money, but how to build effective systems and political leadership that can deliver. What really matters here are the incentives of political elites – as ODI’s Director, Kevin Watkins, recently highlighted, Nigeria provides a classic case in point, in that its high economic growth rates have not translated into greater spending on education or improvements in quality and access. This reflects political choices in Nigeria – as Kevin notes, it is part of a wider political failure.
What shapes ‘political failures’ like this? In a recent Working Paper, we argue that the current emphasis on financing and the way in which progress has been measured to date may create a ‘perfect storm’. At the domestic level, political incentives can be skewed towards areas that are visible, targetable, and perceived to offer high political rewards. At the global level, this has been reinforced through Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets and an emphasis on what is more easily measurable. Our research draws on work by ODI and the University of Birmingham, which has mapped the technical characteristics of sectors like education that reinforce particular types of incentives and behaviours over others.
What does this mean, in a nutshell? Well, we find that while political prioritisation of education can drive progress, some activities or tasks can have greater political salience than others, offering higher political ‘returns’ to individual politicians. What matters is how easily politicians can claim credit for a particular output or whether citizens will connect improvements with political performance (i.e. how visible they are). Areas that are more complex, where it is harder for citizens to discern the role of politicians or government, may offer lower returns. This can translate into higher investment in more tangible inputs, like building more schools or hiring more teachers. Longer term investments in, for example, teacher quality or learning methods are less visible – and can be perceived as offering lower political rewards as a result.
At the global level, this focus on the visible has been reinforced, unwittingly, by an MDG framework that has reinforced an emphasis on access measures (such as enrolment numbers) rather than learning and quality measures.
While these are common dynamics, they are not fixed or inevitable. New Development Progress research highlights countries where domestic incentives have worked differently, and suggests that concerted political efforts and system-wide reform are needed for significant improvements in both education quality and access.
One common factor across these case studies is finding ways to make quality more visible on public and political agendas. Chile, for example, is one of the few countries to have improved the quality of its basic education significantly in recent decades. During the Pinochet era, an independent and rigorous national assessment system, the SIMCE (Sistema de Medición de la Calidad de la Educación), gave parents information on school performance, putting pressure on the education system to perform and developing a market for education to drive quality. In the democratic era, this strategy was maintained and augmented by regular participation in international assessment tests, with Chile’s poor performance in these tests used by the government to boost support for continuing and investing in education reforms. Other promising models of large-scale citizen-led assessment include the Annual Status of Education Report in India and Uwezo in East Africa , which test student competencies and publicise the results to create broad awareness, debate and momentum for change.
Another common factor is genuine efforts to create greater school-based management. In some parts of Indonesia, a country that has made huge efforts to improve educational outcomes, more effective school-based management as part of decentralisation efforts have provided greater flexibility on allocation decisions and has, in some areas, made quality issues more visible. While this isn’t the case uniformly throughout the country, it reinforces Lant Pritchett’s argument for the need for more flexible, locally based management of education provision, rather than top-down centralised systems, to put the spotlight on issues that matter most locally. This often requires the building or strengthening of coalitions to mobilise action, both within and outside the state systems.
At the global level, these findings suggest that proposals for a post-2015 goal on education quality could also help to re-balance global attention and efforts, but only if complimented by these types of changes at the domestic level.
These cases confirm that positive change is possible – but it means doing things differently and requires more than money. This needs to be the focus as we head into a year of major international agreements and pledges, and as funders like DFID invest more heavily in understanding how to secure quality improvements and more effective education systems…
Leni Wild is a Research Fellow in Politics and Governance at ODI. She is an expert in political economy and service delivery, accountability and aid, focusing on fragile and post-conflict countries.
This blog post originally appeared on the Development Progress Blog at the end of July 2014.