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26 Jan 2018
Luis Crouch and Silvia Montoya

SDG 4 Data: Investing Millions Today Will Save Billions in the Future

Luis Crouch is Chief Technical Officer of the International Development Group (RTI International). Silvia Montoya (@montoya_sil) is the Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

In many countries, education ministers are like air traffic controllers, who see a storm on the horizon but find that 80% of their navigation instruments are either malfunctioning or non-existent. They simply don’t have the data to steer their way out of a global learning crisis that affects more than one-half of all children of primary and lower secondary school age, according to estimates by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS).

This is why the UIS, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and other partners are pushing for greater (and better) investment in data to support countries in their quest to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4). The UIS is focusing on the pursuit of the data, while the GPE is leading the call for investment, as the only global fund dedicated solely to education in developing countries.

In particular, the GPE is preparing to launch a data initiative under its Knowledge and Innovation Exchange, as part of its replenishment campaign. This will be a key area of discussion at the upcoming Financing Conference in Dakar. The GPE is proposing to gather an expert group of public and private sector partners to assess the data challenges and develop recommendations as to how the Partnership should direct its funding.

Vision vs reality

The good news is that countries have defined and agreed to a global monitoring framework to help guide their initiatives and track their progress to achieve SDG 4. The framework includes a set of 43 global and thematic indicators, which were carefully designed to support national policy reforms and related efforts to improve national education systems. However, this framework – and the vision behind it –requires rock-solid and sustained investment if it is to succeed in ensuring every child’s right to quality education.

Yet today, the global coverage rate for the SDG 4 indicators is just 36% for all regions. The rate falls even lower for indicators related to learning: more than 60% of low-income countries are not participating in any large-scale regional or international assessment and are therefore unable to report cross-nationally-comparable data.

Making it happen – a sustainable support strategy

As discussed in a recent blog, we need to re-boot the education sector by taking a radically different approach to data. Instead of relying solely on supply-side interventions to produce the data, we must focus on demand-driven innovations to bolster national statistical systems.

To show the way forward, the UIS developed a new 12-year Global Strategy for Education Data (GSED). It aims to improve evidence-based decision making for education in line with SDG 4, enabling target countries to develop sustainable statistical systems for education, and the production and dissemination of accurate and timely education statistics that are comparable over time and across countries.

How much will it cost?

In a new UIS paper, we looked at the investment costs in relation to the costs of doing business as usual – i.e. accepting that most countries will continue to spend billions each year on their national education systems without the data to monitor, let alone achieve, SDG 4. The results are conclusive and have been clearly endorsed by the Technical Cooperation Group on SDG 4–Education 2030 Indicators (TCG), which recently met in Dubai, and will be further considered by the SDG 4-Education 2030 Steering Committee in February.

To begin with, we took a demand-driven approach by identifying the specific requirements and most feasible approaches to produce each indicator. As shown in our paper, it would cost about US$1.4 million per year on average per country to produce all of the SDG 4 indicators for an overall investment of $280 million per year for the whole world.  While this average varies according to the income level of the country (see the paper for details), we found that the costs are relatively small when set against the benefits of providing quality education for all and the unacceptable costs of inaction in terms of the lost prospects of current and future generations.

It also makes financial sense to invest in statistics. According to UIS data, the median country spends US$1.4 billion dollars a year on its education system from pre-primary to secondary schooling. Studies have shown that the inefficiency levels in education systems tend to range from 10% to as high as 30% – with students repeating grades, for example, leaving school early, or many schools not performing as well as other similar schools, that is, below reasonable, country-specific, data-driven benchmarks. Imagine the benefits that would result if every country had the data to identify under-performing schools and the children at risk, and thus improve the quality of their education in a targeted manner.

We estimate that about one-third of the investment costs would have to be funded by education aid, which would require a three-fold increase in current levels. It is important to note that two-thirds of the investment would be channelled to new assessments of learning and skills outcomes from early childhood development to higher-level skills acquired for various domains.

In a conservative scenario, better data would lead to a 10% gain in efficiency. So while the average low-income country would need to invest about US$1.7 million per year on education data, it could save US$36 million a year in the running costs of its education system. The investment costs, at US$2.4 million per year, are higher for a middle-income country, but the potential savings would reach US$101 million because these countries spend more to start with. Could there be a more spectacular return on an investment? Of course, a key issue is usage. Therefore, the investment needs to consider not just the production of data but better approaches and motivation to actually use the data.

Investment: More than money

Whilst the investment case is clear, the success of our vision requires more than money: it also requires the collaboration, focus and drive of all actors in the field of education. In other sectors, sustained, coordinated, long-term investment in data and data systems, across a variety of donors and in partnership with governments, has resulted in fast progress on issues such as under-five mortality.

The data, when utilised by management teams on the ground, have both bolstered progress and made it possible to document it. We need to first find the money (ideally from a variety of sources) and then spend it well by developing programmes that start quickly, demonstrate results quickly and build up over time in a coordinated fashion. Hard work now, backed by effective investment, can maximise the impact of SDG 4 data in securing successful, sustainable and long-term educational outcomes for the future.

One possible way to ensure coordination is to create a real or virtual fund to finance at least a significant portion of this investment. The fund could be similar to other funding streams or programmes that have been created in the past to spur data usage and production. Or, it could be a virtual fund where a central node or actor tabulates, brokers and summarises all incoming and outgoing funding and documents the results. However, it would be good if such a fund – real or virtual – were able to coordinate sufficient resources to be truly central and catalytic.

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