Educating the World’s Children

Educating the World’s Children

Donors to finance the first group of countries on Education For All Fast Track

November 26Twelve years ago in the Thai coastal town of Jomtien, policymakers from around the world committed themselves to a goal known as Education For All (EFA). Broadly, it pledged countries, bilateral donors, and the multilateral institutions to extend the transformational power of education to the estimated 113 million children around the world who are missing out on a primary education.

In 2000, with little evidence that EFA had taken root outside of East Asia, policymakers and their partners tried again to jumpstart the process at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal. This time, donors, including the Bank President Jim Wolfensohn, assured developing countries that "no country seriously committed to education for all will be thwarted in their achievement of this goal by a lack of resources."

This Dakar commitment, as it became known, spelled out a balance of responsibilities for developing and developed countries, which if successfully carried out, would allow many of these children to have their day in class. At the UN Millennium Summit in September later the same year, EFA became one of the pillars of the Millennium Development Goals. Over the course of the last 18 months, EFA has gathered pace to the point, where during this year’s Spring Meetings, the Development Committee endorsed a World Bank action plan to accelerate progress towards EFA.

One of the key planks of the World Bank’s action plan was to ‘fast track’ those developing countries that were determined to reach their EFA Millennium Goals—ensuring universal primary education for all children by 2015; and eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary school—by embracing Poverty Reduction Strategies and education reform policies that had broad community support.

In late June this year, the Bank invited 18 countries that had completed full PRSPs and had on-going education sector programs supported by the donor community to participate in the Fast-Track Initiative. It also invited 5 countries for enhanced analytical and capacity building support.

Tomorrow, bilateral donors from the OECD and international development agencies such as the World Bank, UNICEF, and UNESCO, will sit down in Brussels to finance the education plans of the first group of countries that have credibly articulated how they could achieve the goal of universal primary education by 2015.

While the exact details of the outcome will not be known until the donors finish their deliberations in the late afternoon, expectations are high that up to seven developing countries in Africa and Central America could receive strong donor backing that would allow them to proceed towards their ambitious goals.

The seven—Burkina Faso, Guyana, Honduras, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Niger, and Yemen —could receive new grant financing to educate as many as 4.5 million boys and girls who at the moment are unable to attend primary school in the seven countries. In addition, many more who would otherwise have dropped out of school will now have the chance to complete their basic education.

Donors are also expected to express support for Ethiopia, The Gambia, and Guinea who have all made significant efforts to spell out what it would take to give all children a basic education by 2015.

These countries are part of a larger group of 88 low-and middle-income countries, which, without special national and global efforts, will not achieve the 2015 goal of a complete primary education for every girl and every boy. Research now shows that children who learn to read, write, and count earn roughly ten times as much in their working lives than other children who were unable to attend school.

Ruth Kagia, World Bank Education Director, says the Dakar goal can be reached if countries and their development partners harness the opportunities of the last 18 months and work together. "We failed to reach the Jomtien goal—we cannot afford to fail again with the Dakar goal. Attaining it will require doing more in the next 13 years than we have achieved during the last 30 years," says Kagia.

For Jo Ritzen, World Bank Vice President of Human Development and former OECD education minister who leaves the Bank in February to take up the presidency of the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, the EFA Fast Track is the epitome of modern development practice.

"By securing the finance for the first group of countries tomorrow, the world will see the first tentative blooming of the Monterrey Compact," says Ritzen. "Given that 2015 is virtually around the corner, we then need to move to the next round of countries that can be fast tracked. Hopefully by the time of next year’s Spring Meetings, we’ll be in a position to go even further."

A key lesson of experience about development effectiveness, and amplified earlier this year again at the UN’s Financing for Development Conference in Monterrey, Mexico, is that a country’s capacity to use development finance effectively depends heavily on its policies, institutions and governance. Where a country scores well on these criteria, foreign aid can be highly effective in achieving national priorities such as education, and in reducing the numbers of people living in grinding poverty.

Some donors attending the Brussels meeting—hosted by the European Commission, with UNESCO and the World Bank as co-convenors, and Canada and the Netherlands chairing proceedings—view the likely decision to finance the education plans of the first fast-track countries "as a promising first step in a process that will eventually include all countries determined to give every child a complete basic education."