The West and its false promises on education aid

Jeffrey D. Sachs
THE GPE is having what the jargon of development assistance calls a "replenishment round", meaning that it is asking donor governments to refill its coffers.
Jeffrey D. Sachs

THE Global Partnership for Education, a worthy and capable initiative to promote education in 65 low-income countries, is having what the jargon of development assistance calls a “replenishment round”, meaning that it is asking donor governments to refill its coffers.

Yet the fact that the GPE is begging for mere crumbs — a mere US$1 billion per year — exposes the charade of Western governments’ commitment to the global Education for All agenda.

The United States and the European Union have never cared that much about that agenda.

The GPE does excellent work promoting primary education around the world. Donor countries, all of which long ago signed on to Education for All, should be clamoring to help one of the world’s most effective organizations to achieve that goal. Yet generous donors are few and far between.

This reality extends back to imperial times. When most of Africa and much of Asia were under European rule, the colonizers invested little in basic education. As late as 1950, according to United Nations data, illiteracy was pervasive in Europe’s African and Asian colonies. At the time of independence from Britain, India’s illiteracy rate stood at 80-85 percent, roughly the same as Indonesia’s illiteracy rate at the time of independence from the Netherlands. In French West Africa, the illiteracy rate in 1950 stood at 95-99 percent.

After independence, African and Asian countries pursued massive and largely successful initiatives to raise basic education and literacy.

Yet, far from seizing this opportunity to make up for lost time, Europe and the US have provided consistently meager assistance for primary and secondary education, even as they have made high-profile commitments such as Education for All and Sustainable Development Goal 4, which calls for universal access to pre-primary-through-secondary school.

Consider the grim data on development aid for education, which has stagnated for years — and actually declined between 2010 and 2015. According to the most recent OECD data, total donor aid for primary and secondary education in Africa amounted to just US$1.3 billion in 2016. It’s not as if Western governments don’t know that far more is needed. Several detailed recent calculations provide credible estimates of how much external financing developing counties will need to achieve SDG 4.

A UNESCO study puts the total at US$39.5 billion per year. A report by the International Commission on Financing Education Opportunity puts developing countries’ external financing needs at tens of billions of dollars per year.

Here is the reason why aid is needed. A year of education in Africa requires at least US$300 per student. (Note that the rich countries spend several thousand dollars per student per year.)

Condemned to poverty

With Africa’s school-age population accounting for roughly one-third of the total, the per capita financing requirement is about US$100. Yet for a typical African country, that’s about 10 percent of per capita national income — far more than the education budget can cover. External aid can and should cover the financing gap so that all children can attend school.

That’s not happening. Annual spending per school-aged child in Sub-Saharan Africa is roughly one-third of the minimum needed. As a result, most kids don’t come anywhere close to finishing secondary school. They are forced to drop out early, because there are no openings in public schools and tuition for private school is far too high for most families. Girls are especially likely to leave school early, although parents know that all of their children need and deserve a quality education.

Without the skills that a secondary education provides, the children who leave school early are condemned to poverty. Many eventually try to migrate to Europe in desperate search of a livelihood. Some drown on the way; others are caught by European patrols and returned to Africa.

So now comes the GPE’s replenishment round, scheduled for early February in Senegal. The GPE should be receiving at least US$10 billion a year (about four days’ military spending by the NATO countries) to put Africa on a path toward universal secondary education.

Instead, the GPE is reportedly still begging donors for less than US$1 billion per year to cover GPE programs all over the world. Instead of actually solving the education crisis, rich-country leaders go from speech to speech, meeting to meeting, proclaiming their ardent love of education for all.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.

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