Worlds of Education

Credit: GPE/Heather Shuker
Credit: GPE/Heather Shuker

Reflections on GPE replenishment: rhetoric, facts, questions and the way forward.

published 22 February 2018 updated 8 June 2018
written by:

The city of Dakar, the fascinating and lively capital of Senegal, was the stage of two key moments in the history of global governance of education. First, in the year 2000, it hosted the World Education Forum that adopted the Education for All Goals. Second, eighteen years later, on February 2, it held the Global Partnership for Education’s (GPE) replenishment event, which the organizers have described as “ the largest ever education financing conference” where partners showed “ unprecedented support for the GPE” and committed to “ make education a priority”. Having attended the conference myself, I feel a bit puzzled, because I have the impression I witnessed a different event.

Let’s separate the rhetoric from the facts. It is true that the conference mobilized so-called “high level” attendance. Co-hosted by the presidents of Senegal and France, it even had a music celebrity on stage. But the truth is that the “ unprecedented support for the GPE” did not materialize in contributions that allowed it to reach the US$ 3.1 billion target in donors’ contributions. The total amount pledged by donors is roughly US$ 2.3 billion. Failure to achieve the replenishment target is not unprecedented, though. It is the third time that the GPE replenishment does not meet the funding target, which is set by the donors themselves: in 2011, in Copenhagen, the target was at US$ 2.5 billion, the amount pledged roughly US$ 1.5 billion; in Brussels, in 2014, the target was US$ 3.5 billion, the result was US$ 2.1 billion.  What is unprecedented is the fact that, unlike the previous replenishment conferences, the teaching profession, civil society and NGOs could not pledge and say how they will contribute to the achievement of the GPE objectives during the next three years. For some reason, these partners, who sit at the board of directors, were not allowed to  address the conference and outline their actions, showing how they plan to play their role as members of the partnership, and nobody seemed too concerned about it.  I wonder why.

So, after years of mobilization and investment in the replenishment campaign and related advocacy, having dramatically expanded staff numbers, having created a new funding model and mechanisms that would do away with the obstacles donors claimed prevented them from investing more in the partnership, the fact is that the GPE fell short of its ambitions, again. The amount of funding it will disburse for the period 2018-2020 is roughly the same as for the period 2015-2018. Some will argue that donors did not step up to the plate, but developing countries pledged to “ increase public expenditures for education for the period 2018 to 2020 to a total of US$110 billion”.  I have, however, very little reason to believe that ministers of education who kept investment in education as a percentage of GDP below 2% during their terms in office will double investment in the next three years. Some of those who pledged are not even ministers anymore, adding difficulty to the task.  Others will argue that “replenishment is a campaign, that it doesn’t end here” and hope that there will be additional pledges or increases to existing ones, but looking back at the Copenhagen and Brussels examples, this seems wishful thinking.  What was pledged now is most likely what will be available in the pot. Aid for education has stagnated and there are many issues competing for donors’ waning aid budgets.

So here is the fact: the GPE will be able to inject roughly US$ 750 million per year into education sector programmes in “up to 89 countries” for the next three years while there is an estimated US$ 39 billion annual financing gap [1] to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 - ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Of course, the GPE is not the only solution to bridge this gap, but it is certainly the most visible one and seeing that it is unable to mobilize not even a US$ 1 billion per year, raises some questions. Is the GPE still relevant and worth the partners’ effort?  Were the new funding model and mechanisms what was needed to attract more contributions? Will it ever take off? What will it take for the GPE to be a real game-changer in the lives of teachers and students in the countries that receive funds from it?

First of all, having followed closely the GPE since its creation, in fact since it was still known as the Fast-Track Initiative (FTI), I am fully convinced that the GPE is absolutely relevant and worth the efforts that all the dedicated professionals that work for it or with it make. That said, I am concerned that after all these years and reforms, it is making the exact same mistakes that were largely responsible for the failures of the FTI, and addressing them is a sine qua non condition if the GPE is to live up to its ambitions and be a real game-changer for teachers and students. The way forward is complex and will take a lot of courage to break old habits.

For example, the GPE is as dependent on the World Bank as was the FTI. This dependency permeates the GPE’s actions and policy making. The World Bank is the grant agent for roughly 80% of the GPE-funded grants, which unsurprisingly, all look very much the same. They are by and large World Bank programmes that put in place World Bank education policy. To really take off, the GPE will have to put its core principle of country ownership to action and  to fund education sector plans and programmes that are elaborated at national level, with the active and meaningful engagement of relevant national actors, and not a copy and paste of programmes from Washington that aim to meet conditions and fit into a results-based funding model. Just read the projects. Compare them and you will see that the activities the GPE is funding when the World Bank is the grant agent are pretty much the same everywhere. It is possible to do otherwise. Check out the projects of countries like Burkina Faso and Tanzania and you will see that they are the result of national thinking, and not the mere copying  of some imported policy recipe.

The other old FTI habit the GPE needs to break is the tendency to be a donor’s club. The voice of developing country partners and civil society matter and there is growing frustration among them, many of whom will tell you personally they don’t feel heard and feel they are just “ rubber stamping” decisions. If you have the time, check the conference video, available here,  and you will see that ministers of developing country were given a minute to pledge and were sometimes rather bluntly cut off by the master of ceremony even before their time was up. The same master of ceremony who let some donors go on for three, four times their allocated time. Even donors who did not donate could speak uninterrupted for minutes, whereas ministers of education from developing countries were cut off and gently pushed away from the lectern. As mentioned earlier, civil society was not even allowed to pledge, which is either a serious oversight or a deliberate decision that shows that in this partnership, some partners are more equal than others. Making the GPE a real, game-changing  partnership  will entail addressing these issues. I hope there will be appetite for that, because the world could certainly do with a global fund for education that delivers where it is needed the most.

[1] Education for All Global Monitoring Report Policy Paper 18, July 2015 update, “Pricing the right to education: The cost of reaching new targets by 2030”, available at http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002321/232197E.pdf

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.