Aid donors get an F for education

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Poor people understand the power of education to transform lives – yet education receives just 2% of humanitarian aid

By Kevin Watkins, director, Education for All Global Monitoring Report

If you want to see iron resolve in action, take a trip to the Kachange camp for displaced people in North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

This is a war zone. Families in the sprawling camp have lost everything – everything that is except a drive to get their kids an education. In the midst of the most abject poverty, parents have come together to build makeshift classrooms, hire a teacher, and buy a blackboard. Many of the kids work in the afternoon, selling charcoal to pay the $1 fee charged every term.

“Being in school is fun – and people with an education can have a better life. I’ll be a doctor,” says David Ichange, aged 12.

Kachange camp is a microcosm of villages and slums across the world’s poorest countries. Poor people understand the power of education to transform lives. They know that a decent education offers their children an escape route from poverty through increased productivity, better prospects of employment and more choice.

What is true for people also holds for countries. Progress in education is one of the most powerful catalysts for accelerated progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Take child survival. If every girl in sub-Saharan Africa had a secondary education, it would cut under-five deaths by around 1.8 million. The reason: educated mothers are empowered to demand better health and nutrition provision.

The same holds for cutting poverty. If every child in a low income country got into school and left with basic reading skills, the growth effects would lift 171 million people out of poverty. That’s a 12% decline.

This year’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report looks at some of the links between education and other areas of human development. It also looks at the performance of aid donors in supporting education – and in acting on their own commitments. And it’s not a pretty story. If the kids in Kachange camp get an A-plus for effort in the face of overwhelming odds, the collective score for the donor community is an F.

Here are the facts. We need around $16 billion in aid to achieve the international development targets in education – targets that donors have signed up for. Currently, aid levels are running at around $4.7 billion and stagnating.

Education in conflict-affected states is getting spectacularly short shrift. Humanitarian aid could play a vital role in keeping open opportunities for schooling in communities displaced by violence. Yet education receives just 2% of humanitarian aid – and no sector receives a smaller share of the emergency aid requested in emergency appeals.

Of course, some countries in conflict do receive substantial support. Afghanistan gets more aid for basic education than the Sudan, the DRC, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic and Chad combined. But the general picture is one of overwhelming neglect. And as donors grapple with budget pressures, things look like getting worse. In the US, Republican proposals for cutting the budget deficit would take the axe to aid budgets for education in conflict-affected states. France and Germany are slipping on the commitments, along with Japan.

All of this raises questions about approaches to aid and value for money. Republicans in the US want to slash aid and ring-fence spending on the military, apparently because they think this will be good for national security. Yet effective aid on education is an investment in creating the hope and opportunity that makes conflict less likely by breaking the link between poverty and violence. Cutting aid for education is the type of cent-wise, dollar-dumb thinking that the Tea Party has brought to the budget reform table.

Not that the EU is setting high standards. Both France and Germany operate large aid budgets on education. Yet most of these budgets are spent not in developing countries but in subsidising scholarships for domestic education institutions. Why subsidies to the Sorbonne count as aid is beyond me.

During times of fiscal stress any debate on aid has to get over the hurdle of defining what is affordable. You have all heard the argument: “Of course we believe in aid for education, but we just can’t afford it right now.”

Oh really? That $16 billion that we need in aid for education represents just six days worth of what donors spend each year on military budgets. Viewed differently, it’s roughly equivalent to the bonuses dished out to investment bankers in the City of London last year.

So, here’s the question. What do you think offers the best value for money? A global education initiative that could put over 67 million kids in school, or a week’s spending on military hardware. Do you really think we get a bigger bang for our buck by funding the indulgences of the team that brought you the crash rather than by financing books and schools that offer millions of kids a way out of poverty – and their countries a route into global prosperity?

No, neither do I.

This article was originally published on The Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog.


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