Engaging with EFA: Where have all the lessons gone?

dakar_retrospective6cream2This is the eighth in a series looking back to Dakar in order to draw lessons for those working on new education targets post-2015. This blog is by Cream Wright, who engaged continuously with EFA and the MDGs as a representative of the Commonwealth Secretariat, which he joined in 1997 and as UNICEF’s Global Chief of Education from 2002 to 2009.

Those who do not learn from the past repeat the mistakes of history. A similar saying in some African languages translates as: if you are unsure of where you are going to, be certain of where you are coming from. As we ponder a post-2015 agenda, and look back to what we’ve learnt since Dakar, we must ask ourselves: where have all the lessons gone? One key area in which lessons were learned in the prelude and aftermath of Dakar is “agency”, or ownership; but the lessons we’ve learned in this regard now appear to elude us as we contemplate a post 2015 agenda.

Agency is about responsibility or the power to act, by mandate or ascribed authority; but experience has taught us that what an entity does in practice matters more than its mandate.

Credit: Akash/UNESCO

The five mandated EFA partners at Dakar have seen their agency decline over time. UNESCO’s EFA agency has been on the wane; UNICEF was mandated to lead on girls’ education but my understanding is that this mantle is being taken over by celebrity projects and donor initiatives outside of UNICEF. The World Bank was expected to lead on financing, and helped to establish the EFA Fast Track Initiative, but this then morphed into the Global Partnership for Education, which wields agency outside of the World Bank. UNDP and UNFPA are really no longer in the EFA business. As we move towards a post-2015 agenda, we must review and apply the lessons we have learnt from these changes.

We need clarity on boundaries and priorities in EFA agency. Prior to Dakar the world relied on the main convening partners to provide external agency on EFA. Since then the spotlight has shifted to new entities/initiatives such as: The Girls Education Challenge; A World at School; Education without Borders; Global Campaign for Education; Global Education First Initiative; etc. This potpourri in exercising EFA agency may be a case of ‘more is good’. But in the prelude to Dakar we learned that if too many partners crowd a country to plan, monitor and report on education, there can be duplication, inefficiency and increased dependency. We need clarity on boundaries and priorities in EFA agency to avoid this.

Countries have ultimate agency on EFA, yet it is arguable what this means in practice. Developing countries provide the bulk (over 90%) of financing for their education systems, but external financing is often critical for capital investments, innovations and reforms. Also we have learned since Dakar that when countries implode or become fragile, external financing is vital for restoring normalcy. All of this does not require countries to surrender prime agency for EFA, but this agency can be usurped if aid exerts undue influence, as has happened frequently over the decade. As an African Minister once complained: we used to build and furnish schools, train teachers and procure textbooks in the past; now it seems that we cannot do any of these things unless they are in a plan endorsed by donors!

It is time for countries to own EFA.  Countries should not have to embrace a plethora of goals and targets that are unrealistic for them in the short term. A country should adopt goals that are within its reach and for which it can exercise full agency, using external financing as a temporary bridge if needed.

We still need lead agencies for EFA: Global partners, meanwhile, should focus on building international consensus and providing support/funding for “enhanced” goals and targets relating to global imperatives like equity, quality, rights, sustainability, voice, resilience etc., which both shape and are shaped by education.

Credit:R. Edde/UNESCO

On this basis, partners should work with countries at the national level to agree on enhanced goals and targets that may be out of reach now, but deemed to be pivotal for EFA and national development in the long run. The role of external EFA agency therefore is twofold:

Firstly it is to use such expertise and resources as may be needed to support national efforts around effective and efficient service delivery in education. This is about providing a bridge to help countries get over service delivery obstacles, and countries will require such support for a limited time.

The second and more critical priority for external agency is to accompany countries as they tackle the more enhanced goals/targets that concern agreed global imperatives. This is akin to the role of an experienced/resourceful co-pilot providing support/guidance as needed. Key partners like UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank could be entrusted with funds to accompany countries on the path to success. As countries increase their competencies and capacities they can also be progressively weaned off this type of external support for EFA.

We have learnt that these major EFA partners will need to reinvent themselves constantly in order to justify such mandates through results. But we have also learned that EFA will not be achieved through a proliferation of initiatives and partnerships at the global level. Ultimately we will still need a select group of lead agencies to step up and stand out from the crowd. This bifurcated model, whereby countries and partners focus on what is within their respective agency and capacity, would enhance a post-2015 agenda in many ways.

– Read the other blogs in this series by Maris O’Rourke, Clinton Robinson, Abhimanyu Singh, Birger FredriksonSheldon Schaeffer, Svein Osttveit and David Archer.



  1. This is a bold article and one I enjoyed reading. Whilst admiring the effort and commitment of all agencies mentioned, the plethora of approaches, objectives, and focus at times is mind blowing. Also, as we approach 2015, the previous MDG relating to universal primary education seems out of kilter when the quality of education provided around the world in many developing countries is so poor.
    As someone who runs a UK education charity with an NGO in Nepal we provide free teacher training and school development to 50 different schools each year in the capital city, Kathmandu. We are extremely successful, but it seems that the large agencies, bilateral donors and government/ministries just have no “process or mechanism” to step off their juggernaut of aid and policies to take a look at something remarkable. The fact that we only have 7 staff and run on a budget of only £20,000 seems to make us beneath their radar! We could have developed a cure for cancer for all they know but wouldn’t look at it because we are too small.
    This is not a gripe at these agencies from a personal perspective. It relates to the author describing these agencies as anything but true “learning organisations”. It seems strange that such organisations who are attempting to get whole countries to learn and change educationally cannot apply straightforward processes of a learning organisation to themselves!

    1. So in agreement with the comment above- have been in a similiar situation in another developing country , also with a very successful project managed by an INGO- did the larger donors within the country give it much attention – NO – after all this was but a pin drop in comparison to what they were spending and with a much greater number of schools – but there was no real focus even in their evaluation data on ” QUALITY measures. I have yet to see lessons learned from major projects funded by larger donor organisations, actually realised. Somewhere along the way initiatives in education have become dependent on who is funding the initiative. Actual empowerment within the Goverment education systems is being hampered by where funding is coming from.

      1. Thank you Fiona, no lessons learned at all as UNICEF today tweet that we should “stand up for the 58 million children around the world not receiving an education “. Fine, but how about standing up for the billions receiving low quality sub standard education too?

      2. I agree again Brian, I too am frankly tired of hearing about the importance of education as a way out of poverty- quality education can lead to a better life and maybe out of poverty, but most of what many children in the lesser developing countries receive is anything but quality. If the larger donor organisations expected more than just meaningless statistics as a measure of progress on aid projects then maybe some elements of a quality education might creep in and who knows the children might actually benefit. There is still far too much rote learning going on today and still classrooms where children experience so little in the way of joy in their learning.

        Somethings have to change but organisations like UNICEF and the World Bank need to rethink the way forward when it comes to bringing about quality change in classrooms- i’ts not just question of money either but it is a question about accountability.

      3. I am in Nepal at the moment Fiona running a Leadership program for Principals. Their schools show the following data: For every 100 children enrolled there are 75 remaining by year 5, 55 remaining by year 7, and 35 remaining by year 10! This is a quality of education problem, not a numbers of children enrolling problem.

  2. The post by Cream Wright truly ‘speaks truth to power’ by identifying dangerous fault-lines in the UN’s multi-agency international development programme. We need to learn from the EFA experience which made some progress on gender but grossly neglected marginalised minorities.

    The post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) now reflect a world-wide consensus on the need to reduce inequalities arising from poverty, gender, disability, age or membership of religious or ethnic minorities. But this will remain a pious aspiration unless we develop the means and the data to hold governments to account for making year by year progress to implement commitments which they have made to the international community as well as to their own people.

    Although the post 2015 consensus seems to include a commitment that the SDGs should be ‘human rights based’, there is no evidence of any plan to incorporate the well-established work of the UN Human Rights bodies in detailed monitoring of compliance with UN Conventions to which ratifying governments are bound in international law. Each of these Conventions has an expert elected committee which conducts exhaustive analyses of progress made towards implementation from existing baselines. Civil Society organisations have full rights of access to the UN Office of the High Commission on Human Rights (www.ohchr.org) Its reports are freely available on the website and can be used by civil society and the international community to hold governments to account. 16 of the 17 members of the 2006 Disability Convention are themselves persons with disabilities who have been very critical of the nature and quality of government implementation.

    The work of all Convention Committees (eg on children, women, civil and political rights, torture) now needs to be harmonised with the development of SDG indicators to ensure democratic dialogue between policy makers and the people to whom they are accountable, beginning with the 57 million children who are still not attending school 25 years after Jomtien and the 250 million who are failing to benefit from education.

  3. Finally some frank discussions are taking place! Other blogs have been advocacy monologues that get no comments.

    But EFA has morphed into Empowerment For (donor) Agencies. The real beneficiaries have become invisible. As a Minister complained to Cream, countries used to build schools, train teachers and procure textbooks, but now their plans must be endorsed by Local Education Groups. These LEGs are usually donor staff stationed in a country. Typically these people are not experts in education, so their opinions may not help improve learning. But to get their consent, government staff must spend hours in meetings. So their workload increases without much payoff. In addition, ministers are often asked to spend valuable time in public relations events that essentially promote certain agencies.

    Learning outcomes apparently are not improving. However, a belief exists that countries want to be “in the driver’s seat”, and therefore they don’t want or need technical assistance. They will figure things out on their own or they will buy consultant services. But no efforts have been made to agree on what instructional activities constitute efficient learning. Consultants are not necessarily the people to ask. They often come from high-income English speaking countries and recommend methods that are too vague or complex for little-educated teachers. Not surprisingly, many reading programs have gotten dubious results or worse. But contractors have gotten paid and have no further accountability. And some donor agencies that financed the failed programs keep evaluations confidential!

    If donors are shy about improving learning for the poor, they are not at all shy about testing them. They must fulfill their accountability function! One donor-led document declared that ‘testing is a public good’ and that all parents have the right to have their children tested. So, how many low-income countries or schools changed curricula or practices on the basis of test results? Examples are urgently needed.

    This is not what was envisaged in Jom Tien or Dakar. And this may be one reason why GPE has found it hard to raise new money. So, what should be changed?

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