Donors and countries are not pulling their weight in funding education

Today, two events are being held during the UN General Assembly delivering a high-level political call for urgent action on education financing. As the forthcoming GEM Report due out 24 October shows, many countries and donors are not pulling their weight sufficiently in funding education. Aid is stagnating, and, at the same time, many countries are still dragging their feet in meeting the education financing benchmarks to meet our goals by 2030.

One in four countries do not reach finance targets for education

1The two key targets on public financing of education appear in the Education 2030 Framework for Action, which proposed that governments should be allocating:

  • “at least 4% to 6% of GDP to education, and/or…
  • at least 15% to 20% of public expenditure to education”

According to the latest year of data, on average, global spending on education is at 4.7% of GDP, within the target range of 4% to 6%. This ranges from 3.7% in low income countries to 5.1% in high income countries. However, allocations did not meet the second target of at least 15 to 20% of public expenditure, falling at just 14.1% by latest counting.

Although these targets are not binding for countries, failing both thresholds may be a sign that education does not receive the attention it needs.

With an annual finance gap of $39 billion to reach our education goal, SDG4, failing to meet funding targets cannot be excused

2Breaking down the global figure shows the extent to which we need to increase the pressure on governments to keep to the targets.

Over the period 2013-2016, 33 of the 128 countries with data on both indicators – or one in four – failed to meet both education financing targets, spending less than 4% of GDP on education and allocating less than 15% of their total public expenditure on education. These include low income countries, like Gambia and Guinea, as well as high income countries like Japan and Qatar. Middle income countries such as Azerbaijan which spent 2.6% of GDP and 7.4% of total public expenditure on education and Lebanon, which spent 2.6% and 8.6%, respectively, also failed both thresholds.

There is a positive angle to this news. Between 2010 and 2015, about one in four countries increased education expenditure as share of GDP by more than half a percentage point, of which six by at least two percentage points, including Bhutan, Malawi, Niger and Zimbabwe. On the other hand, about one in six countries decreased spending by more than half a percentage point, of which two by at least two percentage points, Sao Tome and Principe and Timor-Leste. Rwanda and the United Republic of Tanzania, which also reduced their spending, have now fallen below the 4% threshold.


Let’s not get too hung up solely on volume of spending however, which is not the only measure of success. If spending is inefficient or does not reach the intended beneficiaries, more of it will not help reach education targets. Our 2017/8 GEM Report, Accountability in education: Meeting our commitments, will look at how governments are held to account for the way they allocate resources, ensure their delivery and target those in need. The scope for opaque budgets, financial leakage and corruption can reduced with an effective accountability system.

Only 6 in 29 OECD DAC donors spend at least 0.7% of their national income on aid

4The finances needed to fund Education 2030 must also come from aid donors, however. Going back to a proposal made in 1969, OECD DAC donors are expected to allocate 0.7% of gross national income to aid, a target endorsed a year later in a UN resolution and most recently in the 2015 Addis Ababa Action Agenda. But in 2015, only 6 of 29 OECD DAC donors meet the 0.7% target. Collectively, DAC countries spent 0.3% of national income on aid in 2015, a figure that has remained constant for decades.

If OECD and non-traditional donors met this target and allocated 10% of their aid to education, the financing gap would be bridged. However, education has been falling down the list of priorities: the share of education fell for a sixth year in a row in 2015 to 6.9% of total aid.

Not only is the amount of aid provided by donors something to be aware of, but also the way that they spend it, of course.

The 2016 GEM Report showed the extent to which the emphasis on the aid effectiveness agenda is vital to financing progress in education. It showed that among agencies with a legal mandate to end poverty, over 80% of their development assistance is allocated to countries with a higher than average poverty rate. Agencies with no explicit poverty reduction goal allocate only 31% of their development assistance to such countries.

Economic and political interests are key aspects of donors’ funding decisions. An analysis of 170 recipient countries found that aid allocation to basic education since 2003 reflected donor trade-related interests more than receiving country needs as measured by enrolment or completion rates.

The percentage of children completing primary school is a potential measure of country need. In Liberia and Mauritania, about half the children complete primary school, but Liberia receives 10 times the amount of aid to basic education per school-age child.

The soon-to-be released 2017/8 GEM Report on Accountability will also look at the follow-up mechanisms in place to hold donors to account for their commitments. Two years on from signing SDG 4 into stone, we have little time to waste with empty promises.


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