Theirworld / Mara Mambo Media.

G20 leaders need to step up to the mark in investing in early childhood education for the world’s poorest children

This blog was written by Professor Pauline Rose, Director of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the University of Cambridge, and Justin van Fleet, President of Theirworld.

A new report shows that international aid for pre-primary education has fallen further behind spending agreed targets since the outbreak of Covid-19.

It highlights “continued, chronic” underfunding of pre-primary education in many of the world’s poorest nations, with years of slow progress followed by pandemic-related cuts.

Early childhood education is essential to children’s successful cognitive and social development, and therefore to breaking cycles of poverty in lower-income countries. Failing to invest in it adequately increases the risk of marginalised children starting their school life at a major disadvantage to their peers.

The research was carried out by the University of Cambridge’s Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre for Theirworld, and was the sixth annual report tracking donor funding to early years education.

The first report in the series in 2017 recommended that 10% of education aid should be allocated to pre-primary education. UNICEF formally adopted the target, but remains the only major donor to do so, with one or two short-lived exceptions.

More broadly, the international community’s approach to pre-primary education aid is characterised by welcome rhetoric that has rarely turned into action. In 2018, the G20 gave encouraging signs that it would follow suit, stating that “investment in early childhood development, without any discrimination, should be a high priority”. However, this has not been reflected in the level of priority it has given to pre-primary education, which remains extremely low. In 2021, it amounted to just 0.7% of the organisation’s spending on aid to education – below the average for aid donors overall of just 1.2%.

The G20 urgently needs to review and revitalise its commitments to early childhood education at its meeting in September 2023 in New Delhi. As a starting point, it should make a firm commitment to achieving the 10% target. This commitment is vital, as they represent 40% of total pre-primary education spending by donors and have the potential to show real leadership in this area.

More generally, according to our latest analysis at the REAL Centre, donor countries continue to fall short of this 10% goal, with recent progress grinding to a halt and going into reverse in the context of Covid-19. The most recent figures, from 2021, indicate that the proportion of education aid spent on pre-primary education during the pandemic dropped by approximately (US)$19.7 million: from 1.2% to 1.1%. Although aid to education suffered overall, pre-primary education fared worse.

Moreover, aid spending on post-secondary education – the vast majority of which never leaves donor countries – was protected at this time. As a result, its spending was 27 times higher than that on pre-primary education, despite widespread acknowledgement of the need to invest in the early years.

In 2021, eight of the top 35 education donors allocated no funds to pre-primary education at all. Saudi Arabia is the only G20 country amongst these. Our analysis shows that pre-primary aid is highly concentrated amongst a few donors, leaving early childhood education in aid recipient countries particularly vulnerable to sudden fluctuations in those donors’ spending.

The analysis also shows that pre-primary education spending tends to be focused on lower- middle income countries rather than the very poorest nations. In 2021, just 15% of aid in this area went to countries classified as “low income”, while 52.7% was allocated to lower-middle income countries.

As a result, some of the world’s least-advantaged children have little prospect of receiving pre-primary education. Eritrea and Sudan, for example, received no pre-primary education aid in 2021. In many other low-income countries – such as the Central African Republic, Chad, Niger and Syria – the amount of aid per primary school-aged child was less than $5.

Some progress has been made towards the 10% target, notably at UNESCO’s World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) in November 2022 when representatives of 147 member states agreed to “work towards the allocation of at least 10 per cent of education expenditures to pre-primary education, and prioritize and reorient public expenditures for ECCE to focus on the poorest and most disadvantaged.”

However, funding started from a very low base and has declined as a result of Covid-19. International commitments and strong words regarding the importance of pre-primary education look good on paper, but these must be translated into concrete action. G20 leaders have the opportunity to do precisely this when they meet in Delhi.

Explore GEM Report content on ECCE here


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