GPE/Tara E. O'Connell

Getting more bang for our buck: why we need to re-think global education financing

By Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, and co-Chair of the SDG 4 High-Level Steering Committee

Last Thursday, we concluded a meeting with all main education partners in which we explored ways to reshape and relaunch financing for education.  A common, serious concern, was the fact that time is not on our side: if we are to reach our Sustainable Development Goal 4: Quality Education for All, by 2030 – then we need to move beyond words and into action.

While we are all aware of the magnitude of the learning crisis (globally, 7 out 10 children aged ten are not able to read and understand a simple text), no real financial measures have been taken to address this crisis. The post-Covid 19 figures just released by UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report only confirm the urgent need for us to take action: the Report estimates that low – and lower-middle-income countries are facing an annual funding gap of close to US$100 billion in education.  At this rate, such countries won’t be able to meet their national SDG 4 targets by 2030.

The Global Education Monitoring Report also shows that a third of that gap – around 30 billion USD – could be filled if donors fulfilled their aid commitments of providing 0.7% of GNI to aid and prioritizing basic education in the poorest countries.  And that’s not all; GEM’s upcoming Education Finance Watch 2023 shows that aid has in fact fallen by 7% between 2021 and 2022, putting our education goals even further out of reach.

The disconnect between, on the one hand, education financing at the global level, and on other, creating positive and visible change on the ground, is a longstanding issue. This is why the SDG 4 High-Level Steering Committee – which is the mandated international body for education cooperation – launched a structured reflection during the World Bank and IMF spring meetings on how to transform the multilateral education financing system and make it more coherent, impactful and accountable.

A dedicated taskforce established to facilitate this reflection, and consisting of multilateral agencies, finance partners and donor countries, is working on concrete proposals to revamp the multilateral financing system. It is doing so by addressing the following two-fold challenge: improving coordination of financing and governance across multilaterals, while making multilateral financing more aligned and responsive to country needs. The proposals will be presented for endorsement by the SDG 4 High-Level Steering Committee during UNESCO’s upcoming General Conference in November. After that, we will be focusing on the long road towards implementing the recommendations, hand-in-hand with our UNESCO partner agencies and countries.

We all agree, despite our diverging views and perspectives, that a dramatic shift in attitude is needed within the Education Sector. For us to bring about such a shift in a timely manner, we need a common position, and proposal for the multilateral education financing. This is vital to strengthen global advocacy for education, and it will help to implement the commitments of 140 countries, made at the September 2022 Transforming Education Summit, which was convened by the UN Secretary General.

A passionate call for radical transformation was also made at the Paris Summit on a New Global Financing Pact by Barbados’ Prime Minister, Mia Mottley, which took place last month. During her inspiring opening speech, Prime Minister Mottley stated, “what is required of us now is absolute transformation and not reform of our institutions.”

With this in mind, and at the initiative of UNESCO and the Global Partnership for Education, the Paris Summit identified education financing as a priority issue.  Education experts and heads of states discussed how education financing can catalyse sustainable development in depth during a panel convened by the SDG 4 High-Level Steering Committee.

Our keynote speaker Mariana Mazzucato, Economics Professor at the University College London, made a great point during the panel discussion, when she highlighted the direct link between on the one hand, inequality in the world today, and on the other, chronic underinvestment in education. Education is an investment that yields rich dividends not just for the individual, but for society and the planet, which means that education has a huge domino – or what economists call multiplier – effect. By underinvesting in education, or SDG 4, we are missing out on a whole range of returns in other SDGs. As a result, we are falling even more behind on achieving the sustainable development goals.

Allow me to give an example to better explain: UNESCO research shows that educated girls grow up to be women and mothers that have basic knowledge about health and preventable yet potentially life-threatening diseases. They know that simple acts like handwashing will protect them and their children.

Educated men and women are more likely to find secure jobs with good working conditions and decent pay, which, in turn, helps them to provide for their families. UNESCO research shows, as also referenced at the Paris Summit’s outcome document – that 420 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all adults were able to complete their secondary education. This would cut the total number of people living in poverty worldwide by more than half. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where some of the world’s most marginalized and vulnerable communities live, poverty would be reduced by two-thirds.

All these outcomes – better health, higher living standards, and environmentally sustainable living – are within our reach, if only we activated education’s multiplier effect by investing more in quality and accessible education.

In the Paris Declaration, issued at the 2021 Global Education Meeting, participating countries committed to setting aside at least 15-20% of public spending and/or 4-6% of their GDP, for education. Less than one in three have met these targets so far.  And as UNESCO research has shown, by not investing in education, countries are leaving money at the table.

Put it simply, we need to become smarter investors and we need to put the multiplier effect to work if we are to get enough bang for our buck. Sustainable development depends on it.

The task before us is ambitious and challenging, as we are still amid multiple crisis affecting political agendas, including prioritization and budgeting. However, crisis also means opportunities, by etymology from Ancient Greek, where the verb krino means: “to discern, separate, evaluate” and take decisions accordingly. Here I see the opportunity for the international community to reassess, realign, and reaffirm our commitment to education.

A New Global Financial Pact must recognize that education is not a financial drain, but the key to unlocking sustainable development and crucially contribute to peace and stability. In this regard, Education is the most profitable and ethical investment there is, for humanity and for the planet. We owe it to the millions of students and teachers around the globe to get a better bang for our buck by investing in learning and building a better future for all.



  1. Thank you for this informative blog. As the SDG Summit in September 2023 draws nearer, it is worth looking into every avenue for financing education by valuing experts from all walks of life. For instance, the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report theme for next year is Educational Leadership, and educational organisations, those serving from within an outside the education system are valued.

    In the recent past, a similar blog to the one which is published hereby has been released about the financial gap for SDG 4, namely Education, and tax was suggested as currency. Transforming the informal economy in order to increase tax is ideal, albeit the challenging nature of the matter. The announcement of the Acceleration of the African Continental Free Trade Area for goods and services this year, when the African Union has celebrated it’s 60 anniversary is pivotal. However, the African labour market is still 80 percent informal. This can create a challenging situation, especially on sustainablity of the formal economy, should the two economies coexist and interact. Thus, promoting sustainablity from this perspective is crucial so that established businesses can carry on. On another level, Value Added Tax can be challenging to claim when business registration is complex. Red tape, bottleneck and bureaucracy can also compound the problem, not to mention the critical internationalisation of higher education. Accordingly, merit in the form of competency and qualification, which ends up being the key factor of contribution should be valued for freelancers, consultants, independent scholars and others. I close with Karl Marx quote “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. I invite you to read more in my website.


    Lul Admasachew

  2. $100Billion is 50 times larger than all education aid to Sub Saharan Africa. But it is about the same as all public education spending in SSA. If $100 Billion was gifted in aid each year then around half of all education costs including salaries would be paid by foreign tax payers leading to dependence. If SSA allocated 6% of GDP to education and increased its efficiency by 20% it could increase its expenditure by at least $100 billion and remain independent of aid. Aid budgets will not increase by 50 times!

  3. Greetings,

    The change in the financial system was also addressed by UNESCO World Education Education Blog a while back. Subsequently, more taxing has been recommended. This abolishes the old financial system to a certain extent.

    As we know, the informal labour is over 80 percent in Africa and the Acceleration of the African Continental Free Trade Area for Goods and Services is underway, being announced by the African Union, during it’s 60th anniversary this year. Realistically speaking, tansforming the informal sector to a formal economy and increasing tax may take time. The UN values various experts, including individual consultants, freelancers, advocates and the like. Some may be living in dire situations with unsustainable workload or duty to accomplish. Thus, Value Added Tax ( VAT) claims should be merit based since registration as a business can be challenging due to red tape, bottleneck and bureaucracy, not to mention the critical internationalisation of higher education. People of colour may have established link with the West for example, which complicates VAT claim but they may prefer the Organisational Behaviour of the West, even if neocolonialism reigns. Moreover, the indirect VAT payment/ settlement should be scrutinised by being culturally competent. Otherwise, endless gatekeeping and sanctioning will prevail.

    Overall, food insecurity is intertwined with education, and this means, it is not only the learners, but also providers of education at every level should have their needs met. Food insecurity is intertwined with conflict and mental ill health, sustainability being the key factor to anchor everyone.
    Fundamentally, basic needs such as food are discussed during the UN Food Systems Summit which was held in Italy between July 24 and 26, 2023. This shall be followed by the Russia-Africa summit which will be held from July 27 to 28, 2023, and the Black Sea grain initiative which is blocked due to the war with Ukraine is expected to be discussed. This goes to show that the people in Africa do matter, and hunger must be prevented for all. The experts on education matter, and the saying “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” by Karl Marx, is a good quote, although the actual author seems to be contested.


    Lul Admasachew

  4. Rethinking Education Financing: Maximizing Returns on Investment – Exploring the Imperative for a New Approach to Global Education Funding. Great post.

Leave a Reply