Global aid to early education rises, but are donors really committed?

By Justin van Fleet, President of Theirworld and CEO of the Global Business Coalition for Education

There is some good news on global aid for pre-primary education, which has for decades been the forgotten child of the education development sector.

Between 2021 and 2022 it rose by 40% from 2021 and 2022, reaching $282m, the highest since records began in 2022, and up from $157 million in 2019.

The increase looks so impressive that it’s tempting to think that international donors have at last seen the light on the importance of properly funding pre-primary education.

If only that were the case. There is a caveat, in fact several caveats, to this welcome news, which is revealed in research for the global children’s charity Theirworld by the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at Cambridge University, drawn from the most recent OECD DAC data.

Firstly, this increase was very largely driven by a single donor, the World Bank (International Development Association) which invested $181m, almost two-thirds of the total. And although spending on pre-primary education is moving in the right direction, it still only represents a fraction – 1.4% – of the international community’s spending on education. For bilateral donors, this share was just 0.4%.

This is far below the international target agreed by 147 UN member states and partners at UNESCO’S Early Childhood Care and Education Conference in Tashkent in 2022 that 10% of education budgets (whether for donors or governments) should be devoted to pre-primary.

Investment in education may be higher than ever but pre-primary funding has not kept pace with funding for primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Donors spend 21 times more on higher education than on pre-primary education in 2022.

Moreover, three donors account for 80% of early years education finance. Only two, UNICEF and the Global Partnership for Education, have met the 10% target.

The funding for preschool education is also unpredictable.  Over the past several years, there has been no strategic or predictable investment from bilateral donors for early childhood education.

A teacher’s report on donors’ performance on pre-primary aid would be nothing more than the old-fashioned ‘could do much better’.

The youngest learners in the poorest countries are caught in an underinvestment trap: many low-income countries lack the resources to significantly scale-up their early years systems, which is reflected in the alarming statistic that in low-income countries only one in five children are enrolled in pre-primary education. Donors meanwhile tend to focus on middle-income countries where education systems are already likely to be more robust. The result is that the millions of the world’s poorest, most marginalised children are receiving little or no investment at a critical point in their lives.

Donors are not only letting down these children, but also failing to acknowledge and act on the evidence. Years of research has shown that the best way to break the cycle of poverty is quality early years interventions. We know that the first five to six years of a child’s life are a period of remarkable brain development, during which the foundations for learning, behaviour and health are established.

We also know that when governments and donors invest in the early years, health outcomes improve, incomes rise, economies grow and societies become more cohesive. Every $1 invested in early childhood care and development by a government can lead to a return of as much as $17 for the most disadvantaged children.

Early years interventions can help narrow the wide gaps in outcomes and opportunities

between children from higher and lower socio-economic backgrounds, and the gender gap between boys and girls. Across sub-Saharan Africa, every dollar spent towards tripling preschool enrolment would yield a $33 return on investment.

A global commitment was made in Sustainable Development Goal 4.2 to ensure by 2030 that ‘all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education’.

The solution is there – meeting the 10% target. If the World Bank continued to increase its financing for preschool towards the 10% benchmark, it could mobilise upwards of a quarter of a billion dollars annually. If all donors met this target, it would represent a more than $2 billion annual investment in preschool finance without increasing overall aid budgets.

Bilateral donors and partner countries must seize the opportunity to utilise existing multilateral systems of finance to advance investments in the early years, and work with education-focused institutions such as GPE, Education Cannot Wait and the new International Finance Facility for Education, which should have its first operational grants approved before the end of the year.

The broader story of pre-primary aid is one of progress, albeit from a very low base. Awareness of the importance of pre-primary investment is growing. Momentum is building, not least behind Theirworld’s Act For Early Years campaign calling for investment in our youngest children, particularly those trapped in poor countries or neighbourhood.

But donors, aid agencies and governments need to show much greater determination to stand up for those who are too young to express for themselves how they have a critical need for a good early education and a healthy, safe beginning to life.

Around the world there are 175 million children, almost half of all pre-primary-age children, not enrolled in preschool. Putting that right will benefit not just them but all of us.



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