Oxfam's EU Advocacy office in Brussels

By Sandra Dworack, Policy Advisor for Education at Oxfam Germany

Teacher in Zimbabwe

What has the potential to lift over 170 million people out of poverty by empowering people to claim their rights and hold their governments to account? What could cut the amount of people who contract HIV/AIDS in the next decade by seven million? What could reduce child mortality and child marriage by a sixth, and maternal deaths by two-thirds? If you didn’t answer ‘education’, then you should have a very stern word with yourself.
Education has been enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for over 60 years, and reaffirmed as a key area for global development cooperation at numerous conferences and conventions since then. Yet, despite this support, 58 million children still never get to attend school, with a further 63 million out of secondary education. The two education-focused Millennium Development Goals (on ensuring all children complete primary school and eliminating gender disparity in primary education by 2015) have inspired progress in the last 15 years, but ultimately fell short of their targets.

Yet with 2015 being named as the European Year for Development, and February specifically focusing on education, the European Union is highlighting the importance of getting every child on the planet into school. But while branding certain years and months with particular themes is one thing, turning the messaging into money is something else entirely. The international Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July will give European leaders the stage to prove their financial commitment to education in developing countries; but why is this so important?

Millions miss out on education

Since 2007, the initial progress made by the Millennium Development Goals on education has stalled. As well as the millions currently missing out on both primary and secondary education, some 130 million children and adolescents will leave school lacking basic skills despite four years of classes. One of the main factors in this poor quality of education is the lack of teachers in the Global South; if universal primary education is to be achieved by 2030, a staggering 27 million teachers need to be hired within that time. Finally, inequality within education systems is marginalizing girls, people with disabilities, minorities and children living in conflict zones, with UNICEF finding that the poorest students have access to 18 times less educational resources than the wealthiest.
This list of challenges should provide plenty of motivation for Europe to take the reins on ensuring education remains central to the new post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, especially as global aid for education declined by 10 percent between 2010 and 2012 alone. To break this alarming pattern, it is crucial that European governments repeat commitments made by the European Commission to spend one-fifth of its development funding mechanisms on health and education. This would accelerate the progress made on sustainable inclusive development in education, ensuring girls, the poorest and the most marginalized in society have the opportunity to learn. Such commitments could be made at the upcoming Oslo Summit on Education for Development in July, where international high-level figures will explore ways to resuscitate the ailing state of finance for schooling.
While demands must be made of Europe to apply pressure on keeping education as a priority in the post-2015 development agenda, it is not unthinkable for European governments and EU institutions to turn to the private sector to plug funding gaps. This approach has appealed to some within the European Union, yet the guidelines to ensure private investments in education genuinely benefit the poorest people in developing countries are simply not in place.

Financing education in development

The public sector is much better positioned to provide the structure needed to ensure funding genuinely reaches the people that benefit from it most – including within the education system. It is the poorest and most marginalized in societies who make the most of free public services, as they cannot afford to pay the fees for schooling and healthcare associated with the private sector. Funding for these public services could be generated by the financial transactions tax, a small tax on financial transactions to be levied by eleven countries within the EU, with some of the revenues going towards improving education systems.

The European Commission should also be expected to provide some of the finance to get the ball rolling again on education in development, but this should not absolve member states or recipient nations of their individual responsibility. All governments and international institutions need to guarantee free, high-quality public education for all citizens, removing fees and breaking down the financial barriers that may deny access for the poorest.

Governments in developing countries must commit to spending at least 20 percent of their budgets on education, with donor countries ensuring the same percentage of their overseas aid is spent on improving quality and accessibility within schools worldwide. This may sound ambitious, but it is achievable.

For example, governments can fund such bold changes by placing the tax burden on those who can shoulder the responsibility, rather than those already struggling to make ends meet.

Funding should also be used to strengthen and expand public education systems, rather than subsidizing private schools already out of the reach of many, with action needed from the EU to stop illicit financial flows hindering governments’ abilities to invest in their own public services.

Turning policy into practice has never been so important to the millions of children locked behind doors that the most basic of education systems can open. The only question is: will such sweeping changes to how education in development is financed provide the key?

This article was originally published on the Oxfam Policy and Practice website.

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