Press Brief: Obama Must Make Good on Commitment to Global Fund for Education

April 2009 — As the global economy continues to worsen, the United States must use every tool in its foreign policy arsenal to mitigate the disproportionate impact of the recession on the world’s poor. President Obama must act to ensure that one of the most powerful interventions for poverty reduction and democracy building — basic education — is scaled up to reach the most vulnerable children so that they have a chance not only to survive the current crises, but to build more prosperous, healthy lives.

At least 75 million primary school age children around the world are not in school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, that number is equivalent to nearly 1.5 times the total number of students enrolled in primary and secondary education in the United States. In the current global economic crisis, and without increased resources from the international community, this number only stands to grow. In March, the World Bank published research showing that the spreading crisis will push 46 million additional people into poverty in 2009 alone, making it much harder for families to pay school fees and other education costs. As government budgets in low-income countries suffer, education systems face severe cutbacks in services that, if unchecked, will not only stall progress in reaching more children, but also undermine gains made in the last decade and worsen a downward economic and social spiral.

President Obama has put forward a bold commitment to create a Global Fund for Education, with a $2 billion contribution from the U.S., to help ensure that every child is able to go to school and to learn. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, herself a long-time champion for global basic education and previous lead sponsor of the Education for All Act in the Senate, has reiterated this commitment, including during her Senate confirmation hearing. Action now by the Obama administration on a Global Fund for Education could be key to responding to the global economic crisis and building new partnerships internationally — bringing together the international community through a multi-donor mechanism to provide more and better aid for education. Not only would it help to leverage other countries providing more education aid, strengthen partnerships with governments like the UK and Canada, support low-income nations to enact ambitious national education plans, but it would also ensure that every aid dollar is spent more wisely and effectively. A Global Fund for Education, by building on what works and fixing what doesn’t, could lead to huge progress in education access and quality.

Of special urgency during the current economic crisis is the fact that education is a key route out of poverty and fundamental to economic growth and development. Girls’ education, especially, reaps enormous benefits. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that on average, a woman’s wages in developing countries will increase by 20 percent for each additional year of education she receives beyond grade three or four. She will be less likely to contract HIV — a study in Uganda showed a 50 percent reduction in HIV rates in girls with just a primary education — and she will be more likely to participate in local politics. Her children will have a greater chance of surviving past the age of five, and will be more likely to go to school. Education is the single most effective way to break inter-generational cycles of poverty. And yet, barriers to education such as school fees, lack of classrooms, books, and even latrines — along with chronic teacher shortages — mean that children are denied access to basic literacy, numeracy and life skills — skills that are essential to building stable governments, providing hope to impoverished and disenfranchised youth, empowering women, stimulating community development, and providing a path out of poverty.

Parents and their children living in poverty already know the value of an education — when public primary school fees were eliminated in Kenya, more than a million additional children came into school almost overnight. In conflict-affected areas, school is not only a way out, but often one of the only sources of stability for children whose lives have been torn apart. Valentino Achak Deng, whose life as a child from war-torn southern Sudan is the subject of Dave Eggers’s book What Is the What, has made it a priority of his foundation to rebuild war-affected southern Sudanese communities through increasing access to school. In Afghanistan, where girls are being forced out of school in places like Kandahar by fundamentalists attacking them and their teachers with spray cans of burning acid, many girls and their families bravely continue their studies despite the threat of violent retaliation. We must act in solidarity with families around the world to make it possible for all children to access a quality education.

In his campaign, Barack Obama offered a vision of hope not just for the United States but for the world. By creating a Global Fund for Education, he has the chance to deliver on a promise that will have resounding impact not only on children overseas, but on America’s legacy for generations to come.

Education and Global Economic Crisis

As the United States grapples with the global economic crisis, investments in education must be part of our response. No country has achieved sustained economic growth without reaching near universal primary education. The World Bank estimates that an additional 46 million people will be pushed into poverty this year as a result of the crisis, so now is not the time to scale back on our commitments to reaching Education for All.

At the recent G-20 Summit in London, the leaders of world’s most powerful economies gathered to craft a response to the economic downturn. The resulting commitment to a massive increase in funding for the International Monetary Fund should not be mistaken for a substitute for aid commitments to education and other social sectors in the world’s poorest countries. In fact, contractionary belt-tightening policies pushed by the IMF have historically squeezed education budgets in developing countries. The U.S. should ensure that the IMF not be given a blank check. New funding for the IMF must come with verifiable assurances that the IMF will stop pushing recessionary economics that lead to painful cuts in education spending.

Why we need a Global Fund for Education

It is in the best interest of developing countries, the global economy and global community at large to invest in the education of children around the world. A Global Fund for Education can help overcome key barriers to education in developing countries, including:

  • School fees still pose one of the greatest obstacles to education for all in many poor nations. Resource-poor countries need investment in their national education plans so they can remove these barriers that disproportionately reduce access for girls, orphans, and other poor and marginalized children.
  • Other costs associated with school — uniforms, books, supplies, meals — also pose a barrier to children from impoverished families. Education programs must accommodate poor children by providing these necessities.
  • Lack of qualified teachers — An estimated 18 million new teachers are needed to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Student to teacher ratios are extremely high in some countries with as many as 100 children of varying ages and levels being taught by one teacher.
  • An inhospitable climate discourages many girls from attending school. In addition to long, unsafe journeys to and from school, many schools offer little or no privacy for females to attend to personal hygiene. Schools closer to home, with separate latrines for boys and girls, are needed to achieve gender parity in school enrollment.

The 2009 UNESCO Global Monitoring Report points to the donor community’s ‘collective failure’ to deliver on aid commitments for basic education. The annual financing gap to achieve universal quality basic education is estimated to be between $11 billion (UNESCO) and $16 billion (UK government estimate which includes lower secondary school).

  • In 2005, donors pledged to increase aid for basic education by $50 billion by 2010. Current aid commitments point to an impending shortfall of $30 billion against this pledge, almost half of it in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Total aid last year was $3.8 billion from a handful of donors — but with the fiscal and economic crises many donors will be temped to scale back their support to developing countries rather than the ramp up needed to achieve this target.

Current global education statistics:

According to UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report, an estimated 75 million primary-aged children are not in school:

  • 55 percent of these children are girls.
  • Three-quarters of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia.
  • More than half (40 million) lives in conflict-affected countries or post-conflict states — with education crucial to providing stability and rebuilding lives and societies.

Comments on the Global Fund for Education

“I will support a $2 billion Global Education Fund to counter the radical madrassas that have filled young minds with messages of hate. We must work for a world where every child, everywhere, is taught to build and not to destroy. And as we lead we will ask for more from our friends in Europe and Asia as well — more support for our diplomacy, more support for multilateral peacekeeping, and more support to rebuild societies ravaged by conflict.

— President Barack Obama

[President Obama] supports a global education fund to bolster secular education around the world. I want to emphasize the importance to us of this bottom-up approach...and I believe in this so strongly. Investing in our common humanity through social development is not marginal to our foreign policy but essential to the realization of our goals.

— Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

“Both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have stated a bold commitment to launching a Global Fund for Education. As this global financial crisis disproportionately impacts the poorest people in the poorest nations, we urgently need the administration to follow through on its promise to move forward on this Global Fund for Education. Enabling low-income countries to provide at least a basic education for all of their children would have enormous benefits in breaking the cycle or inter-generational poverty, promoting health and prosperity and building peace and stability.

— Joanne Carter, executive director of RESULTS Educational Fund

“Spending on education is indeed one of the most effective investments a country can make. It brings positive benefits across the board, from reducing poverty and improving health, to strengthening democracy and driving economic competitiveness. A counter-cyclical injection of resources in education now would not only help spur recovery but also support more vigorous growth in the future and ensure long term stability worldwide. Governments must stay the course and invest in the long-term drivers of development, such as education and science, which are essential pillars to promoting stability and ensuring peace.”

— Koïchiro Matsuura, UNESCO Director-General

For more information, contact RESULTS:
Blair Hinderliter, (202) 783-4800 x126
[email protected]

Sarah Beardmore, (202) 783-4800 x108
[email protected]