Gordon Brown: Our Silent Education Crisis

World leaders in Davos are tied up dealing with the economic slowdown—but the critical problem of children without schooling needs to be addressed as well. Former British prime minister Gordon Brown explains why he’s pushing for a global education fund. Plus, read Brown’s full report here.

Christian Hartmann, Reuters / Landov

As governments gather for the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos this week, their agenda is dominated by the state of the global economy and its impact on developed and emerging countries. These issues are undoubtedly of critical importance, but I fear that a global crisis that rarely makes headlines, the crisis in education, will be once again pushed to the sidelines.

The global crisis in education is a silent, invisible crisis, perhaps because those most immediately affected - the world’s poorest and most vulnerable children and their parents - have a weak voice. But it is at our peril that we ignore the overwhelming evidence that disadvantage in education costs lives, undermines economic growth, fuels youth unemployment, and reinforces national and global inequalities. The bottom line is that education holds the key to the development of more dynamic economies, greater social mobility, and poverty reduction. Education is the key that unlocks human potential and prepares future generations to participate in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy.

We merely have to look at the numbers to grasp the scale of the crisis. There are 68 million primary school age children out of school - and global progress towards universal primary education has slowed since 2005. If current trends continue, the out-of-school population could increase to 72 million by 2015. Another 71 million adolescents are out of school, many of them lacking a basic education. And while governments across the world are concerned about the quality of education, the evidence on learning achievement levels in many of the poorest countries is profoundly disturbing.

Less than four years from the 2015 target date, the world is not on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of decent quality universal primary education. The ultimate responsibility for changing this picture and delivering on the promise of education for all rests with national governments. But donors also have a role to play - and they have not delivered on their aid commitments.

In contrast to the health sector, where the global funds for HIV/AIDS and immunization have mobilized resources and galvanized political action, the education sector has suffered from a weak multilateral core. The Fast Track Initiative (FTI), renamed the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) last year, which operates under the auspices of the World Bank, has achieved some important results. But it has not delivered at a level of ambition commensurate with the scale of the crisis. Moreover, the World Bank itself has struggled to translate its commitment to education into financing decisions. The end result is that the GPE has been delivering too little aid—around $249 million in 2010—to too few countries, far too slowly.

Chronic under-funding by donors is part of the problem facing the GPE. But under-financing is symptomatic of a deeper malaise. Many donors rightly feel that the GPE delivers aid far too slowly and that it has failed to address the urgent challenge of delivering education to children in conflict-affected states. To take a case in point, South Sudan has yet to receive support even though the new country has over 1 million primary school age children out of school. These children cannot afford to wait for aid donors to act.

Given the sustained, ongoing and deepening shortfall in aid financing for basic education, I propose that the FTI/GPE should be converted into an independent Global Fund for Education (GFE) that builds on the considerable achievements of the Fast Track Initiative, draws on the experience of the global funds in health, and serves as a focal point for a renewed drive towards the 2015 goals.

Operating as an independent legal entity, the GFE would act as the focal point for a renewal of the global education compact. It would galvanize new partnerships, engage with the business community and philanthropists, scale-up the level of global ambition and deliver results. The GFE would lead a global push to get another 68 million children into school by 2015. It would also provide more effective support to countries and communities trapped in conflict or embarking on post-conflict recovery by specifically helping children who are refugees or internally displaced.

In order to act on its commitments, the GFE would actively solicit financing requests in the form of 2015 Action Plans. In most cases governments would take the lead. But the GFE would provide incentives for others - NGOs, faith-based groups, the business community and philanthropists - to come together in new partnerships dedicated to delivering results on the ground.

None of this is to suggest that the GFE would be a stand-alone solution to the education crisis. But it would powerfully supplement and reinvigorate the education for all partnership, drawing on the experience, expertise and ideas of a range of actors and bringing together governments, international institutions, the business community, and non-governmental organizations. Of one thing we can be certain: continuing on a business as usual path will result in the education promise made to the world’s children being broken.

As we look toward 2015 and beyond we must mobilize all of the resources at our disposal. The World Bank has a vital role to play not just as one of the largest sources of aid for the very poorest countries, but as an intellectual leader, coordinator and advocate for change. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also has a wealth of experience in education, notably girls’ education and provision on countries affected by conflict. But we are missing out on opportunities to deliver a breakthrough in education - a breakthrough that would bring hope to the lives of millions of children, provide a powerful impetus towards the wider MDGs, and transform the growth prospects of the world’s poorest countries.

We need bold action on behalf of the millions of children denied their birthright of a decent quality education. My hope is that their cause will be taken up by political leaders in the G8, the G20, and by international groups like the World Economic Forum. They have the power to make a difference and bring hope into the lives of millions of children - and with that power comes a responsibility to act.