Maria Lourdes Almazan Khan

CONFINTEA, EFA and MDGs: Reviewing Promises and Performances to Date

The MDG Report 2008 was released in September last year, amidst a new tipping point in the ongoing global financial crisis with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The announcement was, as expected, measured in tone. The world was after all, still reeling from the impact of the energy and food crisis affecting millions of the poorest around the world.

The MDG Report of 20081 narrated yet again an account of uneven performance: There were some gains to celebrate, evidence of what is possible with political will backed by resources, amidst slow overall progress.

Between 1990 and 2005, the number of people living in extreme poverty had fallen from 1.8 to 1.4 billion. These figures however hide huge regional disparities: in Sub- Saharan Africa and the CIS countries, the number of poor people actually increased. The gains in reduced poverty were highly concentrated in one region, East Asia, notably China.

Gender disparities still characterise poverty, with women continuing to be more marginalised. The Report observes that while there have been gains in increased income-earning opportunities for women, vast numbers of women still work in vulnerable jobs. As many as two thirds of women in the developing world are in these types of work. In South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, as many as 80 % of women work under these conditions.

On the health front there was good news in the fall in numbers of deaths from measles, cut by one third between 2000 and 2006 with the expansion to around 80 % coverage of measles vaccination in the poorer countries. However, maternal mortality rates remain unacceptably high with more than half a million mothers dying in child birth. Progress in ending malnutrition among children remains very slow, with almost a quarter of the children in the developing world undernourished, their future blighted by the long-term effects of under-nourishment.

Almost half of the developing world still does not have access to safe drinking water. The lack of access to water has specific impacts on women and girls who spend a large amount of their time fetching water, and are unable to go to school. The lack of proper sanitation facilities in schools has also been a deterrent for girls to sustain school participation.

A third of people who live in urban areas live in slums, where their living conditions are tougher: they die earlier and are more prone to hunger and disease.

On a positive note, with debt write-offs the proportion of government spending on external debt servicing dropped between 2000 and 2006, enabling an increase in social spending in several poorer countries.

How Have We Fared in EFA?

There have been gains in increased enrolments in primary schools. Primary school enrolment has reached 90 per cent in all but two out of 10 regions of the world (South Asia and Sub Saharan Africa). Net enrolment rates (NER) increased: in Africa: from 54 % to 70 % within 1999 and 2006; and in South and West Asia an increase from 75 % to 86 % in the same time period. These gains where achieved where governments substantially invested in education, as in Senegal, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Mozambique.2

But these gains should not make us complacent: In 2006, 75 million children still remained out of school; 55 % of these girls; close to half in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. The partial projections by UNESCO of 134 countries which account for two thirds of the world’s out-of-school children indicate that if progress remains at this slow pace, 29 million children will still be out of school by 2015. Most of these children will of course belong to the poorest, most marginalised communities, thus needing more support and incentives to go to school and stay in schools.3

The Global Monitoring Report 2009 also mentioned that in two thirds of countries with data, gender parity within primary schools has been achieved. However, it also notes that of the 113 countries that failed to achieve gender parity in both primary and secondary school enrolment by the target date of 2005, only 18 are likely to achieve the goal by 2015. And the performance in secondary education is far from positive, with only 37 % of countries worldwide having achieved gender parities in secondary education.

Huge wealth disparities characterise early childhood care and education (ECCE) access. In 2006 pre-primary gross enrolment in richer countries averaged 79 %, in poorer countries 36 %. In Sub-Saharan Africa, it is as low as 14 %.

The commitments to adult literacy remain neglected. There were 776 million illiterate adults in 2006. This represents 16 % of the global adult population. Two-thirds of these were women. Initial projections also indicate that at this pace there will still be at least 700 million illiterate adults in 2015.

The GMR also observed a large teaching gap, with 18 million teachers needing to be trained, recruited and provided just and decent wages to meet the EFA targets. In several countries and regions, for example in South Asia, we witnessed the expansion in numbers of contract teachers, many of them poorly qualified, poorly paid with very low job security prospects. There are no figures for the gaps in numbers of adult literacy facilitators, adult education personnel and trainers.

You measure what you value. And if the space accorded Goals 3 (Lifelong learning needs of youth and adults) and 4 (Adult literacy) in the last GMR 2009 is any indication of the value it attracts, these certainly are the most neglected of the EFA goals. The International Council for Adult Education (ICAE) while applauding the GMR 2009’s analysis of educational equity, criticised the report for the marginal attention it paid to Goals 3 and 4 in its overall analysis. It was disappointing that a GMR issue on equity paid such scant attention to life skills and adult literacy, essential tools needed by the majority marginalised and poor to fight disparity and poverty.

The sub-regional preparatory consultations for CONFINTEA VI through 2008 observed in many countries that adult literacy and adult education have been:

  1. hampered by the lack of specific policies, legislation and plans;
  2. characterised by low levels of professional development of AE workers; most of them lowly paid;
  3. suffering weak governance and organisational structures in AE provisioning;
  4. having a poor research base;
  5. and of very low priority to governments – less than 1 % of education budgets are allocated to adult education.

Slow progress in EFA and over-all education performance is linked closely to poor investments in education. This is especially acute in poorer countries where the education deficits are most severe. Against the benchmark of 6 % of GDP allocated to education, Sub-Saharan Africa governments invest only 4.4 %; and in South and West Asia, 3.3 %. Against the benchmark of 20 % education expenditure against total government spending, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa spend 18 % on education, and South and West Asia governments spend 15.5 % on education.4

Despite education being universally recognised as a right of all citizens – hence the duty of governments to provide it free of cost – school fees continue to be collected and imposed on families.5 The ASPBAE Education Watch study revealed rampant incidence of school fees, representing in some cases as much as 30 % of the household spending of poor families, as in the Philippines.


Annual expenditure – as high as $480 per child; 22 % of average household income


Annual expense for sending one child to public school – $110 to $153 (for Uniform, private tutor, exam fees, supplies and daily cost – food/ transport)


$90–$150 per pupil – total cost of public schooling; 6 %–10 % of annual income per child (but could be as high as 33 % of the income of the poor)


Private cost of education ➞ $37.40 annual expenditure at primary level to as much as $164 at secondary levels

ASPBAE Education Watch 2008

Possible Impacts of the Global Financial Crisis

It is not possible to talk of the prospects of EFA, the MDGs and CONFINTEA without addressing the impact of the current global financial crisis. While its full extent and impact in these areas is yet to unravel, there is great fear that the crisis can erode whatever small gains have been achieved, and further weaken gains in areas where progress is already so slow. There are strong reasons for concern: a UNESCO review of the impact of the East Asian financial crisis in 1998 indicated:

  1. reductions in social spending in health and education as a result – cuts in education budgets were observed for example in Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia;
  2. reduced ability of households to contribute to schooling costs;
  3. decreases in school enrolments in low-income countries;
  4. increase in child labour;
  5. reduced aid flows: 1 % drop in aid flows associated with a 1 % x.6

Actually, even before the crisis fully hit, ODA performance on basic education was already faring poorly. Overall, ODA continued to drop from an all-time high of $107.1 billion in 2005 to $103.7 billion in 2007. Aid to Education is also on a decline, with US$12.1 billion (at constant 2007 prices) allocated to education in 2007; down from US$12.3 in 2006. Aid to Basic Education suffered an even greater setback: a decrease from US$5.5 billion in 2006 to US$4.3 billion in 2007, which is a decrease of about 22 % in real terms.7


Maria Lourdes Almazan Khan
Source: Barbara Frommann

The EFA Fast Track Initiative’s funding gap for 37 endorsed countries in 2008 was $1.2 billion, a gap which has grown through the years. This was compounded with serious problems in disbursement: only 30 % of the Catalytic Fund has been disbursed, leaving many governments promised much needed support, high and dry. Almost 50 % of FTI aid is still outside of programme-based support. And in spite its name, the FTI remains limited in its focus on primary education instead of the full EFA agenda.8 As we near the 2015 EFA deadline, surely we need a far more ambitious and bold financing compact that is not content with universal primary enrolments, and that does not turn a blind eye to the plight of millions unable to read and write, or to those with no access to learning and continuing education opportunities.

Aid equity performance has also been poor. In 2007, low-income countries as a group received US$5.8 billion or less than 50 % of all education aid. Low income countries have a higher priority in aid to basic education compared to over-all aid to education, but nearly one third of all aid to basic education (US$1.3 billion) was still allocated to middle income countries. Aid to education has largely been from only a few donors: Netherlands, UK, US, Germany, France, IDA. Based on 2005-2006 aid figures, countries like France and Japan do not prioritise basic education in low income countries in their aid allocations. Aid to basic education comes largely from the Netherlands, UK, IDA.9

It is easy to argue against aid expansion when the financial crisis is no doubt hitting the economies of richer countries very hard, and its citizens are reeling at the impact of its onslaught. But it is important to note as well, the disproportionately severe impact of the financial crisis on the poor in developing countries, who suffer unduly from something that they had no hand in creating. There are various estimates on the impact on the poor: the World Bank estimates that 48 countries are at risk, with decelerating growth brought on by the crisis, coupled with high incidence of poverty.10

The costs in terms of human life of the crisis are staggeringly high: It is estimated that the crisis will push 46 million more people to incomes of less than $1.25/day and 53 million more will be trapped on less than $2 a day. These numbers are in addition to the 1.4 billion extremely poor before the crisis. An average of 200,000 to 400,000 more in infant deaths per year is estimated, or a total of 1.4 to 2.8 million over the period 2009–2015.11 It is thus critical for vulnerable countries to finance safety net programmes for the poor.

However, as the UNESCO GMR team in their analysis of the crisis observed, richer countries can respond to the crisis with large fiscal interventions, but most developing countries, especially the poorest, lack fiscal capacity to respond. 43 out of 48 low-income countries (with data) lack fiscal space and 55 out of 87 middle-income countries face the same fate.12 The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) further observed an imbalance in the global response to the crisis with 80 % of the financial stimulus concentrated in developed countries.13 Meanwhile, the lack of fiscal capacities in poorer countries, where four fifths of humanity reside, prevents the provision of social protection responses especially for the poorest.

Set these figures against education performance, and we see that 21 of the 29 countries with low Education Development Indices (EDI) are these countries with low fiscal space, indicating the adverse impact of the financial crisis on their already struggling EFA performance.14

What Are Possible Ways Forward?

Secure education sector budgets

It is the worst possible time to cut back on education budgets. The Global Campaign for Education (GCE) argues that the item most likely to attract reductions in education budgets would be the single largest budget item, the teaching force. This should be avoided, not only because of the severe impact on education quality and retention that a freeze in teacher recruitment would bring, but because hiring teachers, literacy facilitators and trainers during the crisis can actually be an effective strategy to deal with the crisis. Expansion in the numbers of public servants such as teachers and adult education trainers puts money in the pockets of people and provides jobs, stimulating spending and economic activity, which are sorely needed in periods of recession.15

The Chief Economist of the World Bank, Justin Lin, further observed that rich countries have the problem that a lot of their stimulus packages actually don’t get spent; people tend to save the money instead. For example, only 15 % of the US tax rebates in 2008 led to additional spending. He therefore argues that to facilitate fiscal stimulus resulting in increased demand and economic recovery, monies should be invested in “high return shovel-ready opportunities to remove bottlenecks to growth”. Most of those are however in developing countries, not rich ones, where the infrastructure is already highly developed.16 Hence, he makes an economic case for rich country spending in poorer countries as a response to the financial crisis – let it be on schools, learning centres, teachers and literacy facilitators, and other social sector investments.

Rapid and large financial support now, not later

It is also the worst possible moment to cut back on spending for the poor. Governments in poorer countries will no doubt have to do a big part in containing the impact of the crisis, and they should set in place propoor fiscal adjustments urgently, for example, cash transfers, employment guarantee schemes. They should abolish fees for health and education, and strengthen national resolve for poverty reduction.

But for many high risk countries with low fiscal capacities, unless they are offered financial support now, they will be unable to offer these safety net measures and they could thus suffer damage that could not be reversed later. Grants and zero-interest financing for core services such as health, education and access to safety net programmes are critical immediately.17

Mind the Funding Gaps

Is it affordable to meet the financing gaps in the face of the financial crisis? – Very much so. Rich countries have already spent $380 billion of public funds to bail out banks. Only a fraction of that is needed to meet the MDG financing gap of $48 billion and the EFA financing gap of $11.7B for three of the EFA goals in low income countries. It is a question not of affordability but of priority and will.18

Two concluding remarks, focusing on CONFINTEA VI: it is just a few months before we meet again in Belém, daunted by the enormity of the challenges posed by the recent financial crisis on poverty, education and necessarily the prospects of promises to adult education. I would like to think there are actually windows of opportunity in the current crisis to make a more powerful case for adult education.

The current economic crisis offers a stark and compelling case for adult education as a means to equip people, especially the poor, to mitigate the effects of the crisis, through re-tooling, self-employment, and livelihood development. It makes the case stronger to argue for more qualified trainers who will be needed to assist in retraining workers as economies restructure in the face of the crisis. It makes the case for education for responsible citizenship clearer, underscoring the need to equip citizens with the tools necessary to challenge current macro-economic orthodoxies which widen disparities, and condemn millions to a life of poverty, illiteracy and want.

Secondly, as argued earlier, expansion in education makes economic sense and can support recovery. Expanding the numbers of literacy workers, trainers, and building learning/training centres provides jobs, and stimulates economic activity to help reverse the impacts of the financial crisis. Equally important, it contributes significantly to ensuring that all citizens finally enjoy their right to meaningful and transformative education and learning opportunities throughout their lives which, we would like to think, is actually the bigger point.


1 United Nations (2008), “Millennium Development Goals Report 2008”; New York. 

2 UNESCO (2008), “EFA Global Monitoring Report 2009, Overcoming Inequality: why Governance Matters”, Oxford and UNESCO Publishing, Paris. 

3 UNESCO (2008), ibid. 

4 UNESCO (2008), ibid.

5 “Right to Education Project”: 9

6 Burnett, Nicolas (2009), “Investing out of the crisis: the education dynamic”, Presentation during the Futures Forum, UNESCO Paris, 2 March 2009, 

7 Global Monitoring Report Team (2009), “Aid Brief 2009: Recent Trends in Aid to Education, April 2009”.

8 Global Campaign for Education (GCE) (2008), “At the crossroads: Which way forward for a global compact on education?”, GCE Briefing Paper, EFA High level Group Meeting, Oslo December 2008.

9 GMR 2009. 

10 “The Global Economic Crisis: Assessing Vulnerability with a Poverty Lens”, World Bank Policy Brief

11 “Crisis Hitting Poor Hard in Developing World, World Bank says”, World Bank News Release, February 2009, Washington.

12 Watkins, Kevin and Montjourides, Patrick (2009), “The Millennium Development Goals – bankable pledge or sub-prime asset?”, presented during the UNESCO Future Forum – 2 March 2009, Paris.

13 World Economic Situation and Prospects 2009, Update as of mid-2009 (2009), UN DESA, New York.

14 Watkins and Montjourides (2009), ibid.

15 Global Campaign for Education (2009), “Education on the brink: Will the IMF’s new lease on life ease or block progress towards education goals?”; Washington.

16 Lin, Justin Yifu (2009), “How To Solve The Global Economic Crisis: Making Fiscal Stimulus Packages Work across the World”, Note prepared for the speech at Peterson Institute for International Econom ics on February 9, 2009.

17 Watkins and Montjourides (2009), ibid. 

18 Watkins and Montjourides (2009), ibid.




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