The troubling trend we suspected a few months ago is confirmed: aid to basic education in developing countries is stagnating, or, at worst, significantly declining over the next several years. The global economic crisis has significantly impacted donor countries’ willingness and ability to invest in aid for basic education, while simultaneously making it more difficult for developing countries to increase their own domestic financing. Donors are withdrawing support from several countries, citing the global economy and their intent to focus on specific regions and sectors in which they have comparative advantage as key reasons. Unfortunately, for the most part this withdrawal is largely uncoordinated, leading to a significant and potentially disastrous reduction in support for basic education worldwide.
Why aid to education is important
For many developing countries bilateral aid is critical to meeting the 2015 Education for All and Millennium Development Goals. Although it is easy to say this reliance is due to a lack of political will to invest in and improve basic education systems, the reality is that a large number of developing countries do not have the financial or other resources necessary to extend quality basic education to every child in the country. For example, for every dollar some developing countries invest in education, twenty-five cents comes from external assistance. Unfortunately, the projected stagnation or decline in support for basic education could lead to substantial and avoidable losses in improvement progress made over the last decade.
The Good News
The good news is that not all donor countries plan to reduce their aid to education in developing countries. In fact, some countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia plan to increase basic education investment over the next several years. The UK has shown leadership in the area by pledging to increase aid to basic education through the year 2015, when it will account for twenty-five percent of its total amount of foreign aid. Australia has also pledged to increase its total allocation to basic education in developing countries. France and Germany have indicated their overall aid to education will increase, although it is unknown at this point to what extent this aid will be allocated toward basic education and what will be reserved for technical or tertiary education.
The Bad News
On the other hand, many donor countries plan to decrease their support to basic education. The Netherlands has been the number one donor to basic education for many years. They now plan to eliminate basic education as a priority sector altogether by decreasing their total amount of bilateral aid to education, as well as reducing their number of developing country partners. The Netherlands claims they do not have comparative advantage in the education sector, an assertion we consider absurd given its long and respectable history of expertise in basic education in developing countries. It should be noted that the Netherlands are adamant that they will coordinate its gradual withdraw, while simultaneously making a generous commitment to continue providing funding to the Education for All Fast Track Initiative. The United States also plans to decrease its support to education in developing countries, due to current and ongoing budget constraints, a Congress that is wary of increasing foreign aid and the prioritization of other development sectors over education. Spain and Denmark plan to cut support to bilateral aid for education, although Denmark intends to reallocate its bilateral funding through multilateral channels.
The Biggest Losers
Burkina Faso will be among the countries hit hardest when donors begin phasing out education aid. They will lose an absolutely staggering total of 53 percent from at least five donor countries, including the Netherlands and Canada. This comes at a time when only 63 percent of school-aged children enroll in primary school, just of half of whom will complete their primary education. Nicaragua will lose five donors including the Netherlands, which provides 35 percent of the country’s external aid to basic education. Nicaragua struggles to improve its basic education system as well: its primary completion rate is lower than the regional average at 75 percent and the poorest children complete only 2.5 years of school. Other countries that will lose significant amounts of support include Zambia, Benin, Mozambique, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Rwanda and Ghana. External financing has been critical to making gains in primary education in these countries; discontinuing this support for important education system investments will pose serious challenges to current reform efforts.
Many developing countries are poised to lose a large amount of bilateral aid in the very near future. There is no immediate replacement for that aid, either through in-country investment or from increases in other sources of external assistance. This is an avoidable travesty. We have yet to be convinced that donor withdrawal from these countries is being carried out in a properly coordinated manner and, as a result, education systems are losing support at the moment when they desperately need it. Bilateral donors should closely evaluate their current and prospective education financing plans and coordinate with each other to ensure that every child is given the education they were promised at Dakar. Please go to the Education For All Fast Track Initiative website for information about why investing in basic education is good and how EFA-FTI works with developing countries to improve education for all, especially children and women.