The second of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals is to ensure that by 2015, "children everywhere" are able to complete primary school. Some progress has been realized over the past decade and under the earlier Education For All initiative, which was strongly endorsed by Canada and other G8 countries. Some progress, but not enough.
The UN has acknowledged that "hope dims" for fully realizing its goal for education. The focus of the G8 has now shifted to maternal and child health, notably at the 2010 Huntsville summit. As the G8 prepares to meet this month at Camp David, it would do well to take stock of the role education plays in achieving development goals generally – including maternal and child health and economic outcomes.
In many of the so-called "least developed" countries, over 90 per cent of children may enter Grade 1, but half drop out before completing the primary cycle and the quality of schools is low. With a high probability, half or more of the next generation in these countries will remain illiterate.
Primary education deserves its high rank among the Millennium Development Goals. The core purpose of primary education is that children be able to read and write, and near-universal literacy is a necessary – if far from sufficient – condition if a country is to escape extreme poverty. Very few countries have achieved a per-capita GDP above $2,500 with adult literacy below 80 per cent. And very few countries achieve decent public health outcomes with female literacy below that threshold.
In sum, few countries escape extreme poverty and achieve decent health outcomes without also achieving high literacy. As UNESCO puts it, in terms unusually blunt for a UN agency: "The mentality that leads donors to neglect education in favour of narrowly defined health interventions threatens to hold back progress in both health and education."
It may be harsh to pit better schools against better health clinics in a competition for aid dollars, but development priorities are inevitably translated into budgets.
Based on statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Canadian International Development Agency's share of aid devoted to basic education (primary plus lower secondary) ended the decade close to what it was in 2000. By contrast, the share devoted to health more than doubled. In 2010, Canadian spending on basic and general health was nearly three times that on basic education.
A skeptic is prompted to pose the following questions:
• If the productivity and health returns from primary education are so high, why have host country governments not already organized provision of universal primary education?
• If they have not done so, can donors have any impact?
In answer to the first question, achieving universal literacy is a complex undertaking. It requires a reasonably effective government to assure provision of education services at low cost to parents. In many countries, the host government is not effective. In the context of extreme poverty, governing elites face intense pressure to engage in policies yielding short-term benefits and have little incentive to build good school systems whose benefits will not be apparent for a decade or more.
In some countries, civil war has severely disrupted the national school system (Côte d'Ivoire and Nepal, for example). In others, the government has given a higher budgetary priority to military spending than to schools (Pakistan). And in still others, political interference and corruption have hampered the school system (which is the case from Pakistan through the northern states of India to Bangladesh).
Faced with weak government systems, many parents – including low-income parents – have chosen a range of non-government schools. In India, 25 per cent of children now attend non-government schools; in Bangladesh, the proportion has risen to 40 per cent.
In answer to the second question, the key is donor pragmatism and willingness to engage with both the host government and, where governments are ineffective, with other credible agencies engaged in education. While there are cases of failure, there are also many examples of success.
Sometimes offering a fiscal incentive to parents succeeds. Donors prompted the Bangladesh government to offer a cash stipend to low-income parents of girls who attend secondary school, provided the girls achieve reasonable grades and do not marry. Secondary school enrolment of girls has tripled over the last two decades. Bangladesh served as a precedent for Brazil's successful bolsa familia program.
Sometimes, large NGOs can supplement and substitute for ineffective governments. The Aga Khan Foundation, for example, has an impressive record in education projects throughout the Muslim world.
There are no simple solutions to aid effectiveness. But refocusing on basic education is almost certainly an effective means to achieve multiple Millennium Development Goal objectives, including those on maternal and child health.
John Richards teaches in the Graduate Public Policy School at Simon Fraser University and is a fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute.