November 2, 2012

Education for All: Looking Back, Looking Forward (Part 1 of 2)

Capacity, coordination, frustration, evidence, openness, hope, communication, knowledge-base, reflectiveness, convergence, options, unfocused, dissemination

These were some of the words that participants used to sum up our discussion when I had the pleasure last week of moderating a working group on reaching the Education for All (EFA) goals by 2015.

The working group was part of a larger meeting of UNESCO’s Collective Consultation with NGOs on Education for All (CCNGO/EFA), which brought together over 150 representatives of national, regional and global NGOs and civil society networks from around the world. We came together to take stock of our achievements in education, discuss solutions to the challenges that remain, and begin to articulate a vision for education post-2015.

But before I jump into where we are going, let’s talk about where we’ve been.

Education for All
In short, a set of global goals was established in the World Declaration on Education for All in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990.  A decade on, the goals were reaffirmed by the international community through the Dakar Framework for Action (2000), and two of those goals were picked up by the Millennium Development Goals (universal primary education and gender parity).

Since that time we have seen increased national spending on education, the abolition of school fees and rights-based frameworks translated into national legislation in many countries. This has spurred unprecedented enrollment in primary school and a narrowing gender gap. Comprehensive education plans are being drafted to fit within national development strategies, and civil society participation in the governance of education (and not just low-cost service provision) has sky-rocketed.

Education has often been highlighted as the success story of the MDGs and, indeed, there is much for which we should be proud. But the most consistent message coming out of participants at the CCNGO is that the road ahead is still long and that we must remain vigilant.

As for many sectors, the next two years represent our “moment of truth,” so to speak, as we make a push to achieve the MDG and EFA goals by 2015. The newest data released by the Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report earlier this month shows us that progress in education has been uneven across the goals, and is stagnating.

Against this backdrop, civil society gathered at the CCNGO identified a number of common challenges that will require targeted action if we are to achieve the EFA goals.

So what next?

Underlying Currents
There were two underlying currents that were pervasive throughout CCNGO. First, EFA is unfinished business – these are goals that must be attained rather than scrapped for an entirely new agenda. The most neglected goals, those pertaining to early childhood education, youth skills and adult literacy, need immediate redress.

Secondly – and this may surprise some readers - the EFA agenda was actually negatively impacted by the Millennium Development Goals. Certainly the MDGs were a useful mobilizing tool and did much to shed light on education issues;  it recognized them as central to the long-term sustainability of development. But by extracting two goals from a set of holistic, mutually-reinforcing education goals, both the MDGs and EFA goals were set to fail.

Those are strong words, so let’s break it down.

Although universal primary education (UPE) and gender parity are important goals, they will never be achieved without attention to the full education agenda. We know that children in low-income countries who are malnourished and underdeveloped, who have never benefited from comprehensive and holistic early childhood education programs, and whose parents are illiterate, have significantly decreased chances of staying in school and succeeding. We know that no country has ever achieved universal primary education without a certain percentage of secondary school spots as incentive to move forward. I could go on, but I think the point is clear that focusing on UPE is not a sufficient way forward.

On the MDG side, those of us in the education community can point to mounting evidence that education is an underlying factor in the level of achievement - or lack thereof - in all of these worthy 8 goals. And so, if we cannot achieve the MDGs without addressing education, and we cannot achieve MDG 2 (UPE) and MDG 3 (gender parity) without addressing all of the EFA goals, then we seem to be at an impasse.

(The second part of this blog will be published on Monday, November 5, 2012)

Natalie Poulson is the National Coordinator for the Canadian Global Campaign for EducationThe views expressed are her own, and do not necessarily represent the views of CCIC or its members.

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