At the April 2000 World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, 180 countries including the United States committed themselves to a simple yet profound goal: providing quality education for all the world's children by 2015. Part of the aim of the Dakar conference was to assess the steps taken since 1990, when most of the same participants had met in Jomtien, Thailand, and promised that all poor children would have access to quality primary education within a decade. So the Dakar declaration was simultaneously an admission of failure and a pledge to try again -- a triumph, as Dr. Johnson once said about second marriages, of hope over experience.

The jury is still out on whether the Dakar pledge will join the Jomtien compact in the crowded graveyard of overly ambitious development goals. It is true that countries and international institutions have exhibited a great deal of energy and continued commitment on the education front. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) recently launched a Girl's Education Initiative with high-level political backing from Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela, and Graca Machel, Mandela's wife and a prominent activist for children's rights, education, and development. World Bank President James Wolfensohn has declared that no country with a viable plan for achieving universal education should be allowed to fail for lack of resources, even though World Bank lending for education has declined over the past two years. And the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has continued the Education for All (EFA) initiative renewed at Dakar with follow-up meetings at the national and global levels.

This activity has been spurred by a growing body of research showing that investment in education -- particularly for girls -- in the world's poorest countries produces impressive health benefits and high economic returns. Education boosts family income, and female education in particular leads to smaller, healthier families by lowering infant and maternal mortality and improving child nutrition. In Africa, a child born to an uneducated mother faces a 20 percent chance of dying before the age of five, whereas the risk for a child whose mother has attended at least five years of school drops to 12 percent. In Brazil, illiterate women have, on average, six children each; literate mothers average between two and three. Indeed, a 1995 study of 72 countries found that "the expansion of female secondary education may be the single best lever for achieving substantial reductions in fertility." Recent research on aids prevention in the urban areas of Zambia suggested that teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 who had received at least a medium level of education had a lower incidence of the aids virus than did their less-educated counterparts. And schools provide an important vehicle for delivering vaccines, medicines, vitamins, and meals.

Studies suggest that every additional year of schooling can increase the wages of workers in poor nations by 10 to 20 percent. In this way, completing basic education can produce significant gains in income. But as ambitious as it seems to shoot for universal primary education, basic education should really be seen as a starting point rather than an end goal. The need to eventually provide secondary and higher education to the world's children is only heightened by recent research on globalization's impact on wages in Latin America. Studies suggest that the wage premium from globalization going to workers who have received secondary and higher education has risen dramatically relative to that for workers with only primary schooling.

No matter how well intentioned, however, current efforts will not be sufficient to fulfill even the Dakar goals. The scope of the problem is simply too large to be addressed fully by scattered, piecemeal projects. According to Oxfam, 130 million children between the ages of 6 and 11 are currently not in school, and another 150 million drop out before completing four years of basic education. And gender disparity continues to depress enrollment rates, leaving girls behind.

The only solution is a global initiative that will leverage systemic reform in developing nations. Major national reforms will carry significant political and economic costs. If the developed countries want the leaders of developing nations to bear these costs, they will have to offer substantially more aid. Mobilizing the necessary resources will require a new global compact on education, one with a compelling framework that clearly sets out the roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders. This framework must bring together the dispersed multilateral education efforts, build confidence among advanced nations that any additional resources they contribute will be used effectively, and persuade developing countries that aid will deliver concrete benefits without imposing intrusive conditions or generating more international bureaucracy.


Ideally, development efforts should rest on a mutually beneficial social contract. Such an understanding currently underlies international cooperation on poverty reduction: poor countries understand that aid can help them reduce poverty, and rich countries and international civil society understand that the aid they give can promote international economic growth, foster certain foreign policy goals, and make the world more equitable.

If either side begins to doubt the benefits of the partnership and questions this implicit social contract, however, the process can grind to a halt. Several different tensions can disrupt the contract and prevent it from achieving development goals. Donors, for example, sometimes worry that their contributions are not being used for the intended purposes. This fear is commonly reflected in arguments that aid-receiving nations lack the "absorptive capacity" and efficiency to channel resources effectively, or that corruption or politics diverts aid to unintended beneficiaries. Donors are also concerned about burden-sharing -- each country being reluctant to provide more aid than it considers its appropriate share. Recipients, meanwhile, sometimes fear that the conditions accompanying aid will force them to undertake unpleasant reforms and accept infringements on their sovereignty.

Donors and recipients can thus end up at odds with one another. Externally imposed performance requirements can sometimes actually help developing-country governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) overcome resistance to reform among entrenched domestic interests. Still, tension over such conditions lies at the heart of many major development debates today. The more rich countries seek to improve outcomes through rigorous performance monitoring, the more poor nations fear being subjected to the stipulations of international donors. This tension can be finessed but can never be entirely alleviated.

Debt relief is one area that has seen significant success in mitigating the tensions enough to sustain the contract among rich and poor nations. The Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Debt Initiative -- proposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and agreed to by international governments in 1996 -- worked through the burden-sharing concern by laying out the exact obligations of each donor country, and it reduced fears about aid's effectiveness by requiring recipient countries to develop explicit strategies for channeling freed-up resources toward poverty reduction. On the other hand, it also mitigated fears of excessive outside intrusion by making poor countries the authors of their own strategies.

The success of the debt relief initiative can be instructive for reaching other development goals. The most likely way to achieve universal education by 2015 is through a clear framework for collective action that outlines appropriate and realistic roles and responsibilities for donor countries, recipient countries, and multilateral institutions. Such a global alliance on basic education (GABE) could raise resources for poor countries with good education plans by combining multilateral, bilateral, and NGO assistance into a pooled lending structure. Ideally, this global fund would disburse resources through a single lending and grant-making instrument. But rather than let the best be the enemy of the good, it might start by simply coordinating the existing aid instruments.

Like the HIPC example, the Dakar declaration called on recipient countries to devise plans showing how they might actually meet their stated education goals. But the EFA structure that was set up to realize the goals set at Dakar has no means for assessing these national plans, and even if it can decide that a nation has come up with a satisfactory strategy, it provides no assurance that that country will actually receive aid to help implement its plan. Without a global effort espousing well-defined roles and responsibilities, the Dakar initiative is likely to fail because donors will have little confidence that resources will be well spent, and recipients will have little incentive to undertake painful reforms. Reform can succeed if the political will to support it exists -- Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's promotion of education, for instance, has led to a dramatic expansion of primary-school enrollment in his country. But such willingness to undertake reform will be partly contingent on assurances that international assistance will be available to make ambitious reform plans financially viable.


Reviews of national education plans should be carried out by a board that represents both rich and poor nations and that definitely includes stakeholders such as the World Bank, UNESCO, and UNICEF. This review model is being used more frequently in other issue areas. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI), for example, has a governing board composed of four partners with renewable terms -- the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Bank, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- and 11 rotating partners, including NGOs, technical institutes, pharmaceutical companies, and officials from both developed and developing countries. Although the structure of the new Global aids Trust Fund has yet to be finalized, it too is likely to have a governing board with balanced representation from U.N. agencies, the World Bank, and the developed and developing worlds. Even the Digital Opportunity Task Force of the group of seven highly industrialized countries plus Russia (G-8) has a governing board with an equal number of developed and developing nations.

To alleviate donor concerns about aid effectiveness and recipient concerns about excessive conditionality, GABE should feature an independent peer review committee that can make technical assessments of national education plans and advise the board. Including experts from both developed and developing countries, this committee would emulate the scientific peer-review methods used by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation as well as GAVI -- where a technical advisory board that assesses national immunization plans has played a critical role in mediating the tension between donors and developing nations. The review process will be facilitated by the significant consensus that prevails on many basic measures to increase access to primary education, such as the importance of providing more teachers and improving teacher skills, building more schools, and including female teachers and private facilities for female students.

Even with an independent review process and a consensus on the wisdom of certain policies, however, there is likely to be some disagreement about the nature and sequence of particular reforms. This is hardly surprising, since even within the United States, educational experts do not always agree on which policies are most effective. The review committee must be careful, therefore, not to impose its own judgment about what the best approach for a particular case might be. Rather, it should ask simply whether a proposed plan might be supported by a hypothetical, "reasonable educational policymaker." If the answer is yes, then the committee should defer to the leadership of the developing country in question. If the answer is no, it should send the plan back for revision. Providing adequate technical assistance to education ministries in developing countries will help ensure that the review mechanism is not simply a "yes" or "no" pronouncement on external assistance, but rather a recurring process that calls on the expertise of education specialists to help improve education plans at each stage of the process.

As in the HIPC initiative, GABE will need to reach consensus on the total resources necessary to reach its goal and how they should be provided. At Dakar, UNICEF estimated that putting every child in quality primary education by 2015 would cost an additional $7 billion per year, but it has since increased the estimate to $9.1 billion. Oxfam, however, estimates that achieving universal education will cost an additional $8 billion annually. And after the amount is set, decisions must be made on how much should be put up by the outside donors and how much should come from the developing countries, which would need to reallocate domestic spending to give greater resources to education. Oxfam suggests that donors provide $5 billion of the estimated $8 billion needed, with recipients supplying the rest. Responsibility for providing the external aid must then be carefully parceled out among the various donor countries in such a way that each accepts the division -- and leaves itself open to opprobrium if it fails to live up to its commitment.


No standard currently exists for determining when a nation's commitment of its own resources is sufficient to justify additional international assistance. GABE will therefore need to develop some kind of education financing index that looks at educational expenditures per child in proportion to gross domestic product. This index would aim to measure how much each country should be putting into its education reform plan, thereby helping to determine if a recipient is living up to its commitment. In creating such an index, GABE could look at both developed and developing countries to see what should be viewed as an appropriate target for a national financial commitment.

Although setting such targets is important, however, countries that cannot meet the index requirements should not necessarily be cut off from assistance, so long as they are following a sound strategy and moving in the right direction. Poorly designed all-or-nothing tests could leave some of the poorest children in sub-Saharan Africa unattended until their governments dramatically shift budget priorities, something that is not likely to happen in the near future. Moreover, the financing index should be sufficiently flexible to allow for the exceptional expenditures that developing countries must sometimes undertake, to combat aids or natural disasters or to provide for postwar reconstruction.

In addition, GABE must address how resources are coordinated and disbursed. A unified system that pools resources and distributes loans and grants would be most effective. Although such an approach could be the most efficient way of providing the right amounts of financing for particular countries, however, it may encounter opposition from national foreign-aid agencies that for historical or foreign policy reasons want to be able to select the countries and programs that they assist. GABE should therefore be willing to devise a formula that allows for some donor control -- requiring each donor to contribute a minimum amount to a collective pool of funding, for example, while also allowing additional bilateral contributions to countries of a donor's choosing.

Similarly, it may not be feasible to propose a completely unified lending and grant-making mechanism, but GABE could still improve on the currently uncoordinated lending systems by channeling resources through existing instruments and then tracking aid flows to ensure that they are sufficient to cover the particular needs of each national plan. Although some have suggested that the World Bank be made the financial manager of this effort because its lending instruments are already in place, GAVI has demonstrated that a global initiative does not have to be housed in any particular institution to take full advantage of the expertise of participating agencies. In GAVI, the World Bank leads the financing task force but is not considered the explicit financial manager of the structure. And although the World Bank's lending instruments and financial management expertise would be helpful to GABE, the global initiative on education should also show flexibility on matters of financial control so that the issue does not sabotage the global education effort.

Any viable global education initiative must also find ways of ensuring that every dollar of international aid actually adds up to a full dollar of spending for its intended purpose -- in other words, that international aid does not simply free up recipient governments to divert their own spending to other issues. This will require a sufficiently specific and transparent budgetary process to determine "baselines" from which to judge what amount of spending would have occurred without aid. It will also require the ability to track and monitor the flow of aid once it has been disbursed.

As the Dakar goals move education development assistance from the level of individual projects to the level of systemic reforms, questions of how to classify and track specific budgetary expenditures will become more important. It is easier to monitor whether funds have been diverted, for example, when aid goes to capital projects -- a new airport or a new bridge -- than when it is directed at something as elusive and broad as education reform. Monitoring the performance of education initiatives will depend on clear and transparent budgeting procedures, which many developing nations have not yet adopted. Fortunately, the process of helping HIPCS has already initiated budget reform and improvements in expenditure tracking. A joint World Bank-IMF report has found that, although comprehensive budget reform will require considerable effort, temporary, short-term steps can be taken to track spending on education and other social issues. For example, Uganda has created a poverty action fund that serves this purpose, and Guyana has made significant headway in tagging portions of its budget that are used for poverty reduction.


In poor nations as in rich countries, education creates a foundation for economic growth, higher standards of living, better health, and a more informed citizenry. Curiously, however, the cause of universal basic education has captured very little public attention compared to other important development issues such as debt relief and fighting aids. Given the synergies between education, health, and economic growth, tackling the crisis in education should be recognized as a key to unlocking other development goals.

Unlike some of the world's other important problems, moreover, limited access to education in poor nations is not a disease without a cure. Where there has been true high-level commitment to expanding education -- as in Uganda, Malawi, and the Indian state of Kerala -- significant progress has been achieved. Without a coordinated global effort that can channel resources and create publicly defined obligations for the major global actors, however, progress in this area is likely to be slow and sporadic. Today 130 million of the world's children are without schooling, and hundreds of millions more will be equally deprived in years to come. They all deserve better.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now