This blog looks back at the start of the EFA movement, from Jomtien, to Dakar, to today. It is the first in a series of blogs taking a retrospective view of the Education for All agenda and its subsequent implementation. Svein Osttveit began work at UNESCO in 1989 and was the Executive Secretary of the EFA Forum from 1998 to 2000. Here, he reflects on the key elements of the EFA movement that helped bring positive change for education over the past decade.
The Education for All (EFA) movement was originally launched by UNESCO, UNICEF, World Bank, UN Development Programme and UN Population Fund in the 1990s. The unprecedented cooperation by these five convenors over the course of the coming years paved the way for what has become the most widely known set of international goals in education – the EFA goals. These originators of EFA insisted on making education a top priority on the development agenda, setting not only a good example for UN cooperation, but also mobilizing governments, civil society, education professionals and, to a lesser degree, the private sector. Their work resulted in the World Conference on Education in Jomtien in 1990 being truly visionary and agenda setting: education was recognised as being more than just access to primary education, and also addressed the basic learning needs of all children, youth, and adults.
During the first ten years after Jomtien an EFA Forum was set up, of which I was the Executive Secretary. This mechanism helped the five convenors work closely together. Through the EFA Forum, we produced a programme, agreed on an operational agenda and co-financed its implementation through a jointly managed secretariat. The close cooperation of agencies, government representatives and civil society in the Forum laid the ground for the World Education Forum in Dakar, 10 years later. The main stakeholders were in many ways far more actively involved in establishing follow up plans to Jomtien than was the case in 2000 after Dakar, in my opinion.
Towards the end of the 1990s, the whole EFA initiative was threatened by an overall frustration about the lack of progress since Jomtien. There was actually limited interest in organizing another big international conference as a result. However, there was a call for action, largely credited to civil society, to re-awaken general interest and commitment to accelerate progress and realize what we’d set out to do.
The renewed call for action motivated the 5 Convenors to take the initiative and launch the EFA 2000 Assessment, which managed in a reasonably short time to mobilize more than 170 countries in doing a standardized assessment of education. This Assessment gave a very solid basis for the discussions taking place about post-2000, and helped prepare the groundwork for the Dakar Framework for Action. Concurrently, the 5 Convenors also financed a comprehensive capacity building exercise which would make most countries capable of producing good quality reports based upon reliable data and assessments.
This EFA Assessment is probably one of the most comprehensive assessment ever to be organized. It was built upon a set of 18 indicators and technical guidelines developed by expertise provided primarily by the five Convenors, with UIS playing a lead role. The Assessment took place at three levels: local, regional and global. Field offices of all the Convenors fully participated in the Assessment exercise through contributions in both financial and technical support. The outcomes of the Assessment significantly contributed to the evidence-based discussions that took place in a series of regional conferences, and eventually at the Dakar Conference itself.
There is no doubt that the “brand” EFA is well established and appreciated by all stakeholders. It is also clear that the EFA movement has resulted in commitments by governments and donors to place education high on the development agenda. Nevertheless, there are currently serious challenges concerning the sustainability of this investment today, particularly when it comes to issues of quality and relevance. As the EFA GMR has shown us, for example, although so close to the EFA deadline, millions of children around the world are not learning the basics, whether they’ve spent four years in school or not.
There are some promising signs following the recent Muscat Agreement, and the work of the Open Working Group (OWG). These initiatives provide for some optimism that the pioneering investment 25 years ago at Jomtien will continue to bear fruit.
This is a good time for reflection. Looking back to Jomtien and Dakar and learning from the past for the future, we would hope that the 5 Convenors will again rise to the occasion demonstrating leadership and commitment to finalize the un-finished EFA agenda. We should also take note of the crucial input of the EFA Assessment in 2000 for establishing the ground rules for new policy targets in education. Learning from our mistakes and pushing new boundaries will help ensure that EFA becomes a reality in a changing world.