This is the fourth in a series of blogs taking a retrospective view of the Education for All agenda and its subsequent implementation. This blog is by Clinton Robinson, who was an independent consultant working for UNESCO at the start of the Millennium and rapporteur for the EFA working group and EFA high level group after Dakar. He was subsequently on staff in the UNESCO EFA Coordination Unit. Here, he reflects on the coordination mechanisms set up after Dakar to help follow up on the EFA Agenda.
How do you take the outcomes of a meeting of 164 countries, organised by five different international agencies, and turn them into a 15-year collective commitment? Putting it that way shows how complex the follow-up to the Dakar Conference in 2000 would prove to be. The Dakar Framework for Action written in 2000 foresaw two mechanisms: a small, flexible high-level group to drive political commitment, and six working groups, one for each goal. UNESCO, as the designated coordinating agency, convened the EFA High-Level Group, which met each year from 2001 to 2011. In place of the six working groups, a single working group was established at the technical level, which also met annually.
The EFA High-Level Group brought together a selected, rotating group of ministers of education from the ‘south’ and ministers of development cooperation from the ‘north’, thus structuring the dialogue to a large extent around aid. The EFA challenges in ‘northern’ countries were not on the agenda, and this stifled what might have been interesting exchanges of experience from widely differing contexts. The aims of the working group, meanwhile, were less well defined, but the group did provide a platform for discussion of substance, including some cutting edge issues such as EFA and HIV/AIDS, private sector engagement, and education for rural people.
Making the two groups work as a combined mechanism to push EFA forward after 2000 proved difficult, with shifting understandings of the articulation between them. A concern to sequence the discussions coherently and ensure strong systematic messages, based on the evidence of the EFA Global Monitoring Report, led to incremental changes in timing and agendas.
Almost from the start, the outcomes of these meetings posed questions of legitimacy: who exactly was committed to the meetings’ conclusions and declarations? Participation in the meetings was based on explicit criteria (regional, North/South, civil society…), but even so participants really only represented themselves. Recognising this, UNESCO undertook to restructure the mechanisms in 2012, resulting in clearer regional representation and moving to a single annual meeting, the Global EFA Meeting (GEM), which last met in Muscat, Oman in May of 2014.
In parallel, UNESCO sought to keep the other four Dakar convening agencies on board – UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF and the World Bank. All were invited to participate in the high-level group and the working group, and, for the most part, did take part. In 2006, UNESCO revitalised agency cooperation around the EFA strategy, with less formal inter-agency discussions in a smaller group, and created an International Advisory Panel in 2007, with the additional participation of countries, civil society and private sector. Following the 2012 restructuring and creation of the GEM, this International Agency Panel morphed into the EFA Steering Committee (echoes of pre-Dakar!), with representation of the various EFA constituencies.
Alongside these working groups, as part of following up on the Dakar Forum in 2000, UNESCO immediately set about developing a strategy of implementation. A first Global Initiative in 2001 was superseded by a larger process of developing an International Strategy to put the Dakar Framework for Action on Education for All into operation in 2002. This was presented to UNESCO’s Executive Board, but did not find enough traction beyond that for implementation. Thus in 2005, the Executive Board asked UNESCO to prepare an action plan.
Although the lessons of the previous unsuccessful efforts were not fully analysed, the work on the action plan set in motion a major process of reflection and consultation with the other four convening agencies. Debate was robust about the nature of (and need for) an action plan; sustained dialogue throughout 2006 provided a platform for frankly exchanging views on how to give maximum effect to the EFA movement. The resulting Global Action Plan: Improving support to countries in achieving the EFA goals offered a compendium of strategies, mappings, arguments and proposals to push the EFA agenda forward. Once again, however, the dynamics and orientations of UNESCO and its EFA partners shifted, the Plan led to no specific steps, and the strategy discussions it had instigated fell out of sight. UNESCO did not make further attempts to develop an international EFA implementation plan – an undertaking perhaps too complex with such a diversity of interests and contexts.
Recommendations for post-2015
After a post-2015 education goal and targets have been agreed upon, it will again be essential to maintain collective momentum in implementing the new education agenda. The experience of EFA shows, first, the need to create well-defined, representative mechanisms that can shape commitments for which all are accountable, and second, the need for leadership and coordination that provide forward-looking direction based on listening attentively to the diverse perspectives of stakeholders at every level – an uncompromising balancing act of professionalism and diplomacy.