This is the eighth in a series looking back to Dakar in order to draw lessons for those working on new education targets post-2015. This blog is by Cream Wright, who engaged continuously with EFA and the MDGs as a representative of the Commonwealth Secretariat, which he joined in 1997 and as UNICEF’s Global Chief of Education from 2002 to 2009.
Those who do not learn from the past repeat the mistakes of history. A similar saying in some African languages translates as: if you are unsure of where you are going to, be certain of where you are coming from. As we ponder a post-2015 agenda, and look back to what we’ve learnt since Dakar, we must ask ourselves: where have all the lessons gone? One key area in which lessons were learned in the prelude and aftermath of Dakar is “agency”, or ownership; but the lessons we’ve learned in this regard now appear to elude us as we contemplate a post 2015 agenda.
Agency is about responsibility or the power to act, by mandate or ascribed authority; but experience has taught us that what an entity does in practice matters more than its mandate.
The five mandated EFA partners at Dakar have seen their agency decline over time. UNESCO’s EFA agency has been on the wane; UNICEF was mandated to lead on girls’ education but my understanding is that this mantle is being taken over by celebrity projects and donor initiatives outside of UNICEF. The World Bank was expected to lead on financing, and helped to establish the EFA Fast Track Initiative, but this then morphed into the Global Partnership for Education, which wields agency outside of the World Bank. UNDP and UNFPA are really no longer in the EFA business. As we move towards a post-2015 agenda, we must review and apply the lessons we have learnt from these changes.
We need clarity on boundaries and priorities in EFA agency. Prior to Dakar the world relied on the main convening partners to provide external agency on EFA. Since then the spotlight has shifted to new entities/initiatives such as: The Girls Education Challenge; A World at School; Education without Borders; Global Campaign for Education; Global Education First Initiative; etc. This potpourri in exercising EFA agency may be a case of ‘more is good’. But in the prelude to Dakar we learned that if too many partners crowd a country to plan, monitor and report on education, there can be duplication, inefficiency and increased dependency. We need clarity on boundaries and priorities in EFA agency to avoid this.
Countries have ultimate agency on EFA, yet it is arguable what this means in practice. Developing countries provide the bulk (over 90%) of financing for their education systems, but external financing is often critical for capital investments, innovations and reforms. Also we have learned since Dakar that when countries implode or become fragile, external financing is vital for restoring normalcy. All of this does not require countries to surrender prime agency for EFA, but this agency can be usurped if aid exerts undue influence, as has happened frequently over the decade. As an African Minister once complained: we used to build and furnish schools, train teachers and procure textbooks in the past; now it seems that we cannot do any of these things unless they are in a plan endorsed by donors!
It is time for countries to own EFA. Countries should not have to embrace a plethora of goals and targets that are unrealistic for them in the short term. A country should adopt goals that are within its reach and for which it can exercise full agency, using external financing as a temporary bridge if needed.
We still need lead agencies for EFA: Global partners, meanwhile, should focus on building international consensus and providing support/funding for “enhanced” goals and targets relating to global imperatives like equity, quality, rights, sustainability, voice, resilience etc., which both shape and are shaped by education.
On this basis, partners should work with countries at the national level to agree on enhanced goals and targets that may be out of reach now, but deemed to be pivotal for EFA and national development in the long run. The role of external EFA agency therefore is twofold:
Firstly it is to use such expertise and resources as may be needed to support national efforts around effective and efficient service delivery in education. This is about providing a bridge to help countries get over service delivery obstacles, and countries will require such support for a limited time.
The second and more critical priority for external agency is to accompany countries as they tackle the more enhanced goals/targets that concern agreed global imperatives. This is akin to the role of an experienced/resourceful co-pilot providing support/guidance as needed. Key partners like UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank could be entrusted with funds to accompany countries on the path to success. As countries increase their competencies and capacities they can also be progressively weaned off this type of external support for EFA.
We have learnt that these major EFA partners will need to reinvent themselves constantly in order to justify such mandates through results. But we have also learned that EFA will not be achieved through a proliferation of initiatives and partnerships at the global level. Ultimately we will still need a select group of lead agencies to step up and stand out from the crowd. This bifurcated model, whereby countries and partners focus on what is within their respective agency and capacity, would enhance a post-2015 agenda in many ways.