By Aaron Benavot and Manos Antoninis
The 2015 World Education Forum (WEF) took place last week at the Incheon Free Economic Zone, Republic of Korea. Set among impressive glass skyscrapers built on reclaimed land, the choice of venue was symbolic of the meteoric rise of a country, which was achieved in part thanks to an unswerving commitment to education.
That this was a world gathering was evident from the flags lining the main avenue. Smiling Ministers of Education also pinned special Lego flags next to their country on a world map. Tellingly the lack of flags from Europe and North America reminded everybody that hardly any minister from these regions was in attendance. With their absence questions lingered about the universality of the post-2015 agenda, one of its central defining characteristics. This is a pity, not least because both regions have valuable lessons to share with countries in other regions on many matters, including, for example, effective coordination and peer learning in education.
The WEF’s main achievement was a collective commitment embodied in the final Incheon Declaration to a single comprehensive education agenda within the framework of the sustainable development goals. And although complex negotiation processes at the UN since last year resulted in ten education targets whose formulation leaves much to be desired, one should not underestimate the fact that a commitment to equitable inclusive and quality education in a lifelong learning perspective now unites all countries until 2030. This outcome was far from given. Many obstacles were strewn along the way. It is to UNESCO’s credit that it managed to build consensus and steer the process to this result.
The Forum also filled a major gap: there was an agreement on global targets for domestic expenditure and aid to education, something that high income countries had previously opposed.
This does not mean that all differences were resolved, however. India, for example, objected to the fact that the Declaration made special mention to the role of the Global Partnership for Education. The controversy was over a mechanism whose aim is to promote donor coordination, a desirable outcome, but which is not governed by the same rules as other institutions in the global coordination architecture in education.
Many poorer countries also demanded that the text of the Declaration recognised their lower starting point. In a background paper to the World Education Forum, the GMR highlighted the significant differences in education development between regions, which impact their chances of meeting the post-2015 targets. But, as the chair of the EFA Steering Committee rightly suggested, the Declaration could not possibly differentiate between countries: the global targets apply to all and their achievement is a collective responsibility.
Equity in education opportunities is the centrepiece of the new agenda. As shown in our policy paper produced for the Forum based on the World Inequality Database on Education, the poorest children and youth face formidable obstacles as they try to access school, complete each level, and benefit in terms of learning outcomes from their schooling experience. How best to report on global, regional and national inequality trends is also a challenge; at the Forum the GMR put forward a proposal for coordination between agencies in this matter.
Many key concepts will remain contested, including for example, global citizenship, relevant learning outcome and gender equality. As international leaders acknowledged Korean achievements in education and reached consensus on a new agenda, expressions of dissent were heard both inside and outside the venue, by those whose aspire for less competitive and more humanistically oriented national education systems.
There was no lack of references to the GMR and its analyses. We were particularly pleased to listen to Anthony Lake, the Executive Director of UNICEF, refer in his keynote speech to the GMR’s calculation that 34 million more children went to school than would have been the case if the pre-2000 trends had continued, a true measure of the collective success since 2000. More importantly, the GMR’s official mandate from 2015-2030 was confirmed in the Incheon Declaration under the new name of Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR). And in the same week it was also recognised in New York as a key potential mechanism for thematic reviews of education, putting it on its way to become part of the global coordination architecture.
It was in that sense a little disappointing to read the NGO Forum declaration, which prioritised national data collection systems over the aspirations for internationally comparable data in education, which are also necessary to advance global progress. Some organisations expressed serious concerns with the idea of a globally comparable measure of learning, an issue that was particularly divisive: in one of the most interesting moments in Incheon, there were successive rounds of applause against and, later, in favour of PISA. But this debate over how best to measure learning should not undermine efforts to push for globally comparable data on the whole. Even in the case of learning, let us not forget how many NGOs have rallied behind the 250 million estimated children who did not reach minimum learning standards.
Having spent some time earlier last year interviewing some of the people who had actively participated in the Dakar World Education Forum in 2000, we thought who would one day most vividly convey the atmosphere in Incheon, for example in the way that Rosa Maria Torres did at the time. Would it be senior professionals in the field whose careers have taken them from Jomtien to Dakar to Incheon or perhaps young insiders who closely followed negotiated formulations among key education stakeholders in the past year? Or would the insights emerge from the few academics in attendance whose analytical skills might convey the powerful policy undercurrents at play – some palpable, others less so?
No sooner was the Forum closed than discussions were underway on how best to make the case for education at the Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa in July. The GMR’s updated analysis on the $39 billion annual finance gap for pre-primary to upper secondary education will no doubt be highly relevant for this meeting as well. On Friday and Saturday the Board of the Global Partnership for Education met to present preliminary proposals on its new three-year strategic plan on how to respond to country needs to finance the entire agenda of the education goal.
As we were leaving, we paused to look at the ambitious construction project at Incheon, which has not yet been completed partly because of the slowdown from the recent economic crisis that also hit the Republic of Korea. For the world to reach its ambitious education targets by 2030, we need a plan to overcome the many crises and obstacles that lie ahead.