By Mariela Buonomo Zabaleta, Programme Specialist, IIEP


The new education-related Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4) will require a substantial mobilization of resources: human, physical and financial, from domestic and international sources. As stated in the declaration of the Education 2030 Framework for Action, which was adopted by 184 Member States in 2015, this means “sustained, innovative and well-targeted financing and efficient implementation arrangements, especially in those countries furthest from achieving quality education for all at all levels and in emergency situations". However, this will not come without a challenge. Insufficient funding was one of the major hurdles to achieving Education for All (EFA). With education now a cornerstone of the SDGs, financing and planning for this broader, more holistic vision of education will require a renewed commitment from governments, smart resource allocation, defined priorities and improved data on what is being spent and how.

Ensuring free primary and secondary education 

The pledge for free primary education in the EFA goals resonated in many developing countries. Households bear both direct and indirect costs of schooling, creating a barrier to education in many countries. Since the Dakar conference in 2000, several governments have reduced the cost barrier by eliminating fees for attending primary education. This had an immediate impact on overall enrolment, particularly among disadvantaged groups, such as girls and orphans. The lessons derived from the implementation of this strategy are all the more relevant for the new agenda, as it aims to reach 12 years of free, publicly funded primary and secondary education, and not only fee-free schooling.

Governments have the main responsability for providing equitable financing 

The right to education cannot be achieved without a clear commitment from governments to mobilize financial resources. The international community supports a benchmark of allocating at least 4 per cent to 6 per cent of GDP to education, and/or devoting at least 15 per cent to 20 per cent of public expenditure to education. Although country realities vary, increased and improved domestic financing for education is key for reaching SDG 4. But as much as the overall level matters, the way governments invest in education can also make a difference. 

Empirical research on the links between financial resources and learning outcomes has revealed that what matters most is how resources are spent – rather than how much. However, the mobilization of domestic resources will not suffice in many countries. As suggested by several cost projections for reaching SDG 4, some countries, particularly low-income ones, will still require external funding sources to be able to make progress toward the targets. Education 2030 reaffirms the need for more effective aid, but also stresses South-South and triangular cooperation as means of implementation, as well as strengthening existing multi-stakeholder partnerships.

Adequate financing is not only about levels 

The priority given to the universality of educational quality in the new agenda is clear. The new framework considers quality as an integral part of the right to education, and this accent calls for more cohesive and systemic strategies and appropriate financial arrangements. Furthermore, resources should be allocated more equitably across regions and schools, and also be better targeted to address different forms of marginalization.

Implementation arrangements are equally important to achieve sector goals 

Some aspects of education financing are intuitive: schools need to be established and equipped, teachers and other staff need to be paid, and scholarships delivered. Other aspects do not figure prominently in news headlines, but have visible consequences on the ability of governments to fulfil education commitments. The budget might not be properly aligned with sector priorities, and even when the necessary resources are budgeted for, the actual execution level might be low due to institutional and capacity constraints. Delays in paying teacher salaries, for example, might lead not only to service disruption but also to lower motivation among education workers. There might be coordination challenges among the different actors - e.g. between the ministry of education and that of finance. And accountability of financing procedures and mechanisms can be weak, instead of transparent and effective. All of these aspects can have significant consequences on the ability of governments to provide education.

More and better financial data for evidence-based planning 

Many countries grapple with scant information on the full cost of education. Who finances education; how much is spent and on what; where do the funds go; who benefits; what are the unit costs? These are questions that cannot be answered without a comprehensive approach. To help implement a global practice of improved knowledge and reporting on education financing, IIEP (together with the IIEP Pôle de Dakar) has collaborated over the past three years with the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, with the support of the Global Partnership for Education, on a project aimed at developing national education accounts in eight countries. 

Evidence-based planning requires coherent and interlinked information systems, including financial, management, human resources and quality components. It also requires adequate capacity in budgeting, financial management and performance reporting. More reliable information systems would contribute to improved sector plan monitoring and also help in assessing the cost-effectiveness of alternative strategies to reach sector objectives. Only by taking into consideration the many facets of education financing can we truly fund an education system that will enable future generations to thrive.


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