Education May Not Be a Very Sustainable Development Goal By Steven J. Klees

September 2015

By Steven J. Klees, University of Maryland.

Goal4In a world where social and economic goals set by the international community have been ubiquitous, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) stand out.  With their about-to-be-approved by the United Nations 17 goals and 169 targets, these successors to the 8-goal Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) include ambitious efforts to end hunger and poverty, reduce inequalities, achieve gender equality, combat climate change, promote sustainable development, and improve infrastructure, sanitation, health, and education.  The education goal states: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”  This is further broken down into a number of targets.  There are at least three important concerns.  The first two concerns raise questions about the seriousness of this effort, and the third concern questions the means to achieve these goals.

First, despite good intentions and much effort, can these goals and targets be seen as serious efforts?  In education, neither of the two education MDGs proposed in 2000 were achieved by their target date of 2015.  One was to attain Universal Primary Education (UPE) and the other to achieve gender parity in enrollment.  But the history of broken promises goes back much further.  Both of these goals were part of the 155-country Education for All (EFA) compact that was signed in 1990 with a target date of 2000.  Midway through the decade, in a relatively secret process, these and other EFA goals were unceremoniously postponed until 2015 (this was before the establishment of the MDGs).  And the history of broken promises goes back further still.  UPE has been pledged by a number of international conferences since the 1960s.  Yet there are still 58 million primary school-age children out of school (and even more at the secondary school level).  Now, both EFA and the MDGs are kicking the can down the road once more, postponing UPE and other goals to 2030.

Second, the most fundamental reason why UPE and other education goals have not been achieved is the unwillingness of the international community to supply the resources needed.  Education is not rocket science.  UPE has been within reach for decades.  Studies of resources from nations’ domestic financing and international donor country contributions (Overseas Development Aid or ODA) showed an annual global shortfall of $22 billion to attain the 2015 education MDGs and EFA goals and project a $39 billion annual shortfall to attain the 2030 education SDGs.  In the 2000 follow up meeting to EFA in Dakar, James Wolfensohn, then president of the World Bank, pledged that no country committed to attaining the EFA goals would be kept from meeting them by a lack of finance.  The World Bank reneged on that promise.  After a few years, it set up the Fast Track Initiative (FTI) in an attempt to respond to the promise it made in Dakar but FTI was plagued by problems and a lack of sufficient resources.   FTI was revamped and transformed into the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), but, to date, they have only managed to put together donor financing totaling about $.5 billion annually, 80 times less than will be needed to make the education SDGs a reality.  Given present efforts, projections show UPE will not be achieved until 2086, if then.  While there is talk of developing innovative financing mechanisms, studies of private sector contributions have shown it to be small in scale, self-interested, uncoordinated, and misdirected, and the billionaire philanthropists have put relatively little money into education.  It should be noted that no one has renewed Wolfensohn’s EFA pledge with respect to the SDGs.

A third concern is that given this dismal state of affairs, much hope is being focused on having private schools take up the slack.  While, until recently, private schooling has been mostly for the relatively rich, there has been an expansion of what have been called Low Fee Private Schools (LFPS).  Multilateral agencies like the World Bank and bilateral agencies like the U.K.’s DfID have been promoting and financing these efforts.  However, these schools are not cheap for poor people who often confront a choice between private education and necessary expenses for food and health, especially when they have several children.  Research has shown most of these private schools to be of very low quality.  The reason many poor parents choose a private school is because 30+ years of market fundamentalism has so decimated governments and, consequently, public schools that sometimes they are worse.  The answer is not to privatize a public good, further stratify education and increase inequalities, but to fully fund public schools and these private schools will go out of business like they should.  It may be privately rational to send your child to a private school, but supporting this in any way is bad public policy, and makes a mockery of broad international agreement on every child’s right to fee-free quality education.

So once again, the international community talks a good game but pushes success far into the future, is unwilling to put up the money necessary to make it happen, and tries to abrogate public responsibility for achieving its goals.  GPE has been emphasizing the need for countries to increase domestic financing of education, but there is little possibility that this can generate sufficient resources for the education goals, let alone all the other SDGs.  What is needed are for the rich countries to live up to their pledge made decades ago to devote 0.7% of GNI to development aid and to initiate global tax mechanisms for generating resources, a call that, unfortunately, went unheeded at the recent Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa.  As the SDGs adoption is upon us, the international community needs to put into place measures to ensure these new promises do not, once again, go unfulfilled.


Steven J. Klees is the R. W. Benjamin Professor of International and Comparative Education at the University of Maryland. Email:

An earlier version of this blog first appeared on 23rd September 2015 on the Project Syndicate blog.

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