As 2019 draws to a close and prompted by my colleague Julia Gillard’s recent blog, I would like to share my reflections on how to strengthen our collective action for accelerating progress towards SDG4.
Exactly a year ago, at the Global Education Meeting that UNESCO organized in Brussels following a series of regional consultations, we took stock of SDG4 progress. While countries have been making progress in adjusting their policies, our projections have shown that we are off track in terms of our quantitative targets.
On the sidelines, UNESCO organized a first informal meeting on the global education architecture with all key partners – among others UN agencies, the World Bank, and the Global Partnership for Education. We put on the table the urgent need to address the fragmentation of the sector. We all agreed that to accelerate national progress, we need to better align priorities, eliminate duplication of efforts and work towards reducing unhelpful competition for funding, often from the same set of donors.
Since then, I feel that we have moved the needle in the right direction. While progress remains to be made, the discourse today is more about strengthened collaboration around a set of common priorities. How did we get here?
At the second meeting of multilateral partners held in Paris in July 2019, alongside the G7-UNESCO conference on girls’ education, we looked at lessons learnt from the health sector in addressing similar fragmentation and challenges. Inspired by their strategy of triple A’s: alignment, acceleration and accountability, we formally established the Multilateral Education Platform (MEP).
This is a forum for strategic dialogue among now 13 key multilateral partners with a view to strengthening collective action. We agreed on a set of seven broad priority areas and at our third meeting during the UN General Assembly in September, we agreed to move ahead on one – namely the need for more coordinated financing of education data, under the Global Coalition for Education Data led by UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics.
Partners also agreed to support the initiative of the Special Envoy, Mr Gordon Brown, to establish a Global Education Forum (GEF) charged with attracting more high-level political support for education and corresponding funding increases. We accepted to co-chair and support this initiative, as we believe it can effectively complement the system in terms of advocacy and financial resources. We have to shake the world about the learning crisis – to which the Learning Poverty indicator is pointing. We are responsible for bringing a sense of urgency and putting education at the core of public debate. We need to convince political leaders and heads of state that educating their people is not a waste of resources but the best investment their governments can make.
The MEP will be reconvened by UNESCO in April 2020 alongside the spring meetings of the World Bank, to develop joint action in the other priority areas. I will propose at this meeting a mission-oriented approach to tackle the steepest challenges, including a set of benchmarks, and drawing on a tested record of success in the European Union that galvanized substantive funding for science and research.
While multilateral organizations need to – and will – eliminate fragmentation, country ownership is the necessary condition for appropriating the SDG agenda. This is why they make up the majority on the SDG-Education 2030 Steering Committee, alongside multilaterals and civil society. While the strategic muscle of this body needs to be strengthened, we should recognize its contribution to the High Level Political Forum’s review of SDG4, and its associated mechanisms operating at regional level, with their roadmaps, priorities and targets.
In other words, the Steering Committee represents the voice and heart of 195 countries and expresses their commitment to education. More than ever, this voice must speak loud and this heart must beat fast.
While prioritization is essential, we cannot afford to lose the vision of SDG4 and the shift of paradigm it brought from the Millennium Development Goals’ (MDGs) perspective. From quantity to quality, from access to learning outcomes, to basic education to lifelong learning, from education for itself to education for development.
The world has moved on from MDG2. It adopted a global holistic agenda for education in 2015 to which all partners have committed in the interest of building more resilient and inclusive societies.
In a rapidly changing world context, an increasing number of countries are recognizing the crucial importance of lifelong learning, technical and vocational skills, and higher education – and for the youth of today and tomorrow, especially in Africa.
Higher education is a case in point. In November, at UNESCO’s General Conference, over 100 education ministers concurred on the critical role of gearing higher education around SDG solutions. I heard one message loud and clear in a marathon of bilateral meetings I had with them: we will not succeed in our development if we do not develop the higher education systems of our least developed countries.
The Ministers highlighted the essential contribution that higher education can make to the goals of poverty reduction and inclusive economic growth, universal health coverage, modern agriculture, resilient infrastructure and environmental preservation. They also emphasised higher education’s support to the rest of the education system through the training of effective teaching staff, curriculum development and educational research.
What’s more, they unanimously adopted the first ever Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications, a milestone in facilitating academic mobility across regions and recognition of studies carried out abroad. This includes recognition of qualifications of refugees and vulnerable migrants through a “Qualifications passport” that is currently being piloted.
Likewise, we will not succeed if we do not ensure that youth are learning the skills they need for the ever-shifting world of work. We believe that TVET is one of main areas that the education sector needs to develop to ensure sustainable development. It therefore remains a high priority for us and we also support Generation Unlimited as an important and ambitious initiative launched and led by UNICEF. It is based on strong partnerships and knowledge sharing and expertise about this critical topic.
How then to prioritize? At global level, the strategy is clear. We prioritize leaving no one behind. Geographically, it means giving priority to Africa. We know that this is where two thirds of the $39 billion annual funding gap is. UNESCO is placing Africa first, doubling its budget for this region and placing special attention to training teachers in Africa. Teachers are one of the seven priorities of the MEP.
From the target group perspective, our priority goes to those furthest behind, whether we talk about gender, forcibly displaced people or children with disabilities. At UNESCO, we will therefore be giving increasing emphasis to education for refugees and vulnerable migrants and crisis affected countries, in close cooperation with Education Cannot Wait. We recently scaled up our work on education for girls and women, and launched “Her Education, Our Future”. This covers a full spectrum from better data, better policy and legislative frameworks to better learning opportunities including by targeted interventions on STEM for girls and women. The last Global Education Monitoring Report focused on migration and the next will be on inclusion.
Let us continue together, recalling that 195 Member States – which have the primary responsibility for the implementation of SDG4 – entrusted UNESCO with the role to lead and monitor this agenda as part of the Framework for Action adopted in 2015. In this capacity, UNESCO serves as the Secretariat of the SDG–Education 2030 Steering Committee, convenes the MEP, and co-chairs the GEF.
As UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Education, I am determined to tirelessly continue doing bolder and better, to strengthen partnership and join forces in making education the transformative force it has to become for the future we want, together.
Article by Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education, UNESCO
*This article was first published in World Education Blog