Follow the Money

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When it comes to global efforts to help finance free, universally accessible quality education for all in poorer nations, the news is not encouraging.

In a series of global accords in this century, hundreds of countries vowed to support sustainable development where the needs were greatest including hunger, health, poverty, and education.

Now, in what it called a “wake-up call” on the prospects for meeting what became the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the OECD says that “external finance — which many developing countries continue to depend on heavily — has been going down, largely due to the drop in private flows, and coordination remains poor.”

Among those “private flows” are domestic resources, primarily taxes. But the report says, “tax revenues in low-income and least-developed countries average just 14% of GDP, less than half the OECD country level of 34% and below the 15% that is the recommended minimum for effective state functioning.”

Where does that leave these distressed nations? What happens to countries plagued by disinvestment and tax avoidance when they fail to meet even the minimum for effective functioning as a nation?

We know some of the answers from a global survey of our member unions that represent more than 30 million teachers and other educators in 171 countries.

The report reveals common challenges faced by teachers in education systems worldwide including precarious contracts, inadequate teaching tools and high levels of stress. Only one in three teachers report having access to professional development and most see what they have as poor quality and little value. Respondents voiced need for support particularly when it came to teaching students with special needs, followed by the development of their ICT skills and gender and sexuality training.

In many of the same countries cited by the OECD, teachers experience a variety of conditions that make their schools unsafe. One would assume that a critical safety issue is violence in schools, especially gender-based violence. And it is: half the survey respondents said violence between students and by students against teachers is a major issue.

But 64 percent noted the main source of danger, especially for females, is the lack of access to adequate infrastructure, including drinking water, latrines and other critical facilities. Aside from health implications, the conditions create a safety problem as females must in many instances, walk significant distances to access facilities. Nearly 80 percent of African unions report that their members are required to travel long distances just to collect their pay. In several parts of the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, teachers must often hold multiple jobs to care for their families.

To most of us looking at severely ailing education systems, a critical public good and human right, what looks like an opportunity to be constructive is, to others, an invitation to be disruptive, to move fast and break things. Eyeing these distressed nations as “emerging markets,” where 90 percent of the world’s under-30 population lives, edupreneurs are working on global influencers and agencies to grow an education technology market to a value of more than $250 billion by 2020.

In its latest pitch for schemes to replace teachers with screens, The Economist warned that “old technologies of books, classrooms and teachers have proved startlingly resilient,” but said the time is right for “scarce resources” to be diverted to EdTech, especially in developing countries where the case could best be sold.

The selling has been especially fast and furious from Bridge Academies, the US-based chain of private schools operating mostly in Africa. The schools employ screen-minders who read scripted lessons to students shown to be current in their fees. In one account, “58 per cent of pupils interviewed reported that they had missed school due to non-payment of fees…91.5 per cent of parents admitted that they opted not to send all of their children to the schools, as they lacked sufficient funds. The vast majority of parents had difficulty paying rent, providing food, or accessing healthcare due to the effects of fees.”

Out-resourced, but far from outnumbered, proponents of free quality education and government accountability are fighting back. Earlier this month, after exposes about the role of The World Bank and the Department for International Development (DfID) of the United Kingdom, the European Parliament ruled that “the European Union and the Member States…must not use ODA (overseas development assistance) to support private, commercial educational establishments.”

But the pressure to abandon support of fragile states and their education systems remains intense. The EU decision comes as the Global Partnership for Education, the international fund dedicated to supporting education in developing countries, actively considers financing non-state actors, in effect, transferring taxpayer funds intended for the well-being of children to private investors. Clearly, the fight is only beginning.