“We must never tire of promoting the evidence – education is fundamental to fighting poverty, improving lives and empowering girls”

Irina Bokova Main Image Logo
Irina Bokova has been the Director-General of UNESCO since 2009 (UN)

Barriers to education, Children in conflicts, Discrimination of marginalised children, Early childhood development, Education Cannot Wait, Education funding, Education in emergencies, Girls' education, Right to education, Safe Schools Declaration, Sustainable Development Goals, The Education Commission, Theirworld

In the first of a series featuring leading figures in global education, we talk to UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova about the G20 summit, funding, education in emergencies, girls' education and early childhood development.

Irina Bokova has been the Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) since 2009.  

She is the first woman and the first Eastern European to lead the organisation. In 2016 she was designated one of the world’s most influential women by the Forbes List. Bokova began her career at the United Nations and was Bulgaria’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, as well as Bulgarian ambassador to France.

As Director-General of UNESCO, she works to advance education across the world. UNESCO’s mission is to “contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information”.

Here – in an interview with Theirworld writer Billy Briggs – Irina Bokova talks about the upcoming G20 summit and other issues affecting global education.

What needs to be done at the G20 summit in Germany this week to improve aid funding for education?

Even if it remains the main source of financing education, domestic expenditure in low and lower middle income countries cannot cover the costs of reaching Sustainable Development Goal(the promise of quality education for all).

Aid must make up the shortfall. G20 countries must be called upon to live up to the commitment of the 0.7% target for official development assistance (ODA) and ensure that education receives an appropriate share to meet the challenges of access, quality and equity.

While most developing countries need support, the G20 countries should target those countries most in need – the "hardest-to-reach", including many fragile and conflict-affected states.

While the G20 has not identified education as a priority area, it is committed to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The G20 must be called on to include education in its three priority pillars – building resilience, improving sustainability and assuming responsibility.

Above all, we must never tire of promoting the evidence: education is fundamental to sustainable economic growth and the achievement all the SDGs – for fighting poverty, improving lives, reducing inequalities, empowering girls and safeguarding the planet.

UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report 2016 provides in-depth evidence of the catalytic impact of education across societies.

While most developing countries need support, the G20 countries should target those countries most in need – the “hardest-to-reach”, including many fragile and conflict-affected states.

Given the critical role of education in economic and social development, G20 support and expertise must focus attention towards the whole education spectrum, especially secondary education, technical and vocational education and issues of global citizenship. This is well in line with the broadened educational mandate of SDG4.

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Irina Bokova with children from UNESCO’s World Heritage Marine Sites who are working to save oceans (Irina Bokova / Twitter)

A UNESCO report last month showed that education’s share of aid funding fell six years in a row – why do you think that has happened?

From UNESCO’s perspective, and because of education’s crucial role in unlocking sustainable development, this trend is cause for great concern. From a donor’s perspective, it is true that investments in education do not yield fast results – systemic change takes time beyond classic electoral cycles.

Health consistently receives a far greater share of total aid than education, with vaccination campaigns, for example, appearing far more tangible than teachers’ salaries and school infrastructure. The transport sector – once receiving only two-thirds the share that education received – now receives the same or more.

Although total aid has increased by 24% since 2010, it has decreased by 4% to education. This is partly because some large traditional bilateral donors to the sector are withdrawing.

The Netherlands, for example, now gives just 20% of the aid to education it allocated in 2010.

In 2015, the United States and United Kingdom – the two biggest donors to basic education – reduced their aid by 11% and 9% respectively. 

The poorest countries need longer-term support to ensure universal primary and secondary education and relevant learning. Donors must not turn their back on them now.

Multilaterals and a few bilateral donors who are not part of the OECD-Development Assistance Committee, such as the United Arab Emirates, are starting to fill the space, but not fast enough to reverse global trends.

You say that donors are shifting their attention away from poorest countries. Why is that and what can be done to change that?

Many donors are now turning their attention to middle income countries – several conflict-affected countries fall into this category, including Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, which we know are in dire need of support.

The fact that aid to education in Northern Africa and Western Asia has risen from 5% in 2002 to 22% in 2015 illustrates this.

Unfortunately, however, another truth also plays into this trend – the poorest countries have the furthest distance to travel in education, which in turn translates into more challenging policy environments and capacity building requirements, and slower results in return for aid received.

Short-term need should not be the only determinant for aid. The poorest countries need longer-term support to ensure universal primary and secondary education and relevant learning. Donors must not turn their back on them now.  

Unesco Social Media Graphic On Education

You are a co-convener of the Education Commission, the global group of leaders and experts who investigated how to tackle the lack of funding for education. What is the biggest lesson you learned during the investigation and the production of the Learning Generation report?

My experience with the Education Commission has reinforced my firm belief that education saves lives, creates hope and sustainability in all development. It is imperative that we redouble our efforts to increase financing for education domestically and internationally to deliver on the promise of a sustainable future for all.

The commission succeeded in bringing a broad array of constituents on board – within and beyond education circles. It is now actively following up on its recommendations.

A key lesson is that deep transformations are required to nurture and empower this Learning Generation. We cannot, in all conscience, accept that today almost a quarter of a billion children and young people are out of school.

At the same time, we need to multiply efforts at improving quality of education with all that it encompasses in terms of teaching, contents and innovation. A situation where millions of children attend school for years but fail to read a single word or count is intolerable.

I welcome the commission’s focus on expanding quality education for all while prioritising the poor and disadvantaged – leaving no one behind is at the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

I welcome its focus on transformations around performance, innovation, inclusion and financing. All this calls for radical shifts and a much broader and innovative focus spanning the whole education spectrum and different pathways to learning.

We have to work together to drive political will and action to ensure that every girl and boy and young person secures the right to education and skills. Only then can we collectively across the globe eliminate poverty, inequality and instability, and overcome the perils of climate change, disease and extremism.

I wish to highlight the role played by the Global Business Coalition for Education and Theirworld in building momentum and forging new partnerships to bridge the humanitarian-to-development divide.

With attacks on schools happening around the world and 75 million children having education disrupted by emergencies each year, what can be done to provide safe schools for children?

In the face of a tragic escalation in attacks on education, every measure must be taken to keep schools and universities safe for children and students to continue learning, even in the most adverse circumstances.

Education is key to development and prosperity, and peace and stability will be short-lived if it is threatened or denied.

The Education Cannot Wait fund, launched just over a year ago at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, is breaking new ground in advocating, raising funds and acting rapidly to deliver education to children and youth in conflict-affected situations. UNESCO is strongly committed to this effort and I commend Gordon Brown (the UN Special Envoy for Global Education) here for his energetic leadership.

I also wish to highlight the role played by the Global Business Coalition for Education and Theirworld in building momentum and forging new partnerships to bridge the humanitarian-to-development divide.

States can commit to ensuring safe education, accelerate economic and social development, and entrench peace and security by endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration, an international political commitment to protect students, teachers, schools and universities from attack.

The declaration suggests a range of practical steps that states can take to mitigate the risk that students in conflict face when they try to continue their education. Central among these is the commitment to ensure that schools and universities are not used by armed forces or groups in the course of their operations.

As of the beginning of June 2017, 66 States have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration.

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The UNESCO chief talks to a student in Bahrain (Irina Bokova / Twitter)

What should the international community be doing more generally to ensure girls get a quality education and avoid falling into child marriage or child labour?

Early marriage, traditional seclusion practices that restrict girls’ travel to schools, preferential treatment of boys in families’ education investments and the gendered division of household labour – all these entrenched discriminatory social norms are hampering girls’ access to education.

Once in school, learning contents, teaching practices and attitudes, together with unsuitable and unsafe learning environments – and school-related gender-based violence – compromise girls’ schooling journey, their educational choices and achievement and, consequently, their work and life opportunities.

To overcome inequality and injustice, we need to widen the lens by acting on all factors that marginalise girls and hijack their educational journey. Child labour must be tackled through an integrated approach that includes universal education and measures to reduce poverty and to promote social and economic development.

From ensuring school safety and gender-responsive teaching and curricula through to community awareness-raising and advocacy, the gamut of interventions must span the social and political spectrum in order to succeed.

Together, we must ensure a better life and a better future for girls to nurture gender equality in education as an essential strategy for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

This is the thrust of UNESCO’s Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education that has led to new alliances with the private sector, as well as our joint programme with UN Women and UNFPA (the United Nations Population Fund).

Ensuring two years of universal pre-primary education, recommended by the Education Commission, is crucial for children’s educational success.

The Education Commission says that two years of free, quality preschool should be provided for every child. How important is early childhood development to the overall education of children – and how can that be funded?

Early childhood is a period when the most significant brain development occurs and children begin to develop cognitively, socially and emotionally, nurturing the very foundation of lifelong learning and wellbeing.

Ensuring two years of universal pre-primary education, recommended by the Education Commission, is crucial for children’s educational success, especially for those with special learning needs.

With quality early care and education – enabled by adequate health care and nutrition, caring and responsive relationships, and meaningful learning experiences – children are well prepared to take up new challenges in primary school and to continue education with confidence.

If we are serious about children’s education, we cannot afford to postpone investments in children. This is a key message of a recent UNESCO publication Investing against Evidence: the Global State of Early Childhood Care and Education, which calls for reversing the trends of low public investments in the area.

Funding early childhood development is a key challenge, especially in low-resources contexts. The Global Education Monitoring Report finds that both developed and developing countries spend visibly less on pre-primary education than primary education. Only 2% percent of aid allocated to basic education is dedicated to pre-primary education, according to OECD-DAC data.

There are a number of approaches being used to stimulate innovative financing for early childhood care and education.

For example, in the Philippines, a tax on gaming corporations supports the National Child Development Centres for 0-4 year-olds. Cuna Más in Peru – a child-care and home visiting service – employs results-based financing. While such innovations are welcome, we need to work harder to increase the levels of public investments within the education, protection and health sectors, as well as donor financing for early childhood programmes.

Education ministries and development partners cannot sideline early childhood development.

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