A better start? A progress check on donor funding for pre-primary education and early childhood development

A boy enjoys free play during a Early Childhood lesson run by Theirworld partner Children on the Edge.

Eight in 10 of the world’s poorest children – almost 50 million boys and girls - are missing out on vital education in the first few years of their life because of a chronic lack of funding in pre-primary education.

A Better Start

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Key facts about the crisis

  • Eight out of 10 children in the world’s poorest countries don’t receive pre-primary education at all. That’s nearly 50 million children.
  • Less than 1% of the global education aid budget goes to pre-primary education.
  • 8 of the world’s top 30 donors to education give nothing to pre-primary education.


For too long, world leaders have ignored the education needs of young children.

Covid-19 has devastated education systems, shutting down schools for extended periods, and affecting 1.6 billion children worldwide at its peak (UNESCO 2021).

Yet even before the pandemic hit, 175 million children — or just under half of the world’s pre-primary-school-aged children — were already out of pre-primary education. In low-income countries, as many as eight out of 10 pre-primary-school-aged children were missing out on early years’ education. The world’s poorest and most marginalised children were already being left behind, a trend that the pandemic is sadly amplifying.

We cannot let this continue.

The first five years of a child’s life are among the most important for their long-term development. Two years of high-quality pre-primary school has a far-reaching impact for children. Those that attend consistently do better in reading, writing and arithmetic, and have more chance of staying in school or avoiding repeating school years. Research has shown that children denied this opportunity are at risk of falling behind before they even start primary school (UNICEF 2019).

None of this is new. A growing body of evidence continues to underscore the importance of pre-primary education for ensuring equitable, efficient education systems. This is why Theirworld has persistently called on international donors and governments to invest at least 10% of education spending in the early years. This target is the absolute minimum world leaders need to support if we are to have a chance of achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal related to education.

The challenge the pandemic poses to children’s long-term futures renews the urgency of this challenge. Major efforts are underway to invest trillions of dollars into the global economy in response to Covid-19. However, Theirworld has calculated that the international community will need to mobilise a minimum of US$75 billion annually — even after governments maximise their domestic investment in education — to ensure all children receive a quality education by 2030 (Theirworld 2021).

If we are to ensure children’s futures, we have to be smart with this investment. We know that the returns from investing in pre-primary education do pay off. For every dollar put into the early years, leaders can expect a dividend of $17 in return. Across sub-Saharan Africa, every dollar spent towards tripling pre-primary education enrolment would yield a $33 return on investment (Theirworld 2019).

Yet on average across all countries receiving aid, each pre-primary school-aged child was allocated just 34 cents in 2019.

The pandemic is forcing us to rethink what is possible. We cannot simply go back to the way things were. The onus is now on world leaders to put investment in pre-primary education at the heart of an education-led Covid recovery strategy.

This report focuses on aid trends to pre-primary education using data reported by donors to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as Overseas Development Assistance. It updates our analysis from our 2019 Leaving the Youngest Behind report, which ranked donors’ performance on pre-primary education and looked at data from 2002 to 2016. The new report tracks whether donors are meeting Theirworld’s recommended target of investing at least 10% of their education aid budget on pre-primary education.

We found that some progress has been made, but starting from a very low base. Overall, the outlook is very mixed and many of the world’s poorest children are missing out on vital education in their first few years because of a woeful lack of investment.

We found that 6.4 million more children in low-income countries would have had access to one year of pre-primary education if donors had met the 10% spending target for just 12 months.

This equates to approximately 1 in 10 of the 60 million pre-primary-school aged children in low-income countries. World leaders can and should be doing much more.

Persistence in advocacy and evidence-sharing are showing some signs of paying off, however. Our analysis reveals that the overall share of education spending to pre-primary schooling has increased between 2015 and 2019, and is at a higher rate than education aid generally. Yet the $142.7 million invested in the early years still only accounts for 0.9% of overall spending in education. Aid donors need to be spending close to ten times more to reach Theirworld’s recommended 10% target.

Our analysis shows that aid to post-secondary education, which primarily benefits those from wealthier backgrounds, is 37 times larger than spending on pre-primary education.

The vast majority of investment is concentrated in a small handful of donors. In recent years UNICEF and the World Bank have significantly widened their early years policy aims. This is reflected in their prioritisation of spending to pre-primary education. As a result of their increased spending, the two institutions now account for 57% of overall donor investment in the early years. While positive, this leaves pre-primary education investment particularly vulnerable to shifts in policy and expenditure.

Although bilateral donors such as the United Kingdom and the United States have increased their priority to pre-primary education, other major education funders such as Canada, France and Germany have decreased their share.

Recognising that early years’ education alone is insufficient, the report also takes a look at investment in early childhood development (ECD), incorporating early years health and nutrition. As a proportion of total aid, ECD investment has decreased from 3.3% to 3.1% between 2015 and 2019.

Covid-19 implications for tracking donor spending

These data were only available up until 2019 at the time of writing, and so prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some preliminary estimates do suggest that total aid commitments from bilateral aid donors have contracted by 17% between 2019 and 2020 — the period when Covid-19 began to hit. Funding commitments by multilateral donors, on the other hand have increased by 31%, meaning that a growing share of aid is in the form of loans as opposed to grants (Development Initiatives, 2020). As an emergency response to the pandemic, the education sector received a very small share of total requests made through humanitarian appeals. Of the US$280 million requested for the sector, just US$14 million (or 5%) was funded (INEE, 2020).

The donors

Of the world’s top 30 donors to education, eight do not spend a single cent on pre-primary education, including the Netherlands, Qatar, Sweden and Saudi Arabia.

The US, France, Denmark and Germany are among the 16 countries that commit less than 0.5% of their education aid budget to pre-primary education. The UK devotes 1.1%, closely behind Italy (1.8%), Belgium (1.9%), the Czech Republic and South Korea (2.2%).

Of all donor countries, only UNICEF and the Global Partnership for Education, one of the major funds for education in lower-income countries, meet Theirworld’s recommended target of investing at least 10% education aid budgets in pre-primary education. They are followed by Education Cannot Wait, a dedicated fund for crisis situations (8.6%), and New Zealand (6.7%). The World Bank is next, but some way behind (3.8%).

Note: 24 donors are not included on this graph as they do not spend anything on pre-primary education. Of these, eight are amongst the top 30 donors to education.