UN education initiative is chance to show multilateralism is not dead

All things considered, the United Nations could have chosen a better week to launch an initiative designed to raise $10bn to invest in global education.


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “With or without Trump, we must back UN’s education drive” was written by Larry Elliott, for The Guardian on Monday 14th May 2018 08.40 UTC

All things considered, the United Nations could have chosen a better week to launch an initiative designed to raise bn to invest in global education. That this is not exactly a golden age for multilateralism was underlined last week when Donald Trump decided that the US was going to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal despite strong lobbying from Germany, France and the UK. Trump has his own way of doing things and for the most part that involves unravelling the legacy of his predecessor.

Barack Obama signed up for the Paris climate change deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) and the accord that lifted sanctions on Iran, and Trump has said all three suck and need to be renegotiated. The current White House only sees a merit in internationalism when it clearly furthers the president’s America First agenda. This is a high-risk strategy. The US is already on the brink of a trade war with China that could easily develop into a currency war. There have already been ramifications in the Middle East from the unpicking of the Iran deal.

The US has not completely given up on multilateralism. Trump initially seemed reluctant to give the go-ahead for a bn capital increase for the World Bank that would allow the Washington-based organisation to lend more. In the end, the Bank got its money – but only once it had agreed to reforms that would make borrowing more expensive for China.

Even so, the rest of the world can no longer take for granted that the US will play a pivotal role in any attempts to craft multilateral solutions to global problems. For 70 years, American presidents took the view that multilateralism – even when flawed – served US interests. That is no longer always the case. And if the Americans are not prepared to participate, there is a risk that the whole system will start to unravel. No other country is really prepared to take up the role of global leadership.

Which is why the new UN education initiative – the International Finance Facility for Education – is significant. Unveiled in New York last Friday, the idea is being championed by the former prime minister Gordon Brown, now the UN special envoy for global education.

Brown proved mightily effective when he was chancellor between 1997 and 2007 as an advocate for international cooperation on development. Even then, in the pre-financial crisis days, getting rich countries to agree to debt relief or to increase their aid budgets was not easy. The climate is a lot more difficult now than it was at Gleneagles in 2005 when the G8 summit agreed to write off poor-country debt and double aid spending.

In the much gentler environment of the early 2000s, countries joined together to launch the Global Fund to fight Aids, TB and malaria, and the vaccine alliance Gavi – both of which saved millions of lives. The new UN facility hopes to have the same sort of impact in education.

The scheme involves donor countries devoting more of their aid budgets to education but also providing guarantees that would allow the World Bank and the regional development banks to leverage up their lending for education. The UN believes that bn of guarantees will lead to an additional bn of investment and that reaching its bn target is feasible.

Extra spending is certainly needed. There are more than 260 million children and young people not in school. Dropout rates in poor countries are so high that half a billion children either abandon primary school or learn very little. About one in 10 of the world’s population is illiterate and in 20 countries in Africa and Asia more than half the people cannot read or write.

This is all happening at a time when the world of work is about to be transformed by robotics and artificial intelligence. Nobody knows for sure what the AI revolution will mean for jobs but even those who are most bullish about its impact accept that those who will adapt best are likely to be the skilled and the well educated.

One of the UN’s sustainable development goals is that by 2030 every child should complete primary and secondary education. On current trends, that target is going to be missed by a mile and, in any event, slightly misses the point. It is not only the quantity but also the quality of education that needs to be addressed. Learning standards in a low or lower-middle income country are 100 years behind those in the developed world – and that divide is going to widen if the current trends persist.

The traditional development route was for countries to move their people out of the fields and into the factories, where they would produce low-cost goods for export. However, in the future, the route out of poverty will be education-led growth – and that is going to be expensive.

There is not the slightest prospect that low and lower-middle income countries can fund the necessary investment in education out of their own meagre resources. Meanwhile, the share of international aid being spent on education has fallen over the past decade – from 13% to 10%.

On past form, it would be unwise to assume that Trump will support the UN initiative. But other rich countries certainly should because there will be consequences if the scheme fails.

One will be mass migration because people in poor countries want the lifestyle they see in rich countries and if they cannot get it at home they will move to somewhere else. But they will also be spurning an opportunity to show that multilateralism is not dead.

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