This past week our team was in New York City for the UN General Assembly (UNGA), where nations and NGOs were meeting to take stock of the state of world, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and action on climate change.
At a time of much societal upheaval and compounding crises, this UNGA provided a critical moment of reflection for the world and for our work at EDC to fortify progress toward the SDGs related to Education (Goal 4), Health (Goal 3), and Economic Opportunity (Goal 8).
Looking back on the flurry of meetings and events, I came away with three top-line messages:
1. We Need to Rescue the SDGs
In an emotional speech, UN Secretary General António Guterres issued a passionate call to “rescue” the SDGs. The current situation is dire as we are halfway to the target date of 2030. An assessment by the UN of the roughly 140 targets for which trend data are available shows that half of these targets are moderately or severely off track, and over 30 percent have either seen no movement or regressed below the 2015 baseline. In addition, the first global stocktake of progress toward the Paris Agreement presented an equally bleak picture.
Amid the urgent crises of climate change, migration, and hunger, there was a call to world leaders to not forget about the basic goals of education and health. In education, for example, the impacts of years of underinvestment and learning losses are such that, by 2030, some 84 million children will be out of school, and 300 million young people attending school will leave unable to read and write. The number of young people unable to thrive in the economy and society due to a lack of basic secondary literacy and numeracy skills has been estimated at more than 800 million by 2030.
2. No Rescue Plan Without a Financing Plan
At least half of virtually every speech by the heads of states was about the need for financing. It was also a centerpiece of the SDG Summit Political Statement, which noted a deep concern for the marked increase in the SDG financing gap and issued an urgent call for “predictable, sustainable and sufficient development finance to developing countries from all sources.”
We engaged with global leaders and helped bring together ministers and heads of international agencies at the bi-annual Global Education Forum (GEF), a meeting of bilateral and multilateral donors in global education. The need to urgently address the declining trend in support for global education was a central topic of the GEF. At a time when aid to education is needed most, official development assistance for the sector is falling. Aid to education fell by 7 percent from 2020 to 2021 and, in Sub-Saharan Africa, by 20 percent.
The GEF also highlighted that, despite best efforts, domestic public spending on education is far too low to meet national education goals. Many countries that meet international benchmarks on the share of public spending that goes to education still spend very little per school-age child due to their small state budget and large youth populations. Expenditures per child per year average $56 in low-income countries, $341 in lower-middle income countries, and $8,515 in high-income countries. This surely makes a mockery of SDG4.
So what can we do?
GEF participants agreed to work together to build a new narrative to reanimate the case for investment in education and specifically how education connects to other global challenges. For example, education plays a key role in the skill-building necessary to prepare youth for future economies shaped by climate change, evolving technologies, trade and migration, and public health. We must seek out opportunities to bring education into these conversations as a critical piece of the puzzle.
A new financing plan must include a radical rethink of the way we work together and leverage scarce resources, a central theme of the Bridgetown Agenda spearheaded by Barbados prime minister (and former minister of education) Mia Mottley. GEF members agreed to do their part in championing initiatives aimed at transforming education finance, including innovative financing initiatives (e.g. GPE Multiplier, the International Finance Facility for Education (IFFEd) and the Education Outcomes Fund (EOF)), and identifying opportunities for cross-sectoral resource mobilization. A notable announcement at the meetings on this front was the £180 million commitment by the UK to IFFEd, which will unlock US$1 billion in new financing for education in lower-middle income countries.
3. Much Hope in New Solutions
It is easy to get discouraged in the midst of it all, but the chaos of this week also surfaced a feeling of hope and opportunity. It provided fuel for many new conversations about solutions that can be scaled to make more rapid progress. In many of our meetings, we heard member states and leaders commit to progressive investment strategies that will ensure no person is left behind. At least four ideas, which are also the focus of attention at EDC, stood out in the meetings I participated in:
1. Invest in the early years. The need to invest in early education attracted much attention with the appearance of a famous tennis star, and the Campaign to Act for Early Years gained further momentum. New solutions were also highlighted in a new paper launched by the Education Outcomes Fund, and they are also the subject of much of EDC’s work in the United States and globally to address persistent coordination challenges.
2. Scale up youth skilling and entrepreneurship programs, especially in the poorest parts of the world, to drive a climate-adapted and green economy. This topic was central for the high-level panel at the Africa Climate Summit co-hosted by EDC, the Government of Germany, and First Lady of Kenya HE Ruto, and it carried forward into many of our discussions at UNGA, including the BeGreen launch event and meetings around EDC’s Our World, Our Work initiative. The link between climate and education was also discussed by education organizations championing the Teachers for the Planet initiative.
3. Ensure that every child has access to a nutritious school meal. There is a powerful global momentum behind school meal programs, with southern governments playing a leadership role through the School Meals Coalition. The Coalition brings together over 80 governments and international partners working to expand the reach and quality of school feeding programs. EDC is strongly engaged in this initiative through the Sustainable Finance Initiative, and we will participate actively in the Ministerial Meeting on School Meals hosted by President Macron in Paris next month.
4. Focus on public and mental health. The meetings called out the mental health crisis affecting one in four people globally and highlighted new solutions to strengthen systems of care (as only one in five people globally are able to access the care they need). EDC work promotes a holistic approach, including interventions that build social-emotional and coping skills to boost resilience and prevent mental health concerns.
There is much to be done in the wake of UNGA. Together with our partners, EDC is committed as always to driving forward these next steps in education, health and workforce development. We hope you can join us as we continue the conversation at events later this year, including the Ministerial on School Meals in Paris in October and the Climate Meetings in Dubai in November.
|Liesbet Steer is president and CEO of EDC, directing the organization’s major programmatic and business activities.|
Photo credit: United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks at the opening session of the second Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit on September 18, 2023 ahead of the 78th UN General Assembly. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)