#01 Aid to education: To the right destination?

Author: Thibaut Lauwerier
Update: 20.05.2019

This article focuses on the priorities of international cooperation in education, and it raises the question:


To answer this question, let us clarify the definition of aid: it is « material help given by one country to another »— and one « would expect aid to go to those most in need »1.

A positive point is that aid to education increased by 17% between 2015 and 2016 and reached its peak in 20162.

This increase has not been confirmed since between 2016 and 2017, this aid fell by 2% (-US$288 million). The budgets of governments in low-income countries are not particularly increasing to offset this decline9.

Let us look in particular at aid to basic education (Figure 1), which encompasses preschool, primary, early secondary, and adult literacy. Students acquire basic knowledge and skills, including literacy and numeracy. This period corresponds to what is internationally recognized as the time when schooling should be compulsory. Sixty-one million children in the world are still out of primary school, and tens of millions of those who attend school do not receive even the most basic education. Therefore, focusing on basic education further counterbalances the trend of previous years that was counterintuitive in terms of social justice, namely the high priority given to higher education.

However, while aid to this sector increased between 2015 and 2016 (Figure1), the overall decline between 2016 and 2017 was partly due to a lower allocation from the United Kingdom (-29%), much of which was for basic education.

Figure 1. Total aid to education disbursements, by level of education, 2002–2016 Source: GEMR-UNESCO (2018)


As UNESCO points out, many donor countries have not kept their promise to allocate 0.7% of their gross national income to foreign aid: « Doing just that and allocating 10% of that aid to primary and secondary education, would have been enough to fill the US$39 billion dollars annual financing gap »9. The Global Campaign for Education estimates that aid for preprimary, primary, and secondary education will have to increase by at least six times compared to the current situation, particularly in low- and lower-middle-income countries4.

In terms of priorities for basic education, aid has moved to the right destination in recent decades, as a large proportion of investments in school infrastructure, including school construction, have helped meet the high demand for education. Indeed, as mentioned above, we can still identify many people excluded from school throughout the world, which made it possible to justify the emphasis on access, particularly after the international Education for All (EFA) initiative in 1990. Its main objective was universal primary enrollment (a goal that is still far from being achieved almost 30 years later). However, the following testimony by a manager of international cooperation projects in a large European city (anonymized identity) provides a more pragmatic justification for actions mainly related to infrastructure rather than to the quality or governance of education systems.

“We most often finance infrastructure. we can easily see the effects of our support. after one year, we have a report with indicators, such as a number of schools have been built. donors are proud to go to the inauguration of such a school in Africa. They can bring in the journalists to see their actions. on the other hand, we fund few projects that would result in a change in people’s behavior, such as peace education in conflict areas. these are changes over time. Even if we are convinced that this type of project is relevant and necessary, it is difficult to see the fruits of our intervention, which makes donors cautious”

This leads us to make an initial criticism of the priorities accorded by aid, which does not take the quality of education seriously enough. To take the example of one of the most powerful actors in international cooperation, the World Bank has contributed to increasing access to education and improving equity, while fewer than half of its projects have achieved objectives related to the quality of education. Especially since improving the quality of educational inputs (textbooks, teachers, and so forth) has not necessarily contributed to improving learning5.

But even if international cooperation chooses to prioritize access over quality, it does not take into account the populations, areas, or sectors that are most in need. Indeed, nearly one-fifth of what the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) considers to be aid never leaves donor countries, as revealed by the research group Development Initiatives. In addition, a surprising amount of aid goes to countries that are far from being the poorest1. To illustrate this point, it should be noted that between 2000 and 2010, more than half of the World Bank’s education funds were allocated to three countries: India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh6.

On closer examination, we can see that the share of basic education aid to low-income countries has fallen from 36% in 2002 to 22% in 2016. This is reflected in the long-term decline in the share allocated to sub-Saharan Africa, which accounts for half of the world’s out-of-school children (Figure 2). Moreover, non-formal education programs, which are perceived by international cooperation as a possible alternative to address out-of-school youth, are not supported by aid, whereas the budget for these programs represents no more than 5% of the total national education budget in many countries8.

Figure 2. Share of low income countries and least developed countries (LDCs) in total aid to education and to basic education disbursements, 2002-2016 Source: GEMR-UNESCO (2018)

Not only are the poorest countries not targeted for aid but the most marginalized populations do not necessarily receive aid as a priority. For example, the poorest girls are 60 years behind the richest boys in terms of universal primary completion1.

The same applies to disparities between populations living in rural and urban areas, the latter being favored by aid, which is particularly reflected in the figures on school retention (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Percentage of the population with less than four years of education for the age group 20-24 years Source: World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE) (2018)

And once again, when an organization is concerned with populations in need, it is to provide answers that are not always appropriate, as revealed by the case of « low-cost » private schools supported by many international organizations, even though the schools often do not meet minimum quality standards7.

Still on the priority sectors, while current events remind us of the existence of refugees around the world, particularly in low-income countries, humanitarian aid recorded a fourth consecutive year of increase in 2017, but the amount allocated to education represented 2.1% of the total amount of this aid2.



1 Antoninis, M. (2014). Let’s clarify the definition of aid to education so that it benefits the poorest

2 GEMR-UNESCO. (2018). Aid to education: a return to growth?

3 UNESCO. (2017). Global Education Monitoring Report 2017/8. Accountability in education: Meeting our commitments

4 Global Campaign for Education. (2015). Education Aid Watch 2015

5 World Bank. (2011). World Bank Support to Education Since 2001: A Portfolio Note

6 RESULTS Educational Fund. (2010). World Bank Education Financing: Less or More for the Poor in IDA 16?

7 Srivastava, P. (2015). Low-fee private schools and poor children: what do we really know?

8 Mercer, M. (2013). Donor policies, practices and investment priorities in support of education, and post-2015 prospects: a review

9 GEMR-UNESCO. (2019). Aid to education falls slightly in 2017, shifts away from primary education