#06 Global Partnership for Education: An alternative to the isolated actions of international cooperation agencies?

Author: Thibaut Lauwerier

We wanted to dedicate our second blog article on international cooperation in education to the Global Partnership for Education, an institution that has grown considerably in recent years, actively mobilizing heads of state such as E. Macron and M. Sall in Dakar in 2018 or successful singers such as Rihanna who is its ambassador. Let us see who is behind this organization.

Some general characteristics

The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) was established in 2002, first under the name of the “Fast Track Initiative”. It was an institution led by the World Bank and brought together various cooperation agencies to boost international financial commitment to accelerate progress towards universal primary education in developing countries. However, the implementation of the planning and financing processes of this initiative have been detrimental to donor coordination, resulting in increased transaction costs and reduced aid effectiveness in some countries. On the basis of this observation, the GPE was created in 2011 in order to take into consideration — at least theoretically — the shortcomings of the past1. The organization is currently defined as “a multi-stakeholder partnership and funding platform that aims to strengthen education systems in developing countries in order to dramatically increase the number of children who are in school and learning”2.

Governance BOARD OF DIRECTORS: it is the supreme governing body of the partnership and sets its policies and strategies
Includes members from developing country governments and all development partners: donor countries, multilateral agencies (mainly the World Bank, UNICEF and UNESCO), regional banks, civil society organizations (including the Global Campaign for Education), private sector and foundations
Role: Reviewing annual objectives of the Partnership, mobilizing resources, monitoring financial resources and funding, advocating for the partnership, and overseeing the secretariat budget and work plan
SECRETARIAT: provides administrative and operational support to the partnership and facilitates collaboration with all partners
Areas of intervention Developing countries (in particular countries that are characterized by extreme poverty and/or conflict)
Fields of intervention Basic education

Policy guidelines

The GPE’s orientations are visible in its strategic reports. The first strategy had been established for the period 2012-2015. Currently, it is the 2016-2020 strategy that guides GPE’s actions. We will focus on this document. .

The GPE sees education as a public good and as a human right, a facilitator of other rights. This a priori humanistic vision of education is not so clear since a recent report by the NGO Oxfam recommends that the organization should focus their support on improving the provision of public schooling in developing countries, and should not fund market-oriented education public-private partnerships (PPPs), especially those that support low-fee and commercial private schools3.

Moreover, according to the GPE, education is “essential for peace, tolerance, human fulfillment, and sustainable development”. Once again, the organization defends a humanistic vision of education. But on closer examination, the GPE’s discourse is similar to that of the World Bank (which is not by chance as we will show below).

We showed in blog #03 that the World Bank defended a capitalist-liberal vision in which education must be able to promote economic growth in the context of globalization (modernizing economic institutions and activities; changing attitudes, and improving workers’ skills and productivity). Thus, because of this ambivalence, multiple contradictions must be highlighted in the GPE’s discourse: the organization insists, for example, on the links between education and environmental issues at the global level while promoting economic models that are destructive for the planet and societies.

More specifically, the GPE has chosen a number of priority areas to work on: “Focusing our resources on securing learning, equity and inclusion for the most marginalized children and youth, including those affected by fragility and conflict”. Given the issues raised in blogs #01 and #04, these are indeed relevant areas that have too often received too little attention from international cooperation in education. We know, for example, that aid to basic education for 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. Therefore, support from the GPE makes it possible to limit this trend.

Within these axes, specific themes are addressed by the GPE. For example, on the issue of learning and its improvement, the organization is particularly interested in teacher training. From this point of view, it has been able to engage in promising actions in recent years.

Among the priorities for action, we also find “the achievement of gender parity”. However, here again, the GPE is ambiguous on this issue. To get an idea of it, all you have to do is analyse your discourse on social networks. Indeed, with regard to girls’ schooling, the institution has moved in a month’s time from a holistic and progressive vision to a utilitarian vision focused on the needs of the economy.

Policy instruments

Having presented the GPE guidelines, let us now turn to its means of action in the education systems of developing countries.

It should be noted that many criticisms are levelled at international cooperation in education, and in particular at the fact that projects or programs are still too often thought of without coordination efforts (each organization acts in its own corner), which makes it difficult to appropriate not only national policies, but also and above all beneficiaries4. It is to meet this challenge that the Partnership was created with the conviction that “by working better together, through collaboration and coordination, the aid regime will become more democratic and participatory”5. From this perspective, the GPE endorses the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (2005), which highlights the following five fundamental principles for making aid more effective: 1. Ownership; 2. Alignment; 3. Harmonisation; 4. Results; 5. Mutual accountability6.

“The Global Partnership is underpinned by principles set out in the March 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. Donors, multilateral agencies, civil society organisations and the private sector and private foundations then commit to aligning their support for a developing country partner’s program” (GPE Charter, 2013). 

In concrete terms, the GPE supports countries in the development of sectoral plans. In particular, the organisation offers an analysis of needs in the field. In other words, among the priorities identified by the GPE as priorities, what are the areas on which countries should focus their education policies? Despite a clear speech about “partnership” and “mutual exchange”, a personal experience of advisory support linked to the elaboration of sectoral plans a few years ago leads me to say that many of the proposals in the countries’ documents come from experts in the North, and few from the actors in the countries concerned. It would appear that changes are emerging as the GPE has just published a practical guide to help partner countries organise joint sector reviews that are effective and adapted to their specific contexts. Let us hope that this will enable governments to assume their responsibilities and that international organizations and experts will take a greater distance.

In addition, the GPE is a unique entity in the field of education because of its common financing mechanisms. These funds come from public and private donors. For example, the graph below illustrates a set of countries (or regional groups) that contribute to financing the education sector in developing countries through the GPE .

As UNESCO notes, the GPE “is strengthening its position as the main multilateral financing institution for education in low income countries: in 2016, it disbursed US$351 million to low income countries out of total disbursements worth US$497 million”7.

Share of cumulative contributions by donor – 2003 to 2018 (Source : PME)

That being said, not all countries delegate this power to the GPE. The influence of countries through bilateral cooperation remains strong. Thus, despite its efforts to mobilize financial resources, the institution does not have the means to implement its policy: a gap exists between its willingness to act on the quality of education, such as learning outcomes, and the funding put on the table.

Since the last strategy, the GPE financing has been performance-based. The organization allocates its funds in tranches. If countries have succeeded in improving their education performance in line with the strategies in the sector plans, then they can receive the additional tranche.

Even if the GPE is now a key player in international aid to education, it is not free from criticism. And most of them question, as we have already implied, the effectiveness of the notion of “partnership”, which appears in the name of the organization. It is a term frequently used in the international development world to describe the relationship between two (or more) entities working together. It is often idealized and ambiguous in the development discourse, with the implicit assumption that a partnership is beneficial, that there is a warm mutuality. However, reality shows rather unequal power relations that continue to shape development projects (capacities in terms of human and financial resources are in fact unbalanced)4.

Indeed, it should be recalled that the GPE was initiated by the World Bank. Thus, since its creation, a relationship of dependence between the two institutions has persisted. In particular, it is the Bank that physically hosts the GPE, employs its staff, or serves as a supervisory entity in the majority of recipient countries. Although external evaluations have identified this close relationship, the two organizations remain very close. This raises the question of the reality of “partnership” in the face of the influence of a powerful organization.

And beyond the World Bank, northern donor countries, particularly those providing significant aid, are widely perceived as having power within the GPE; they are the ones who sit on the Council with the most important votes. Actors collaborate under the guise of equity in decision-making, but those who have historically built up administrative positions, possess material resources, and speak the dominant languages, are positioned differently within the partnership than others, which gives them a greater ability to influence the direction of the organization. Thus, they maintain their hierarchical positions by maintaining structures that reproduce their dominant status, thus contradicting the principles underlying the GPE’s mandate5.