#WDR2018 Reality Check #22: “Learning Matters and the World Development Report 2018”, by Keith Lewin

“Learning to Realise Education’s Promise” is the first time the World Bank has devoted an entire 240 page World Development Report (WDR) to education and learning. It is surprising that it has taken so long given that the main purpose of the Bank is to finance development, and low income countries generally spend more on education than anything else apart from defence. The authors are to be congratulated on the encyclopaedic range of their deliberations and the plethora of descriptive analysis provided. Inevitably not all expectations have been met and how “education’s promise” can be realised remains elusive.

The main proposition of the WDR 2018 is that there is a new learning crisis and that most countries need to “show that learning really matters to them”. If they succeed they will extract themselves from “the low learning trap” equilibrium of poor learning levels linked to low levels of accountability (p195). The evidence for this “trap” is patchy given the lack of longitudinal data on learning. If there is a learning trap it did not hold back countries that achieved high levels of performance with 20th Century educational investment strategies. If those countries who come later have to play by different rules what is the new game and what are its new rules?    

The WDR argues that three actions are essential at system level:

  • Assess learning—to make it a serious goal
  • Act on evidence—to make schools work for all learners
  • Align actors—to make the whole system work for learning

Phil Coombs[1], who first wrote about a World Education Crisis in 1967, would have agreed. So would John Dewey, Ralph Tyler, Lee Cronbach, Ben Bloom, Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, Howard Gardner, and many other well-known educators who “took learning seriously” but are not cited. Nor are any non-Western thinkers on learning. It is especially odd that the “learning crisis” described makes no reference to China which has raised the learning levels of more learners than any other country in history over the last 30 years. Phil would have asked the WDR what is new about this global learning crisis, who are the educators who (still) do not believe learning is a serious goal, and what have we (development partners) learned since 1967 about effective pedagogies and whole system change?

This contribution to the dialogue around the Report addresses the most striking silence in the WDR. In 240 pages only five pages are spent explicitly addressing questions of finance. If thereis a learning crisis then in large part it is a financing crisis. I share with Steve Klees[2] astonishment that such a substantial report full of interesting detail can simply gloss over the central issue of financial sustainability. It is now eighteen years since the then President of the World Bank declared in Dakar at the World Education Forum in 2000 that it would ensure “no government with a credible strategy for achieving Education For All will be allowed to fail for lack of resources”. EFA was about learning as well as access.

There are seven issues related to financing that the WDR could have addressed but did not.

First, recent modelling for the GPE (Lewin 2017[3]) indicates that if schooling were to be universalized in GPE developing country partners, the amounts needed for education would be 6.2 percent of GDP in LICs and 6.3 percent in LMICs[4]. Total public expenditure on education across the LICs is about US$19 billion and for LMICs US$68 billion, representing 3.8 percent and 4.8 percent of GDP, respectively. This includes current aid contributions. To reach 6 percent of GDP would cost at least another US$13 billion per year for the LICs and US$22 billion for the LMICs totalling over US$ 35 billion a year. There is no prospect of such large volumes of additional recurrent finance becoming available so what is plan B? A WDR on Learning should explore the costs of learning and how they can be met within credible plans.  

Second, the Education 2030 Framework for Action to which the Bank subscribes “urges adherence to the international and regional benchmarks of allocating efficiently at least 4 – 6% of Gross Domestic Product and/or at least 15 – 20% of total public expenditure to education”. But currently 40 percent of Low Income Countries (LICs) and Low Middle Income Countries (LMICs) spend less than 4 percent of GDP on education (of which about a third is aid-related) and less than 15% allocate more than 6% of GDP. Fewer than 20 percent of LICs and LMICs spend more than 20 percent of their government budgets on education. If the share of the government budget for education was 20% and the amount of tax collected from domestic revenue was the LIC/LMIC average of 16% of GDP then this would result in education expenditure being only 3.2% of GDP i.e. 20% of 16%. It would need more than 30% of the government budget to provide 6% of GDP. This could only be achieved with improbably large cuts to government spending by other Ministries. Learning must be delivered more efficiently and effectively but the WDR does not indicate how, nor what kind of fiscal reforms are most promising.   

Third, aid to education has plateaued since 2010 at about USD12 Billion a year and there is no convincing sign that the appetite to increase aid to education is returning. The recent Replenishment Conference of the World Bank’s sister organisation the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) raised about USD2.3 billion for disbursement from Donors over three years, or about US$800 million a year. This fell well short of its aspirations and was not much greater than in 2014. The amount is only about 2% of the additional amounts needed for recurrent financing for Education 2030. If it was distributed evenly across 50 countries it would amount to only USD 16 million a year per country. Pledges by countries at the GPE replenishment to increase their spending amounted to USD110 Billion dwarfing the amount of external assistance, and were much more than the USD 26 Billion pledged in 2014. However, past experience has been that the delivery on pledges is patchy, governments have not honoured many pledges, and some aid commitments have not been delivered. If there is a learning crisis it was not prevented by the impact of the 2014 replenishment or the USD 50 billion of World Bank investment in education since 2000 so what lessons can be drawn for future aid?

Fourth, though there is a small industry around identifying alternative methods of financing educational investment in low income countries, it has yet to demonstrate how to generate the volume of recurrent finance necessary to meet needs. This is not surprising. No high enrolment high performance national education system uses innovative finance to fund the bulk of their school systems. Nor is much of their core financing from the private sector. Private sectors in LICs and LMICs are small and unlikely and unwilling to finance and education systems delivering services to those near or below the poverty line. Various reports on innovative finance identify a variety of more or less exotic financial instruments that include debt buy downs, leveraging increased borrowing by Multilateral Development Banks, development bonds, philanthropic contributions, and crowd funding. None of these approaches provide reliable long term investment to meet the recurrent costs of learning. The WDR should spell out the financing options and the impact of different choices on learning and who learns what.

Fifth, whether there really is a low “learning trap” leading to a low learning equilibrium remains to be demonstrated. However, there is evidence of a low income country public expenditure equilibrium for investment in education. This has proved very resilient. According to Coombs in 1985[5] developing countries as a group increased spending from an average of 2.3% of GDP in 1960 to around 4% by 1979. The proportion of public spending allocated to education in developing countries increased 12% to 15% from 1960 to 1975.  At the time of the Jomtien Conference our analysis (Colclough and Lewin (1990[6]) indicated that on average LICs were allocating between 4% and 5% of GDP to education and about 15% of public expenditure. Over the next three decades up to the present UNESCO Institute of Statistics data show that the averages have hovered around 4% of GDP and 15% of public expenditure on education. This is the level at which many systems have equilibrated over the long term. Setting arbitrary targets for expenditure on education independent of demands for spending in other sectors ignores the obvious. If the education budget as a percent of GDP goes up then something else must come down. If the learning crisis is in part financial the WDR needs a theory that explains this “resistance to change” to finance learning by increasing its share of the budget despite hundreds of billions of dollars of external assistance for development. 

Sixth, the quickest way to increase the proportion of public spending allocated to education is to have an economic recession! This can be seen in the UK. The amount of public expenditure allocated to education as a proportion of GDP increased from 4.9% to 5.8% between 2008 and 2010. To the casual observer this could have signalled a sudden enthusiasm to commit 18% more public resources to education. In fact the domestic allocation only increased from about GBP 79 billion to GBP 84 billion, or around 6% at a time when inflation was increasing from about 4% per annum. The apparent increase in educational investment is largely explained by a fall in UK GDP of as much as 20%. The message is simple. The volatility of GDP is much greater than the volatility of most educational expenditure. Measuring the educational effort of governments, and rewarding them with aid for meeting arbitrary and isolated targets, is at the very least risky and may be unwise. The WDR should have devoted more space to developing smarter indicators.

Seventh, the good news is that national revenue raising systems are modernising. This is slowly transforming the landscape of educational financing and the “gaps” between what is currently financed and what is needed. Aid flows peaked in the early 1990s and most low income countries have experienced substantial economic growth. Aid to Africa was greater than tax receipts from 1986 to 1995. Since then it has fallen relative to GDP and tax revenues are now twice the value of aid. This is what is supposed to happen when countries develop and when aid programmes are effective. As countries develop direct taxes become a larger share of revenue and more difficult to avoid with better biometric identification and tracking of transactions.     

The evolution of low income countries towards becoming “Fiscal States” that have the capacity to borrow to invest and grow without reference to aid and its conditionalities has immense significance. It creates new avenues for financing on scale. Twice as many African countries (20) took Eurobonds in 2015 as did in 2004. There is the opportunity to make more use of the resources of Africa currently held in Pension Funds (at least USD 334 billon) and Sovereign Wealth Funds (at least USD 164 billion) more of which could be invested in LICs and LMICs. In addition corporate tax evasion and tax fraud is estimated at USD 50 billion to USD 100 billion.

Tax, not aid, is the dominant source of public finance in most countries and this will be even more so in 2030. If there is a new learning crisis it will be located and resolved within the political economies and national curricula of governments accountable to their taxpayers for investing fairly and effectively. The only sustainable solutions will be domestically driven. Achieving substantial increases in educational access and quality leading to greater learning achievement that is sustainable requires serious fiscal reform, much more effective revenue collection, and awareness of the costs of learning. These should all be a major focus of discussions around “realising learning’s promise” otherwise learning gains will not be sustained.

The World Bank is good at financing but not necessarily at learning. It should be good at developing sustainable systems of finance for learning. The WDR needs to explain how this can happen so that Phil Coombs academic descendants will not write another book on the Global Education Crisis in 2030.

Note: This blog appears simultaneously on the EI and UK Forum for International Education and Training (UKFIET) websites: A full version is available on www.keithlewin.net

#WDR2018 Reality Check is a blog series organized by Education International.  The series brings together the voices of education experts and activists – researchers, teachers, unionists and civil society actors - from across the world in response to the 2018 World Development Report,Learning to Realize Education’s Promise. The series will form the basis of a publication in advance of the WB Spring Meetings 2018. If you would like to contribute to the series, please get in touch with Jennifer at jennifer.ulrick@ei-ie.org. All views expressed are those of the authors alone and do not represent the views of Education International.

Check out the previous post in the series by Israel Montano: #WDR2018 Reality Check #21: The educational “anti-policy” financed by the World Bank in El Salvador


[1]Coombs P 1968 The World Education Crisis: A Systems Analysis. OUP. Oxford   

[2]Klees S J (2018)  #WDR2018 Reality Check #9: A Critical Analysis of the World Bank’s World Development Report on Education.https://worldsofeducation.org/en/woe_homepage/woe_detail/15634/wdr2018-reality-check-9-a-critical-analysis-of-the-world-bank’s-world-development-report-on-education-by-steven-j-klees

[3]Lewin K M 2017, The Educational Challenges of Transition; Key Issues Towards 2030. Global Partnership for Education, Washington  DC http://www.globalpartnership.org/content/educational-challenges-transition-key-issues-2030

[4]This scenario would still leave almost half of all children in LICs without access to upper secondary. Providing universal access to preschool would add about 15 percent to the total cost.

[5]Coombs, P 1985 The World Education Crisis in Education: The View from the Eighties OUP Oxford

[6]Colclough C. and Lewin K M, (1990) Educating All the Children; Strategies for Primary Education in Developing Countries. WCEFA Conference Paper, UNICEF, New York


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Keith Lewin

Keith Lewin is the Emeritus Professor of International Development at the University of Sussex. He has worked extensively on education and development in Asia and Africa for over 45 years for many bi-lateral and multi-lateral agencies and was recently director of the DFID funded Research Centre on Educational Access and Equity. He is a Fellow of the UK Academy of Social Sciences and a Chartered Physicist, and is Chair of the Trustees of the UK Forum for International Education and Training. 

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