Chronic underfunding on a global scale means children under 5 miss out
The Sector > Policy > Chronic underfunding on a global scale means children under 5 miss out

Chronic underfunding on a global scale means children under 5 miss out

by Freya Lucas

May 22, 2023

New research from the University of Cambridge shows that the proportion of international education aid for early childhood learning fell to just 1.1 per cent post-pandemic, far short of an agreed 10 per cent target.


The report, compiled by academics at the University of Cambridge for the global children’s charity, Theirworld, highlights “continued, chronic” underfunding of pre-primary education in many of the world’s poorest nations, after years of slow progress and pandemic-related cuts.


Early childhood education is widely understood as being essential in setting children up for cognitive and social success, and as a determining factor in breaking cycles of poverty in poorer countries. 


In 2017, Cambridge research for Theirworld resulted in UNICEF formally recommending that 10 per cent of education aid should be allocated to pre-primary education. Last year 147 United Nations member states signed a declaration agreeing to the target.


According to the new report’s findings, aid spending is falling far short of this goal and any progress towards the target ground to a halt following the COVID-19 outbreak. The most recent figures, from 2021, indicate that the proportion of education aid spent on pre-primary education internationally during the pandemic dropped by approximately (US)$19.7 million: from 1.2 per cent to 1.1  per cent.


“Hundreds of millions of children around the world are missing out on high-quality pre-primary education despite clear evidence that prioritising this will improve their life chances. The overall trend is very worrying,” said Director of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre Professor Pauline Rose. 


The report identifies several reasons for the decline, notably spending cuts by the World Bank’s International Development Association, EU Institutions, and by the governments of wealthy nations, such as the UK.


“Although some progress has been made towards the 10 per cent target, it started from a very low base,” she continued. 


“Other education levels are still being prioritised amid a general decline in aid spending. International commitments to pre-primary education are good, but we need concrete action.”


The United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals include the ambition to provide all children with proper childcare and pre-primary education. Over the past seven years, Theirworld and the REAL Centre have systematically monitored aid spending, tracking progress towards this goal.


The new report was compiled using the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s creditor report system, which gathers information about the aid contributions of both individual countries and international agencies such as UNICEF and the World Bank.


It shows that over the past two decades, the proportion of education aid spending that goes to pre-primary education has never exceeded 1.2 per cent. Between 2020 and 2021, spending on the sector dropped from $209 million to $189.3 million: a decrease of 9.4 per cent, compared with a 6.9 per cent fall in education aid overall and a 0.9 per cent decline in total aid spending. 


In 2021, aid spending on post-secondary education – the vast majority of which never leaves donor countries – was 27 times higher than that spent on pre-primary, despite widespread acknowledgement of the need to invest in the early years.


The research also shows that pre-primary aid is highly concentrated from a few donors, leaving early childhood development in poorer countries particularly vulnerable to sudden fluctuations in those donors’ spending.


Much of the pandemic-induced drop in spending, for instance, occurred because the World Bank cut its investment in pre-primary education from $122.8 million to $70.7 million. Other donors, such as Canada, EU Institutions, France, Norway and the UK, also reduced spending in this area. In 2021, eight of the top 35 education donors allocated no funds to pre-primary education at all.


In addition, pre-primary education spending tends to be focused on lower-middle income countries rather than the very poorest nations. In 2021, just 15 per cent of aid in this area went to countries classified as “low income”, while 52.7 per cent was allocated to lower-middle income countries.


As a result, some of the world’s least-advantaged children have little prospect of receiving pre-primary support. Eritrea and Sudan, for example, received no pre-primary education aid in 2021. In many other poorer countries – such as the Central African Republic, Chad, Niger and Syria – the amount of aid per primary school-aged child was less than $5.


Professor Rose said the finding pointed to the need for a model of “progressive universalism”, where those most in need receive a greater proportion of aid spending. 


“The biggest gaps are in the poorest countries, and particularly among the very poorest and least advantaged,” she said. “Increasing spending on pre-primary alone will not be enough. We also have to make sure those in greatest need are prioritised.”


The full report will be available on the Theirworld website shortly.

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