The curtains have just fallen on the World Education Forum and suddenly the pressure has dropped, as for months civil society the world over has maintained a single-pointed focus on ensuring that governments commit to ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education for all.
At the end of the Forum we rightly ask ourselves:
- Have we succeeded in making governments around the world understand that education is a right for each and every citizen?
- Have we succeeded in making governments understand that education needs to be at the heart of any national development plan?
- Have we succeeded in making governments understand that fulfilling this right means ensuring all children have the same opportunities in terms of access, retention and success?
In sum we can say, progress is small, but yes we have progressed.
Whilst education appears to be recognized as an objective for sustainable development, civil society, ever pragmatic, is already thinking about how commitments will be implemented at national level in order to give full meaning to this sustained collaborative effort that culminated at Incheon.
Like many of us, I have always been impressed by States attitudes before adoption of international documents outlining commitments to the welfare of their populations The Incheon declaration was no exception; I was impressed by countries’ insistence on need for flexibility, national sovereignty, state's priorities, national context, national culture, the ability to mobilize funds, etc. This could be read negatively as attempts to weaken the declaration - or positively as ensuring space for contextualization of the targets.
One undoubtedly shocking fact from Korea was the decline we observed in donors’ political will - illustrated by the number of donor countries present and the size and level of the delegations. Despite a muted feeling that progress has been made on a number of key points outlined in the declaration, there is a sense that the time has come for some self-reflection, in order to identify the challenges that undermine our success.
Whilst civil society is so good at identifying governments’ weaknesses in promoting, respecting and fulfilling children’s right to inclusive, quality education, it is not always as effective when it comes to looking at itself in the mirror to spot its own weaknesses when it comes to making children’s right to education a reality.
Where have we failed over the past 15 years? What should we do differently in the next 15 years? Are we well equipped enough to monitor the implementation of the new framework of action?
Despite the shrinking space for effective dialogue, both in the Global North as well as the Global South, civil society organisations with a commitment to the right to education are many, ranging from community-based organisations, national organisations, international organisations, platforms, networks, alliances, teachers’ unions and many more. There is no doubt that the space is filled and as the French say: “trop de viande ne gate pas la sauce”. Where is the problem then?
Let’s look at the way international non-governmental organisations’ (INGOs) work. It is all too common, in many of the countries where we work, to see a number of INGOs working to ensure children have access to quality inclusive education, most of them taking a rights-based approach. However, each INGO will have their own strategy, their own geographic area of intervention, their own approaches, and all of them will be trying to link their work to national level policy and to ensure reforms are in place for a transformative education.
Consider, then the government, that has to deal with all these organizations, and their national and local partners, all of them suggesting any number of different approaches and all of them insisting that taking this approach is the best way to ensure children’s right to quality education by, for example: budgeting adequately, taking measures to ensure accountable and transparent schools, abolishing school fees, providing enough quality trained teachers, constructing school infrastructures, guaranteeing a safe, gender-sensitive environment, legislating for free and compulsory education, regulating low cost private schools and so on and so forth.In addition the same government will have to deal with the National Education for All coalition, which in turn includes most of these organisations as members.
The same government will again need to work with the teachers’ unions (also members of the national education coalition), themselves lobbying for many of the same issues, but using a different language.
So where does the shoe pinch? It pinches at the point where we become our own worst enemies:
1. Civil society organizations are not sufficiently well coordinated, and as a result, education policy demands are not sufficiently harmonised.
2. Relations with the government stakeholders are not built on the same basis and information is held back to further individual organisational successes.
3. Civil society organisations rely on external sources of funding to implement and showcase their work, however in many cases, programming is driven by donor priorities and trends.
Who benefits? Not the children!
Sometimes, opportunities for joint activities are taken forward, and some of these are successful, however even in cases of collaboration, each organisation needs to ensure that programming approaches “fit” with organisational strategy, that visibility is taken into account and that individual contributions can be attributed. Frustrations!
Moving forward, as part of civil society, we have a unique opportunity to make a greater impact thanks to the availability of Civil Society Education Funds that aim to strengthen civil society and give national education coalitions the capacity (as part of the Local Education Groups) to scrutinise the education sector plans and ensure accountability.
In reality, faithful to the principles of divide and rule, many governments are not willing to let civil society organisations have too much influence over their plans. Marginalising civil society is easier in contexts where national coalitions are still struggling to recruit and train member organisations to understand education policies; where teachers’ unions do not integrate development issues into their collective bargaining platform; where in the face of strong unions, the government just creates its own union or when there are too many and too fragmented it is easier for governments to ignore them.
As far as ActionAid is concerned, the frequent internal transformation processes leading to the adoption of a human rights based approach to our work have laid the foundation for sound partnership and collective engagement. However, staff turnover, insufficient induction, our inability to control the capacity of implementing partners are all challenges we need to address in order to help us contribute to a civil society environment that is capable of sustained, coordinated action for long-term impact.
Our contribution to the effective implementation of the new framework of action will therefore depend on our ability to:
- Empower the people we work with from local to national levels. The Promoting Rights in Schools framework gives us an opportunity through its emphasis on empowerment and collective engagement to federate civil society at all levels and ensure all its components have a sound knowledge of the education policy framework.
- Make use of the international platforms as spaces for cross thematic work that will strength the perception education as sustainable development goal: education as a public service with a focus on financing/privatization (governance platform), safe schools for girls in communities and in the cities (safe city campaign), school feeding programmes to ensure access and retention at school and to promote small scale farmers, etc. (LAND).
- Promote the national education coalitions as the main representatives of the education movement and ensure that these are open, inclusive and democratic coalitions that engage and build the capacity of their members accordingly.
- Ensure that teachers’ unions are part and parcel of civil society education movements and that they participate actively in debates and consultations regarding education. This will require supporting teachers’ unions to integrate the language of development into their collective bargaining platform. Any activity targeting teachers should involve the union’s head office or local branches in order to reinforce the relationship between unions and the NGO sector and build trust.
- Ensure that all INGOs engaged in education support the National Education Coalition on issues of policy engagement, institutional capacity building and participation in the Local Education Group,
- Encourage coordinated contributions from civil society into the development of education sector plans and into joint sector reviews of progress.
- Promote joint action-oriented research on specific issues relevant to the gaps in the national education system to sustain evidence-based advocacy and challenge for example the current trends on privatisation or low cost schools. Where necessary initiate the production of the education shadow report for the human rights office in Geneva.
Finally, involvement of the general public and its understanding of the sustainable development goals is key. Our job between now and September is to communicate the education goal and targets to as many people as possible in countries where we work so that they know what their government is going to sign up to and what this implies for them in 2016 and beyond.
A long way to 2030, indeed!
Further reading, take a look at:
1. Incheon declaration - https://en.unesco.org/world-education-forum-2015/incheon-declaration
2. Zero draft of the outcome document for the United Nations Summit to adopt the post-2015 development agenda - https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/7261Post-2015%20Summit%20-%202%20June%202015.pdf
3. David Archer’s blog - http://www.globalpartnership.org/blog/education-catalyst-sustainable-transformation
4. Tanvir Muntasim’s blog - http://www.actionaid.org/2015/05/world-education-forum-setting-global-agenda-education-human-right