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Why Decolonising the Financing of Education is Key to Solving the Education Crisis

Arthur Larok

This week over 10 million people will mobilise to call for the decolonisation of education financing.

This is the theme of the Global Action Week for Education 2023 – an annual event that ActionAid has been a key part of for over 20 years, that engages education activists and coalitions in over 100 countries. The challenging framing of this year’s action week follows the highest level education meeting ever, the Heads of State Transforming Education Summit that took place at the UN General Assembly in September 2022. Only by decolonising education financing can we find a solution to the global education crisis.

So what does decolonising education finance actually mean? We often assume that national governments everywhere are fundamentally in control of the financing that they commit to education. But in many countries, it is not so simple!

The global economic architecture, forged after the Second World War, with institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, can massively influence the financing that governments can dedicate to education. Despite some shift in global rhetoric the IMF policy advice is little changed over the past 40 years. Countries are consistently advised to pursue austerity policies, cutting public spending. As education is one of the largest spending items in any government budget, education often suffers. But IMF advice is often even more specific, suggesting cuts or freezes to public sector wage bills. Teachers are the largest group on the wage bill so again, education suffers - there is no money to pay for more teachers (even if there are shortages) and no money to pay teachers more (even if they are underpaid). 

To change IMF policies and guidelines you need an 85% majority vote, but as the largest shareholder, the US has over 17% of the votes, giving it an effective veto.  These voting rules and quotas were set before most African countries achieved independence. They are a legacy of a colonial era and ensure the wealthiest countries retain the power to shape the economies of low- and middle-income countries.

Other institutions play a role – like the OECD (the club of rich nations) which has been responsible for setting global tax rules for the past 60 years. This has created a global order that sees vast sums of money leaving low and middle income countries and accumulating in tax havens. Illicit financial flows out of Africa far exceed the revenues arriving in aid.

Aid is another instrument for wealthy countries to use to shape the economies and societies of lower income countries, especially in education. One of the unintended consequences of the Paris Aid Effectiveness agenda has been that donors work together in consortiums or coordination groups, sitting together around a table with Ministers of Education. In practice, there is often a distorted power relationship – with the largest donors having significant power to shape education priorities based on what they are willing to fund. Education reform, which used to be something discussed in parliaments, dependent on passing new legislation, too often now becomes dependent on a 3 or 4 year donor-funded project, dependent on the interests and whims of a handful of powerful donors.

Decolonisation of education financing is about challenging all these distorted power dynamics. It is about recognising that global policies on tax need to be set in a more inclusive and democratic way by the UN as demanded by African Ministers of Finance last year. It means pushing back on the cult of austerity of the IMF. It means challenging power dynamics in the development of national education reforms to ensure governments in consultation with their own citizens, are in control – pushing back on the arrogance of some donors who are convinced they know best.

The Call for Action on Financing Education agreed at the Heads of State Transforming Education Summit lays the foundation for this decolonisation – calling for national and global action on tax, action on debt and action of resisting austerity and public sector wage bills cuts. The focus is on mobilising the 97% of resources that are domestic, pushing back against the power of donors who dedicate just 3% of education resources but often have over 90% of the power. Decolonising education financing is about looking at the power dynamics at every level of decision-making, to ensure a democratic and inclusive process.

This week, education activists in over 100 countries will be demanding exactly this with calls to their Ministers of Finance and Heads of State. Across ActionAid we are clear that if we are serious about achieving the sustainable development goal on education, we must act now to decolonise and transform the financing of education everywhere!

Arthur Larok stands in a green shirt, and smiles at the camera

Arthur Larok is the Secretary General, ActionAid International