Essay 13

Why Do We Keep Failing to Universalize Literacy?

Karen Mundy



Recent studies point to a sorrowful reality: in many lower-income countries, children, even those accessing a full cycle of primary schooling, often enter young adulthood with limited literacy and numeracy. Yet for more than 30 years—even longer, if one considers the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the global community has rededicated its efforts every 10 years or so to a world in which illiteracy is eradicated and all children and youth have access to good quality, public education. This, in essence, is the call for “education for all.”

Girin Beeharry’s 2021 essay in the International Journal of Educational Development is a laudable effort to hold the global community to account for this failure. Building on Nicolas Burnett’s analysis of deficiencies in the global educational aid architecture, Girin highlights lack of leadership, prioritization, and accountability among global actors. He calls upon global actors to reorientate their work around the challenge of what he terms “foundational learning” and sets specific challenges for key actors, including UNESCO, the World Bank, the Global Partnership for Education, civil society, and policymakers in low-income countries.

While applauding and supporting Girin’s call for ambitious, scaled-up global focus on childhood literacy and numeracy, this rejoinder challenges some aspects of his analysis and the imputed theory of change that underpins it. It concludes, somewhat mischievously, with brief review and call to action addressed to the Gates’ Foundations itself.

Unpacking and questioning Girin’s imputed theory of change

Girin lays out the underlying failures in global governance and our puzzling lack of progress on childhood literacy with elegance and conviction.

As I read his piece, I found myself increasingly skeptical about whether the actors and actions he calls for are likely to contribute to universalizing childhood literacy. One way to unpack this is to examine the (imputed) theory of change that underpins Girin’s article. Propositionally, it looks something like this:

Why my skepticism? First, history suggests that international organizations are rarely first movers when it comes to changing values or mental models among governments. Though they can help consolidate and spread new policy movements, they are rarely the progenitors of major innovations or capacity within public systems, especially when it comes to programs that aim towards the redistribution of benefits.

As Girin shows, the toolkits of international organizations are modest, comprised of technical assistance, limited amounts of finance, aggregation and dissemination of knowledge and best practice, creation of metrics, and formalization of routines for intergovernmental monitoring and accountability.

Furthermore, Girin concludes that what international organizations produce, in terms of knowledge, is often not wanted or adopted by low-income country clients. Thus he notes that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is pulling back from this type of investment because “there is little [national level] demand for these global goods.” He gives equality poor ratings to international organizations in the areas of advocacy, financing, and accountability for their own performance.

Girin is without doubt an apt critic of the international architecture. But why then place so much emphasis on the potential of a coalition of global level, intergovernmental actors to play a catalytic role in strengthening national political will and action? Girin himself has noted that were he to rewrite his essay, he would start at the country level; and he has raised other concerns and insights in a lively podcast.

Creating a coalition for global change

Perhaps I am too cynical, but based on anecdotal observations, and reinforced in recent research on international norm dynamics, I suspect that a global governance regime that is primarily focused on production and dissemination of “best practices” and “what works” evidence, that emphasizes the use of global metrics and performance-based financing, is more likely to lead to greater gaming and externalization of education reform goals and agendas than to the construction of a broad-based coalition for childhood literacy and numeracy.

Yet we know from much research that broad-based coalitions play an essential role in changing global norms, and values—especially in areas, like education, where pre-existing interests create resistance. From the abolition of slavery and the spread of female suffrage, to more recent examples in the health sector (effective response to HIV/AIDS), and around climate justice, transnational advocacy movements that bring together country-level and international civil society actors are credited with spurring large-scale social change.

Here we face a conundrum. The strongest members of education’s transnational civil society—international bodies representing teachers, and some of the largest (but not all) international NGOs and several influential foundations—are profoundly uncomfortable with the framing of the literacy challenge as Girin and key global actors lay it out.

Education’s civil society sees the focus on metrics and accountability as remote from the everyday worlds of schools and classrooms. Worse: two decades of metric and incentive-heavy policy reform across OECD countries (including in the US, where the Gates Foundation played a pivotal role), has led education’s civil society to distrust such instruments and their mechanical use in school improvement. Foundational learning, from this perspective, is at best a truncated image of the vibrant, joyful, empowering, and equitable educational systems that education’s civil society feels are needed.

My hunch is that we won’t make terrific progress on childhood literacy—and learning equality—without forming common cause with education’s civil society, and especially the organizations representing educators themselves. These actors are essential carriers of the public mission of education, with a long history of pushing international and national policymakers towards an embrace of literacy as a right and a building block of empowered citizenship.

Poor policies or a failure of implementation?

External actors, whether through technical support or financial incentives, are generally pictured in Girin’s essay as helpful where governments are making poor policy choices (and assuming that international organizations agree to truly prioritize childhood literacy in their own portfolios).

Yet many would debate whether it is poor policy choices (lack of focus) or poor implementation that lies at the crux of the childhood literacy challenge faced in lower-income countries. If the problem is implementation—“the process of making something active or effective”—then our theory of change and the role of international actors needs to be very different from the one implicit in Girin’s article.

I am far from the first to call for the need to move away from what Aiyar and Bhattacharya (2016) call the “post office state”—where governmental officials are primarily used for transmitting orders downwards and data upwards. A key question for our time is how to support innovative and adaptive potential within existing education systemsunlocking the creativity and problem-solving agency of educators, policymakers, and the organizations that support them. My hunch is that we (the international community) needs to dig deeper to understand the role of what Honig calls mission-oriented behaviour in the public sector, while moving away from our focus on compliance-oriented mechanisms.

To do so, external actors will need to offer something that is very different from their current technical assistance and capacity-building activities. My personal observation of the behaviours of international organizations and their knowledge production and diffusion strategies points to an ongoing tendency towards externalizing knowledge, evidence and accountability. Data that is intended to support accountability is channelled away from the actors and systems we expect to solve challenges and implement change, towards global organizations who are rarely involved or accountability for actual implementation.

Unfortunately, I see too little in Girin’s argument and in the Gates Foundation’s present portfolio that addresses this fundamental challenge regarding the role of international organizations in achieving universal childhood literacy and numeracy.

The Gates Foundation as a global education policy actor

Readers of Girin’s article will likely have many questions about the current and future role of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as a global education policy actor. Such questions are particularly pertinent because of the increasingly significant roles that foundations play in global governance (as discussed in my recent essay), where their legitimacy and influence as boundary spanners and norm entrepreneurs is both appreciated and frequently debated. (Full disclosure: in my position at the University of Toronto, I’ve been the recipient of a research grant from the Gates Foundation and have undertaken contracted research for the foundation.)

I know from conversations with Gates Foundation staff that the foundation is still “dipping its toes” into global education. The small size of its global education funding has in part led to a grant portfolio focused on investments in well-established global level evidence and policy aggregators, almost all based in the Western world—thus the World Bank, rich-country think tanks, and universities are among its largest grantees. The portfolio leans heavily on the development of global metrics, assessments, and evidence, though more recently, investments suggest a welcome shift of funding to organizations in the global South.

It is surprising to see that the foundation’s global education portfolio does not yet seem to have learned lessons from its US/domestic education portfolio, which has shifted from an unsuccessful focus on top-down policy levers to a more incremental, coalition-building approach anchored in support for localized school improvement networks with equity-focused missions. Nor has it incorporated grant-making for transnational civil society advocacy, long a hallmark of its global health portfolio.

An Invitation to the Gates Foundation

I have argued that we are facing two daunting global failures to address childhood literacy and numeracy: (1) a failure of policy framing and coalition building; and (2) a failure of finding the right way to support mission-oriented capability at national and regional levels among lower-income countries.

Inspired by recent work by Honig and Mazzucato, we must aspire to an approach that builds from country-level capability up, rather than from global norms, evidence, and knowledge down. An approach that starts from globally generated metrics, incentives, and diffusion of global goods is unlikely bring the important changes in universal childhood literacy and numeracy to which Beeharry aspires.

My invitation to the Gates Foundation is to take these ideas seriously; to think more deeply about how to use its reputation and resources to support a more broadly-based form of global collective action; and to explore how international organizations can better support capacity for mission-oriented public sectors in education in lower income countries. Too much in the foundation’s current playbook reinforces what we know are failing features of the global education architecture, and pays too little attention to coalition building, national ownership, and capacity – all important ingredients of any global solution for the crisis in childhood literacy and numeracy.