Essay 3

Back to Basics

By Manos Antoninis

selective photography of green leaf plant


It is estimated that about 12 million, or a little over 1.5 percent, of children of primary school age have never crossed a school’s door and never will, an extreme violation of the right to education. But in a complex world where people require a varied set of skills to escape poverty, the fact that 9 in 10 children in sub-Saharan Africa do not achieve even minimum proficiency in the most basic reading and mathematics skills must be, in terms of scale, the most extreme violation of the right to education, recast as a right to literacy and learning. Girin Beeharry’s
essay argues that the international community has lost its way, and he calls on us to focus on foundational learning as a single guiding objective. In my reflections here, I look at three ideas from the essay’s title: “focus on foundational learning,” “global education architecture,” and “hold ourselves accountable.”

Foundational learning focus

Surely, there can be no question about the need to focus on foundational learning. Or can there? It depends how “focus” is defined. For instance, some countries in Africa historically prioritized primary over secondary education—but this does not make them examples to follow. Among four countries with a (timely) primary completion rate above 80 percent, the secondary completion rate is about 10 percent in Tanzania and Zimbabwe, but almost 30 percent in Zambia and over 40 percent in Kenya. It would be a stretch to say that the first pair of countries were model examples because they prioritized primary education.

Indeed, it is not easy to summarize in one number what prioritizing foundational learning would look like. Low-income countries allocated 47 percent of their education spending to primary education in 2016, down slightly from 49 percent in 2010. How much more would they have to spend to indicate early grades are a bigger priority?

Nor can a focus on foundational learning be equivalent to an exclusive focus on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 4.1 (“ensure all girls and boys complete free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes”) or its associated indicators 4.1.1a and b on minimum learning proficiency. Even if 4.1.1 is the overarching focus, the rest of the SDG 4 agenda remains important, simply because everything is connected in education systems. Well-prepared teachers (target 4.c), who must have advanced through secondary education, need to receive post-secondary education of good quality (target 4.3). Children cannot learn to read when they sit on the floor, have no paper to write on and their brain fries in the heat or they live in fear of their teachers (target 4.a). They will learn to read a lot better if they are better prepared when they enter school (target 4.2), which is supported by literate parents and a literate environment (target 4.6). Experience from conflict-affected or authoritarian countries also suggests that what children read matters for the development of their critical functions; sadly, the world is full of reading materials not meeting such standards (target 4.7). And as the 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report emphasized, there is a reason why inclusion is explicitly mentioned in SDG 4: children’s capacity to learn is negatively affected if they are marginalized, if they feel— as many do—that they are not part of the education project (target 4.5).

By all means, a focus on indicators 4.1.1a and b is justified. It is the challenge of a generation. But we need to explain what such a focus implies for an education system and communicate the idea accordingly.

Global actor’s responsibilities

Girin’s call for a focus on foundational learning is, rightly, urgent. Policymakers who set learning objectives and put them at the center of their work, as the 2018 World Development Report urged, can make a big difference, as long as they are honest about these objectives and do not try to manipulate findings.

Many countries have been reluctant to politically commit to such a learning target or have only paid lip service to it. Government bias towards disadvantaged children may be conscious due to elitism or unconscious because officials are simply unaware of the situation.

The latter case results from a culture of measurement being absent. However, criticizing the world’s poorest countries for not having developed such technical capacities, or comparing them with the home-grown efforts of well-resourced countries, such as Brazil, India, or Mexico, is harsh. Likewise, externally proposed and wildly optimistic targets on the speed with which learning outcomes can improve need to give way to more realistic analyses of how universalization of education and good quality can go hand in hand.

It is often underestimated that most of the learning gains at population level in middle-income countries have been down to improved progression. The percentage of 15-year-olds in the six middle-income countries that took part in the 2003 and 2018 PISA rounds, including Brazil, Indonesia, and Turkey, increased from 50 percent to 75 percent. During this period, the percentage of those reaching minimum proficiency has stagnated. Yet, this is also progress: in 15 years, education systems absorbed many more disadvantaged adolescents previously not in school.

The need for countries to focus on foundational learning must be communicated with nuance to be effective. One communication challenge is around the crisis narrative. Crises are negative changes. The learning losses currently unfolding due to COVID-19 constitute a serious education crisis. Low learning levels is all that the poorest countries have ever experienced. A crisis narrative can be justified in principle because we believe we can do better and because the current situation is so costly in lost lives and lost potential. But at the same time, we should not underestimate the handicap that African countries start with. Countries that have made rapid progress, such as, say, Cuba or Korea, were monolingual societies with a literate culture and were driven by extraordinary circumstances. We need to set targets that are meaningful so as not to discourage.

Ultimately, Girin’s essay is not just about the undeniable need to focus on foundational learning per se, but rather about how to mobilize global actors to support countries to focus on this priority more effectively. He is also fair in saying, in subtle but no uncertain terms, that, just as some public officials in these countries have lost touch and a sense of responsibility towards disadvantaged children, international officials also lose their way.

The reference to the international community’s “architecture” draws attention to the ongoing process of reviewing and reforming the SDG-Education 2030 Steering Committee. Since 2015, country and organizational representation have been below par. Members appear to represent themselves rather than their constituencies. But what should this reform effort be about, and how can it be linked to a stronger focus on foundational learning? This is not a straightforward question but two issues merit attention.

First, putting foundational learning at the center of international cooperation need not be equated with placing the donor perspective at the center. Doing so risks turning the architecture into a forum of dialogue between the world’s richest and poorest countries—and indeed, only some of them. But foundational learning is a global problem deserving global attention. Three in four countries in the world that are neither donors nor aid recipients do not engage in that architecture, even if they are technically among its members. Yet, among them are some countries with the most recent direct experience of tackling the challenge of improving foundational learning and could be brought in to helpfully contribute to the debate, including the Brazils, Indias, and Mexicos of this world.

By contrast, donor countries’ aid agencies do not necessarily possess a comparative advantage in education delivery. It is rare that ministries of development talk to and learn from their peers in ministries of education. And while aid could, in principle, make a difference in low-income countries, where it accounts for 18 percent of total spending (a misleading statistic considering how a large part of that aid is spent), levels of foundational learning are almost as low in lower-middle-income countries where aid accounts for less than 2 percent of total spending. The global architecture needs to move beyond an aid-centric view of the problem. It needs to bring the perspective of countries that progressed rapidly and the perspective of regional entities that engage their member states in productive dialogue on education.

This brings me to the second point on the architecture, in which I fully agree with Girin. Instead of finance, the international community should put data and monitoring at the center. Countries bear the responsibility for improving their education systems. The influence of external financing will be marginal unless the initiative and drive comes from governments. Offering a picture of where countries stand through reliable data remains a key mechanism through which external actors can energize countries. There are many valid criticisms of this argument: yes, globally comparable data have not moved the needle in many countries, nor can such data in and of themselves bring change to classrooms. But these criticisms should not distract us from acknowledging that the international architecture has at least partly underperformed because it has lacked (i) data for all countries on key indicators; (ii) standards against which progress can be assessed; and (iii) willingness to use data and monitoring to trigger policy dialogue.

Holding ourselves accountable

A quick reading of Girin’s paper may suggest that it is overplaying the role of international actors. But in fact, it is careful in focusing on selected actions (“a few things done better”), which are both discreet and discrete, that can bring substantive change. Girin calls on members of the international community to recognize their responsibilities and reflect. I will focus on three issues: data, research, and evaluation.


The SDG 4 monitoring framework has brought significant change in education, broadening the sources of data and the range of issues. But large gaps remain, especially with learning achievement data. Ensuring that every country has a sample-based assessment of good quality every three to five years is no small thing. On the demand side, many countries have not fulfilled their responsibility to report on global indicators since the UN Economic and Social Committee approved the SDG monitoring framework in 2017. On the supply side, ensuring that assessment data are of sufficient quality and comparable is not just a technical but also a hugely political exercise, which the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) has been pursuing with commitment and diplomacy. What is asked of donors is to ensure, national or cross-national, assessments are funded and help build country capacity.

However, donors have failed this test of development cooperation effectiveness, even though it is a low-hanging fruit. Worse, rather than helping solve any of the challenges outlined above, donors appear to be adding to them. At the time of the last Global Partnership for Education replenishment in Dakar in 2018, the UIS and the Global Education Monitoring Report estimated that donors needed to provide $60 million per year above what they already spent to fill the gap in learning assessments and household surveys in low- and lower-middle-income countries. The amount is small. If disbursed in an organized way, based on a coordinated plan to support national or cross-national assessments, it would be effective and efficient. Instead, donors work in an uncoordinated way, if they do not compete with each other, to fund some assessments in some countries. As an attempt by the UIS to document these efforts in a so-called virtual registry has shown, donors do not even know what assessments they fund. Such donor behaviour not only has not helped improve the evidence base but also perpetuates an oligopolistic market structure for learning assessments, with all the negative consequences for countries and their potential to develop capacity. 1


Building national capacity is the quintessence of development cooperation. Yet, the donor record is also weak on research, or “knowledge generation” as defined in the paper. Here, I draw a different conclusion. Low- and lower-middle-income countries do not need “compendiums of promising innovations” or “advisory panels” but solid basic and applied research to answer fundamental questions:

  •  How can we best teach malnourished children?
  •  What can substitute for the lack of a literate environment to generate demand for reading?
  •  How can teachers be prepared to address the needs of children with severe disadvantages?
  •  How can reforms that use home language as a basis succeed operationally? And so on.

In the Global North, we rely upon real compendiums, like those of John Hattie, which are based on literally hundreds of studies for individual sub-questions of those listed above, which, almost exclusively, are in the English language. So why do we think that low- and lower-middle-income countries do not need a similar, if not a larger, amount of research, given how much more complex their education problems are? At the end of the day, a substantive focus on foundational learning cannot be achieved without a lively national research community that lobbies their governments to pay attention.

Donor-funded research typically produces knowledge outside the context of countries that need it, and it is fair to question whether they help countries develop the capacity they need. Such knowledge stays mostly with researchers in the Global North and may not help bring change in low- and lower-middle-income countries. The donor community should instead help produce such a cadre of researchers in the Global South who will care about early literacy and numeracy and will answer such research questions. Agriculture's CGIAR, a partnership that united international organizations engaged in research on food security since the 1970s, was mostly based in the Global South and helped build expertise in the Global South. Donors should explore whether they could transpose this experience into education.


Girin’s paper points at the “yawning gap” between what we know and what donors “choose to do.” The long list of “well-intentioned partnerships, specialized financing facilities, commissions, committees, platforms, initiatives, and forums” he names is a thinly veiled criticism of misguided donor efforts. It pays to ask how we ended up with so many, and how we can reverse this situation to streamline processes through one political and one financial mechanism—those that were established for that purpose by the international community. Girin rightly points out that “we are not learning and adapting our work.” Sometimes, it feels that the rate at which donors improve their learning does not differ from the rate at which children in the poorest countries improve their learning.

For instance, the most successful programs at scale have been carried out in collaboration with government. Yet, many bilateral donors often bypass governments. At least half of aid is project-based and not running through government systems. Sometimes UN organizations seem to strive more for visibility than for impact. The World Bank has not had its work on primary education independently evaluated since the early 2000s, hard as that might be to believe, considering that learning has been the cornerstone of its strategy since 2011. It may reflect an implicit recognition that the challenge is more complex than development organizations publicly admit and that there are few off-the-shelf solutions. Collectively, donors appear driven by internal organizational objectives, which lead development partners to compete instead of cooperating to solve complex problems. Improving such cooperation is perhaps the area where the Global Partnership for Education has focused least, even though it was at the heart of its project.


Girin’s call to the international community to improve the way it works will be one to which we will return. It may well become the benchmark against which we will measure ourselves in 2030. And he is absolutely right in not being apologetic for using accountability to demand consistency and singular commitment to a goal: “periodic stock of progress, to reflect on the reasons why we are or aren’t making any, and to alter the course of our action as required” is the minimum to ask of anyone who disburses or receives public money. His call is to put the student at the center.

The GEM Report is currently committing efforts in two directions. First, it supports the UIS in the development of benchmarks, a neglected commitment of the Framework for Action, including a benchmark on foundational learning. Their absence has made the assessment of progress less rigorous. It has deprived countries of realistic stretch targets. It has also deprived regional entities of a good entry point for policy dialogue. Second, it is embarking in the development of a regional report on foundational learning in Africa working with partners and researchers in the continent. It aims to bring the comparative and independent perspectives of its research together in the service of this overarching goal. One of the key mechanisms it will use is to work through partnerships to bring foundational learning to the attention of continental leaders. In addition to these two activities, we stand ready to collaborate with other members of the international community to turn the vision expressed in Girin’s paper into reality.