In the CGD’s Views from the Center Blog, Nancy Birdsall comments on the World Bank’s new education policy that targets learning rather than access education. This may sound like semantics, but it is a shift in emphasis that makes all the difference. Have a look at this IBP Brief to see what happened when the Tanzanian government focused on enrollment rather than quality of education. And of course the current formulation of the education MDG still encourages access to education, rather than learning.

Birdsall makes some fascinating points that education and aid policy experts should debate in detail. Most of them are tinged by the New Public Management approach that performance should be managed and innovation encouraged in how such performance is achieved.

If we accept the validity of these suggestions for the moment (I hope education and aid policy experts don’t), they still leave a number of questions about whether most poor countries would be capable of responding to the challenges that such a funding model would pose:

  • Most poor countries don’t have sufficient performance management systems. True, some countries do report matriculation results, but reporting on performance at the end of a 11 or 12 years schooling cycle is hardly useful for management purposes. Will this inability to report not punish the most needy countries?
  • Recipient countries will be encouraged to manage their schools in the same way. This funding model will create the incentive to move government funding from non-performing to performing schools. This often means that poor and marginalized learners face even greater barriers to learning.
  • Is the root of this problem not the idea that there is a trade-off between access to and quality of education? Should we really choose one over the other? Should the right to education not embrace both access and quality? Yes, all budgets are a zero sum game that enforce hard trade-offs. But any good budget is based on a balancing of these priorities, not a stark choice between them.