2015: A Year of Decision for Global Education

This year marks a decade and a half since the international community committed to address the vast and complex problem of educating all of the world's primary school-aged children. It's a time to reassess the next steps in the global education movement and to make some big decisions about bringing those steps to life in the next 15 years.

To be sure, we've seen encouraging progress since 2000, when -- following the Education for All initiative and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) -- donor countries and developing countries alike began to devote more resources to strengthening education systems in many of the poorest, least-developed countries across the world. Those efforts played a role in reducing the number of out-of-school children of primary and lower secondary school age by almost 40 percent from about 197 million in 2000 to approximately 121 million in 2012 (the last available figure).

121 million is still a staggering number of children many of whom will go through life without basic literacy and numeracy skills. Many of them will never go to school and will most likely never be able to unlock their full intellectual potential.

Their individual lost opportunity is in turn a loss for their communities and nations, which struggle with their own prosperity and stability without sufficient human capital. And we know that the world economy gains when more countries are more prosperous, healthy and peaceful. Put another way, when 121 million children have no access to education and hundreds of million more are in school but not really learning, it's a problem for all of us.

The new Sustainable Development Goals, to be announced by the United Nations in September, are far more ambitious on education than the MDGs they are replacing. The SDGs will set out to "ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all." In plain terms, this is a call for a far greater push than ever to educate the hardest-to-reach children. It means reaching children who live in fragile and conflict-affected countries or in remote regions, those with disabilities and those who are disadvantaged because of their gender, ethnicity, religion or social standing.

Such an ambitious agenda requires an equally ambitious financial commitment. This month, high-level government leaders will come together at the Education for Development Summit in Norway and the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Ethiopia. Discussions will center on whether the SDG education provisions will remain a vision on paper only or become reality in countries across the globe. We have to make it a reality.

But the funding gaps are daunting. UNESCO estimates that there is an external financing gap of $22 billion annually to ensure that all children get a quality pre-primary, primary and lower-secondary education. If we add secondary education, the bill shoots up to $39 billion.

Filling this financing gap won't be easy, particularly if we consider that global aid to education has been in sharp decline for the past few years while aid to other sectors has been increasing. We will have to reverse this trend and I hope we will see a beginning as leaders in global education meet in Oslo this week and start unlocking the financing solutions to what is needed.

The onus to act, though, is not on donor countries alone. Recognizing how critical education is to the lives of their citizens and to the well-being of their societies, more developing countries are allocating more of their national resources to education to build and equip schools, train and pay teachers, and ensure a safe and nourishing childhood and real learning.

In fact, at the Global Partnership for Education's replenishment conference last year, developing countries collectively pledged to increase their domestic financing for education by an extraordinary $26 billion between 2015 and 2018. But we don't just need more money. We also need to invest better -- in strategies to build stronger education systems, target the poorest, respond better to crises, and drive at concrete outcomes like ensuring universal basic skills. We must go beyond short-term cycles of aid focused on finite results, and use aid to build strong systems, buttressed by good governance, transparency and strong country ownership. Around 36 percent of all out-of-school children live in conflict-affected areas. We simply cannot forget children in countries like South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, the Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of Congo. They have a right to education just like every other child and deserve a chance to improve their lives and that of their families, communities and countries.

At the Global Partnership we take this seriously. In 2014, 50 percent of our funding was to such counties. The Global Partnership is the largest international funder of basic education in countries affected by conflict. One of the fortunate legacies of the last 15 years is that organizations like the Global Partnership for Education have established a strong operational platform that makes efficient financing possible-in large part, because the Global Partnership maximizes impact by encouraging donors to engage with national systems and support national education sector plans in order to strengthen national capacity and accountability. Throughout this year, I have felt a strong and growing sense of convergence and consensus among those most committed to these goals -- that this is the time to make a change.