A Pre-Emption Policy on Universal Basic Education

May 14, 2004

Testimony by CFR fellows and experts before Congress.

Testimony of
Gene B. Sperling
Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Director, Center for Universal Education

Submitted May 14, 2004
House Committee on Appropriations
Subcommittee on Foreign Operations

More on:


I thank the House subcommittee for the opportunity to submit this written statement on the FY 2005 Foreign Operations bill.

Last year before this committee, I testified to the fact that while reaching the goal of universal basic education delivers enormous benefits in terms of income growth, economic development, women’s health and well-being, preventing disease, and improving political participation and democracy, the prospects for reaching universal basic education were dim without a major push for a global compact on universal basic education. While Chairman Jim Kolbe and Ranking Member Nita Lowey deserve praise for the progress that has occurred under their leadership, we are not even close to such a global compact on education. Today 86 developing countries are off track to reach the 2015 goal, 104 million children out of school, 55% percent of African girls do not even finish primary education, and only 17% will even seek secondary education. Even with the recent increases in basic education assistance, the $326 million for basic education to support education is only as much as we spend building 15 high schools in our own nation, while the external financing gap for countries to reach universal primary education stands between $6 billion and $10 billion per year. Primary education generally covers 5-6 years of education, while basic education requires 8-9 years.

As I discussed in my testimony last year, there is great need for a global compact on education – where the United States worked with other donors and leveraged significant coordinated assistance to show developing countries that we meant our side of the bargain agreed to at the Dakar forum. Such a compact assures developing countries that those who do their part – pursuing far-reaching education reforms as part of a comprehensive strategy to get all children in school – will receive significant support for their efforts. Such a compact would provide strong incentives to pursue major reforms, and ensure that U.S. assistance is channeled to the intended schools, children and educators by making commitments contingent on countries developing national plans and demonstrating strong measures for accountability and budget transparency to track the funds it receives.

Since Dakar, there has been some small progress in greater global coordination on standards and reducing duplication at the country level, through the Education for All Fast Track Initiative, a coordinated international blueprint for donor assistance to support developing countries’ comprehensive, accountable education plans. Yet without major funding commitments by the U.S. and other donor nations, such a global process will never be able to fulfill its aspirations to inspire poor nations to seek universal basic education. Indeed, the U.S. has often been perceived as among the least supportive donors of such efforts.

Progress has been Too Little and Too Reactive

More on:


Beyond the failure to launch a global compact, the U.S. strategy on supporting education in poor countries is fundamentally reactive, which threatens to undermine the effectiveness of even the modest support we currently provide. Our major new education assistance efforts in recent years have gone only to countries where we have been engaged in military conflict – Afghanistan and Iraq – or where we perceive an imminent security threat. For example, the Administration is currently seeking new funds for education efforts in Pakistan and recently announced its intention to scale-up education efforts in the Middle East through the new Middle East Partnership Initiative.

These efforts are certainly important. In Afghanistan, USAID has taken the lead in coordinating donors' education assistance efforts to ensure all children are in school, and to accelerate access to school for a generation of girls who were denied education under the Taliban. In Iraq, U.S. assistance has supported the rebuilding of thousands of schools and retraining of tens of thousands of teachers to get the war-torn country's school system back on its feet. And we are right to be acutely focused in areas like Pakistan and the Middle East where the failure of the public school systems can create a void that is too easily filled by religious extremists teaching hate.

Yet this reactive approach to education in poorer nations falls short in two fundamental ways. First, when we provide major aid to poor children around the world when we are dealing with aftermath of military conflict, or when we are doing so as part of a perceived security threat, our actions look to the world as only self-serving, as opposed to representing broader values and heart of the American people. Second, only assisting nations after they pose or have posed a security threat to our nation fails to allow our aid to provide a positive incentive to nations to seek assistance in pursuing crucial positive efforts for their children, such as seeking to give them a free, quality basic education. It has become increasingly common lately to analogize America’s education assistance efforts today to the 1950s Peter Sellers movie “The Mouse that Roared,” where a small European nation declares war on the United States because “Americans (will) pour in food, machinery, clothing, technical aid and a lot of money for the relief of its former enemies.” Unfortunately, this dark humor rings too true in the current environment when one looks at our reactive pattern on education policies to developing nations.

Need for Pre-Emption Policy:

Rather than wait until a country enters a state of emergency or conflict that threatens our security, we should adopt a “pre-emption” strategy on education, where the U.S. provides significant assistance and incentives to all poor countries to reform their education systems and enroll all children in school before their education system has been harmed by extremists or destroyed by conflict.

A strong global compact backed by serious leadership and resource commitments would make real such a pre-emptive approach by demonstrating to all developing countries that we are serious about supporting education, regardless of the security environment. Such an approach would be far more effective at providing incentives for countries to reach universal basic education, and winning hearts and minds.

A Strong Compact with Incentives Inspires Positive Competition: A global compact could initiate a process of positive competition between developing countries and could jumpstart meaningful education reform. If a country sees its neighbors receiving resources after committing to specific universal education programs, it gives the country both the motivation to initiate reform and a set of models upon which to base its efforts.

The international effort to provide developing countries with debt relief provides an example of such positive competition. The process was initiated by a straightforward presentation to all eligible countries of the steps necessary to qualify for relief through Heavily Indebted Poor Country Initiative (HIPC). A few leading countries, most notably Uganda, completed these steps early on and received relief. When other countries saw Uganda reforming its own system, and in turn receiving substantial international support, it sped up the pace of reform and sparked competition among other sub-Saharan African countries. The quick disbursal of funds instilled clear confidence in other eligible countries that their efforts and sacrifices would be rewarded.

A credible global compact on education could work the same way. A compact backed by serious financial support would serve as an incentive for countries to do the heavy lifting to reform their education systems. And when countries that do the right thing receive serious support, it serves as an incentive to other countries to reform, and initiates a cycle of positive competition. The Education for All Fast Track Initiative has set credible standards and a financing framework, and made notable progress on standards for coordination among donors and countries. But for this initiative to make Education for All a reality by 2015, it needs to be backed by serious resource commitments from donors. If the U.S., working with other donors, were to back this initiative – or a broad global compact – with a clear contingent commitment of resources, the power of positive competition would be multiplied many times over.

Winning Hearts and Minds: Certainly, some of our efforts, however reactive, are still substantial, and appreciated by those who have benefited. The international community has rightly celebrated the return of girls previously banned from school in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and such developments are surely welcomed among the Afghan public.

Yet, when our efforts are purely reactive, our motives are transparently self-serving to those we are trying to help. When I attended the Saban Center for Middle East Policy’s U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha earlier this year, I heard over and over again the refrain that the U.S. seems only to care about children in the Middle East to the extent that they may grow up and pose a physical threat to our security.

Three women from Bahrain who sit on the country’s governing council recounted to me the skepticism that meets U.S. assistance efforts in the area of education. They have been working for several years to adjust curriculum and improve education quality in Bahrain – efforts that had always met with some resistance. But before the U.S. turned its focus to the country, those who resisted rarely questioned these women’s intentions – they saw them as idealistic activists. Now, everywhere they go, they are met with a far more skeptical refrain: "Why are you a tool of the U.S.?" The recent U.S. interest in funding education programs gives people the impression that these women are merely recruits in an effort to Westernize Bahrain’s national school system. "Everybody in our country knows that before 9/11, nobody from the U.S. ever cared about educating our kids," they said, explaining the reactions they have heard.

If we want our efforts to be seen as genuine and generous, we need to proactively lead a global effort to reach universal basic education. We are more likely to win hearts and minds when we support universal basic education for all countries, rather than only when it seems to be responding post-hoc to existing national security problems

Failing the Pre-Emptive Approach: The Case of Kenya

The East African nation of Kenya provides a clear example of the need for a strong, pre-emptive approach on education, and the costs and consequences of failing to do so. Kenya has demonstrated precisely the kind of strong domestic commitment to education reform that we would want other developing countries to pursue. After winning an historic election in 2003, President Mwai Kibaki called for universal education in his inaugural address, made the elimination of fees for eight years of basic education his first Presidential initiative, and demonstrated the depth of his commitment by appointing former Kenyan Vice President George Saitoti as Minister of Education. The government has since trained hundreds of teachers to work in remote areas and made important progress in decentralizing school management and budget processes, with a level of parental involvement that would be the envy of most U.S. school districts.

Yet success in Kenya will require strong and sustained external support. Primary school enrollments have already shot up 20% since the abolition of school fees, and the government now needs to hire already trained teachers, build new schools, and provide sufficient textbooks and other materials to ensure that its ambitious reforms do not overwhelm and paralyze the public education system.

If we come forward and support Kenya now, as they are undertaking these efforts, we would not only help them succeed in getting all their children in school, but would send a clear signal to other African countries that bold efforts at reform will be rewarded and supported. It would help create positive competition, with other reformist countries coming forward eager to know what they need to do to ensure the same kind of support. On the other hand, if Kenya is allowed to fail as the rest of Africa looks on, it will breed further cynicism and distrust in the U.S. commitment to education, and will undermine the position of reformers in other countries who are trying to push their own governments to make the politically difficult choices to reform.

A textbook case for a pre-emption strategy

Furthermore, Kenya is the textbook case for why a preemptive approach is so important in supporting education around the world. While many policymakers lament the decision to not provide more sustained and significant support to countries like Pakistan, which could have avoided the gaping holes in public education system that have since been filled with extremist schools teaching intolerance and hate, Kenya is a country where there is still time to take preventative action. Like other East African countries, Kenya has been designated by the State Department as a potential home for Al Qaeda extremists, and more than 57% of the country is under the age of 19. In the North Eastern province, with a Muslim majority, primary enrollment rates remain under 20%. During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, Minister Saitoti repeatedly told experts and policymakers that in the absence of efforts to expand education in this region, he feared that students there would be vulnerable to the proliferation of extremist schools funded by radical religious groups outside of Kenya.

If, because we stand on the sidelines or offer only paltry or incremental support, Kenya’s experiment with increased democracy and universal education fails, and if in the North Eastern region, those at odds with the government are allowed to become the providers of education to Kenyan children, we will all look back with regret that we did not take preventative action earlier and make a serious effort to win the hearts and minds before there was a military conflict, imminent threat or civil unrest. It is still in our power to prevent this regret from happening again.

Policy Proposals

For the U.S. to take a strong leadership role and devise a strategy on basic education that serves as a catalyst for a global compact, it needs to adopt several policies to ensure that U.S. assistance adheres to a comprehensive approach to make real progress toward achieving education for all children by 2015.

1. Support a Global Compact on Universal Education

As stated when I testified last year, the ultimate measure of U.S. success in the area of universal education should be the extent to which our leadership and commitment of resources helps move the world toward the goal of getting all kids in school. Reaching the universal basic education goal requires a coordinated global compact, backed by a clearly identified pool of donor funds to spur reforms in developing countries.

Legislation being developed by Senator Hillary Clinton and other House and Senate offices calls for such a global initiative with serious resource commitments, and deserves broad bipartisan support. An effective pre-emption policy needs significant levels of funding, and the forthcoming bill is likely to propose $500 million in assistance to education for FY05, increasing up to $2.5 billion by 2009.

A bold, new commitment of resources for education, tied to strong standards of accountability and performance, is essential to making progress on universal basic education. A true global initiative would encourage other donors to step up with commensurate financial commitments, and empower reform-minded countries with the knowledge that if they step up to the plate, we will be there to back their efforts. In turn, a global initiative should demand the highest standards of budget transparency and accountability, so that we are disciplined about disbursing funds to countries only when they demonstrate they have met those standards of transparency and accountability, they commit domestic resources and leadership to getting all children in school, and develop comprehensive plans to ensure access to and quality of education for all children.

Part of ensuring that our education policy and investment in developing countries is proactive involves coordinating the various sources of U.S. education funding – from USAID’s basic education programs to initiatives within the Department of State to the Department of Labor’s prevention of child labor effort, as well as the Millennium Challenge Account and the President’s AIDS initiative. Once U.S. education assistance is connected and coherent, the needs and opportunities to invest in education early will be clearer.

While U.S. leadership is essential, the U.S. cannot do this alone. We need to work with other countries to coordinate funding and avoid conflicting donor requirements and overlapping projects on the ground. In addition, harnessing the strengths of private foundations, nonprofit organizations and other civil society groups is important to helping countries succeed in their Education for All plans by helping to fund and implement targeted strategies to reach vulnerable children, especially girls, and target those out of school, including orphans, AIDS-affected youth, disabled children and working children.

It is both consistent with our values and our strategic self-interest to play a leading role in creating a more coordinated and robust global compact on education. If U.S. policymakers have concerns about the most viable existing effort to do this – the Education for All Fast Track Initiative – the response should be to find ways to make it bolder, significantly better funded, and more coordinated rather than seeking just to downgrade it and leave nothing in its place.

2. Expand the Second Tier of the Millennium Challenge Account

The Millennium Challenge Account could serve as a critical vehicle for supporting a global compact on education if funding for a second tier of assistance were significantly increased and the criteria for eligibility were expanded in a way that facilitated progress toward meeting the Millennium Development Goal for universal education by 2015.

In addition to increasing funding for the second tier, the U.S. should expand the criteria for assistance beyond its current iteration of helping ‘near-miss’ countries (those that didn’t qualify for full MCA funding based on poor performance on one eligibility criterion). Currently, near-miss countries may receive assistance to strengthen their performance only in the area where they missed qualifying for full assistance. Kenya was not included among the first 16 qualifying countries because it missed by one indicator.

Second-tier assistance should be available for countries, like Kenya, that have demonstrated national leadership on education, have a strong nationally owned education plan to achieve universal basic education, and are committed to ensuring the budget transparency, accountability and monitoring to ensure that second tier funds are being appropriately used and not diverted.

Kenya is a prime example of why an expanded second tier for education is necessary. Where a democratic government and poor African nation makes a dramatic commitment to universal education, it makes no sense for us to be sitting on sidelines at the very moment when such nations most needs funds to strengthen their prospects for educational reform and democratic governance. Such second-tier support would not be designed to simply substitute for current incremental initiatives, but to provide support where a country is committing to broad national education reform and moving toward the goal of universal basic education.

Because this type of success in universal education could provide a building block for the even broader, more comprehensive reform the MCA seems to encourage, a country receiving substantial funding for their national education plan would still have significant incentive to continue reform efforts to meet all of the eligibility criteria for broader and more comprehensive MCA – first-tier – funding.

Second-tier funding that could be available for any nation with a strong, accountable Education for All plan could also provide a pool of resources the United States could use to leverage other G8 and donor nations to put forth equivalent financial commitments, which could signal to the developing world a bold and well-funded compact on basic education.

3. Understand and Support the Education and AIDS Connection

Another critical reason for the U.S. to take a greater leadership role on supporting a global compact on education is to strengthen the important connection between education and AIDS prevention.

While forms of AIDS prevention curricula have the potential to be a strong component of an overall HIV/AIDS prevention strategy, growing evidence shows that just ensuring that more children, particularly girls, complete basic education can itself be a positive factor in reducing the risk of infection. And compelling evidence demonstrates higher benefits to AIDS prevention when youth, especially girls, receive even some secondary education.

Consider the evidence: Staying in school is associated with delayed sexual activity, and increased knowledge about the disease and safe sexual behaviors. In Zambia, HIV infection rates among late adolescents who had completed a basic education fell during the 1990’s, while infection rates among those with little or no education rose. A recent study in rural Uganda found that over the course of the 1990s, young people who finished secondary education were three times less likely to be HIV positive. And some school-based HIV/AIDS curricula have proved useful in disseminating information on disease prevention to a large audience at a critical age, and in some cases, promoting safer sexual behavior. Ensuring that students enroll and stay in school is critical to stemming the spread of the disease, which has hamstrung productivity and growth in many poor countries.

In addition, U.S. assistance needs to address the impact of AIDS on school systems. The teaching forces in many countries are being crippled by the disease. In countries such as Botswana, nearly one-third of the teaching force is infected, which means uneven teacher attendance and quality of instruction. Just at the time when the demographic burden has made teachers more essential, and when teachers’ roles in conveying information about HIV/AIDS is critical, countries are suffering from insufficient resources to support the teachers they have, let alone to find and pay new ones.

We should do more within our own government’s development policies to coordinate AIDS prevention with education strategies, while also seeking to ensure far greater coordination among the developing countries that receive U.S. assistance. A pre-emptive approach to universal basic education can be an effective preventative approach for HIV/AIDS.


The way to win hearts and minds is not to simply rebuild schools after we’ve destroyed them but to show the true heart of the American people by leading a bold global effort to give all of the world’s poorest children the opportunity to complete at least a quality basic education.

Of course, education is not a silver bullet, and of course there will always be highly educated terrorists. Yet, common sense, and hundreds of years of human experience teach us that when people are given more education, opportunity and hope, they are on the whole more likely to choose positive and peaceful paths and bypass those leading to hate and destruction.

Top Stories on CFR

Middle East and North Africa

CFR experts Steven A. Cook and David J. Scheffer join Amnesty International’s Agnes Callamard and Refugee International’s Jeremy Konyndyk to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.


The highlights from Kishida Fumio's busy week in Washington.

Genocide and Mass Atrocities

Thirty years ago, Rwanda’s government began a campaign to eradicate the country’s largest minority group. In just one hundred days in 1994, roving militias killed around eight hundred thousand people. Would-be killers were incited to violence by the radio, which encouraged extremists to take to the streets with machetes. The United Nations stood by amid the bloodshed, and many foreign governments, including the United States, declined to intervene before it was too late. What got in the way of humanitarian intervention? And as violent conflict now rages at a clip unseen since then, can the international community learn from the mistakes of its past?