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"We need greater collaboration between education stakeholders" - Reflections on Opportunity International's UN General Assembly Side Event

By Maham Khuhro and Catherine O'Shea

On September 18th, 2023, Opportunity International EduFinance held a side event as part of the United Nations General Assembly. The event sparked important discussions about how non-state actors can improve education access and quality for students in low- and middle-income countries, especially those in hard-to-reach areas. Furthermore, the event aimed to identify key steps for more equitable and more efficient education financing.

The panel included:

The presenters shared research from two recent publications:

1) The State of the Affordable Non-State School Sector - Opportunity International EduFinance, given its unique position in the non-state education market, leveraged its expertise and experience to conduct a sizing analysis of the non-state education market in low- and middle-income countries.

2) The Non-State Actors in Education: Evidence Gap Map (EGM) - developed by the Education Finance Network - illustrates existing research on the role and impact of non-state actors in education in low- and middle-income countries.

Key takeaways:

  • The world needs almost 67 million new teachers by 2030 and we need to ramp up our efforts to get there.
  • 7 out of 10 school-aged children are not learning, driven by a lack of access and quality. 
  • Low- and middle-income countries must increase their education spending by 117% to reach SDG 4. 
  • The non-state school sector enrolls (at least) 26% of students in low- and middle-income countries. 
  • The non-state school sector is under-invested. There is a US$36 billion opportunity to add 49 million new school seats.
  • Access vs quality is a false dichotomy: there’s no way to ensure quality without first securing access.
  • Working with local communities is crucial to reach scale and identify the needs of communities and existing gaps in provision.

To provide further insights into the event, we spoke with Andrew McCusker, Head of EduFinance at Opportunity International, and Natalie Davirro, Senior Research and Knowledge Manager, Education Finance Network.

Was there one point that all the presenters seemed aligned on? Was there a point that created strong differences of opinion?

Natalie: In general, Emily Friedman, Global Business Coalition for Education, and Tyler Arnot, Street Child, were both very aligned in their perspectives. One point that was made was the importance of empowering teachers, as they are the ones truly driving change. Teachers working in emergency contexts need a lot more support, with resources, etc., as they are working in hard conditions and cannot support their learners if they are not supported themselves.

Andrew: Mostly, we all agreed that the reality is, the education deficit is real. While we are making progress, we are still tracking behind reaching SDG 4. Things need to change.

What was the most interesting new thing you heard at the event?

Andrew: There is a significant opportunity to close the funding deficit in the global education sector by crowding in private investment by local banks and microfinance institutions into the sector. 

And as a result of this event, I further understood the effectiveness of remedial learning programs targeted at out-of-school children in improving educational attainment. 

Natalie: Emily Friedman made a point that I had not heard made quite so strongly before in other events – girls’ education and gender inequity is not the most pressing issue anymore. While there are some regions where this challenge persists, it is not the biggest cleavage in education. The bigger gaps are between rural versus urban and very low or low-income versus middle or high-income – these are bigger gaps we need to focus on closing, but the discourse remains very much focused on gender equity.

What did any panel members say about the state of the global education deficit?

Natalie: We are doing better than we think we are doing in closing the education deficit. We also know more than we think we know. People seem to be pessimistic about our progress toward decreasing the deficit, as shown in the poll results below, but more progress has been made than we think!

CAPTION: Audience members answered poll questions digitally during the event


Emily Friedman, Global Business Coalition for Education, noted that there are a lot of interventions with very strong evidence of success. We have evidence of what interventions work, but the challenge is bringing this good work to scale. 

When discussing Education in Emergencies, Tyler Arnot, Street Child, emphasized that for children, there is no such thing as “Education in Emergencies.” In emergency contexts, this is just their education every day. It doesn’t matter who provides or funds it. There is a perception that there should be different approaches to humanitarian contexts vs “non-humanitarian” or non-emergency, but parallel conversations are happening in silos, and we need to bring those together into a united approach.

Andrew: Representatives from both Street Child and Luminos Fund commented on the need to focus on providing last-mile education coverage to close the access gap. However, quality challenges remain significant for children in school. 

What do you think still needs to happen to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) by 2030?

Natalie: We need greater collaboration, so we are not acting in silos: humanitarian efforts, ‘Education in Emergencies’ efforts, public sector efforts, and private sector efforts are all working towards the same goal. We are all doing the same work, so calling it different things is just slowing progress. 

Andrew: Low- and middle-income countries must increase their education spending by 117% to reach SDG 4. 

Group in Intro Seminar

How did panelists and audience react to the research that was presented by Opportunity EduFinance and Education Finance Network (EFN)?

Natalie: The response was quite positive! Many people realized that they could have been more informed about certain statistics, but there were also subjects on which nearly everyone reached a consensus or had a solid understanding of the level of impact.

We asked the audience to complete digital poll questions and approximately 80% accurately estimated the percentage of low- and middle-income countries that depend on non-state schools for their children's education. Our presentation generated significant engagement and sparked greater interest in becoming part of the EFN.

CAPTION: Word cloud showing audience suggestions on where there are gaps in research

During the discussions, participants agreed on specific actions aimed at advancing research in the field of education. These commitments revolve around various aspects of education, signaling a shared commitment to improving access, equity, and quality in this vital sector.

  • Access and Equity: The discussions highlighted the need to delve deeper into indicators that go beyond affordability. This includes exploring issues like student drop-out rates, the impact of geographic location (rural vs. urban), the language used in the curriculum, the role of parental engagement, and the promotion of inclusive education.

  • School Quality: Beyond the conventional emphasis on test scores, participants stressed the importance of assessing school quality through other lenses. This entails a closer look at teaching practices, the knowledge and expertise of teachers, the content of the curriculum, and other relevant factors.

  • Innovative Financing: In the quest for sustainable education solutions, the discussions pointed to the significance of innovative financing models. Researchers and stakeholders will investigate the feasibility and effectiveness of financing mechanisms such as school fee loans, Social Impact Bonds (SIBs), Development Impact Bonds (DIBs), and similar approaches.

  • Cost Analysis: Recognizing the limited availability of cost data, the discussions called for in-depth research into cost-effectiveness and cost-benefit analyses. This is an essential step towards gaining a better understanding of the financial aspects of education programs and policies.

  • Geographical Coverage: Studies are clustered in, for example, eastern Africa and South Asia, with little evidence from Latin America.

These commitments underscore a shared vision for enhancing education and promoting more informed decision-making in the education sector. Participants demonstrated a collective dedication to creating a fairer educational landscape.

The panel highlighted the need for more teachers and increased education spending, with an emphasis on equity. Panelists discussed the underinvestment in non-state schools and potential private investment solutions. Achieving SDG4 by 2030 necessitates collaboration and higher education spending. The positive response to the research presented by Opportunity International EduFinance and Education Finance Network went alongside a collective vision shared by attendees to work together to close the current gap in the number of school places globally.

Read more about the UNGA 2023 side event here.

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