Education: The best investment the world can make

Refugee child with "You Promised" sign

Mother with poster of girl kidnapped by Boko Haram

Wounded refugee boy in ambulance


Bloodied bodies in ambulances. The faces of kidnapped schoolgirls. The tiny lifejacket washed up on the shore. Little hands taught to hold weapons. Tired limbs walking halfway around the world.

These children’s stories of 2016 have no “Happily Ever After.” From the faces of kidnapped girls by the Boko Haram insurgency of Nigeria, to the devastated earthquake-hit communities of Nepal and the war-torn Syrian refugee camps, millions of girls and boys are condemned to child marriage or labor or trafficked as children. Millions more are simply denied the teachers and classrooms they need. All are deprived of hope when they should be enjoying a quality education at school.

In 2016, a quarter of a billion children and young people are out of school. Another 330 million are not learning because we fail to invest in them even when they are in school. We cannot accept another year or decade like this. It is time we started telling new stories about our children. Time we offered them not just safety, but a real future – not just freedom from fear, but the freedom to realize their potential through education.

The challenge

So with this report we attempt to start a different story – about securing every child the right to an education, making a promise that this time we will keep. This is the civil rights struggle of our generation. For unless we change course now, nearly 1 billion school-aged children will still be denied basic secondary-level skills in 2030. Even in 2050, one child in three in Africa will not be able to complete basic secondary education. By then, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan will be delivering higher educational opportunity for 80 percent or more of their school graduates, while the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Niger will, at best, struggle to reach 5 percent.

It is time to turn the page and to state that every child counts, is precious and unique; that instead of developing some of the potential of some of the world’s children, we should be developing all of the potential of all of our children. That we will make sure that the promise of a quality primary and secondary education for every child by 2030 will be honored by the combined efforts of the international community.

The International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity was formed to summon the best evidence necessary to inform what we present today: an agenda for action that will add up to the largest expansion of educational opportunity in modern history. I am grateful to the governments of Norway, Indonesia, Malawi, and Chile, the UN Secretary-General, and the Director-General of UNESCO for giving us the chance to make these recommendations. This report is a tribute to the commitment, passion and insight of our Commissioners, and the more than 300 partners in 105 countries who shared their expertise and experience. Our Commission starts from a belief in a future filled with opportunity – a future where, with the right education and skills, developing countries can find new routes to growth, built on human capital. It believes that education and skills provide the best route out of poverty, inequality, and instability, and our best safeguard against climate change, disease, and extremism. And we are clear that in an increasingly interconnected global economy and society, the social and economic costs of failing to give young people the skills they need will affect us all. We do not have to look far back in history to see what happens when young people are denied the future they have been promised – the unskilled, the discontented, and the disconnected are easy prey for those wishing to spread anger and fear and radicalization.

The turning point

We are at a turning point. Without a renewed effort to expand opportunities for education for all children, we will not fulfill the unfinished business of the Millennium Development Goals, ever meet the 2030 deadline for the Sustainable Development Goals, or create the means by which low-income countries can become high-income countries. As we show in this report, education – especially the education of girls – is a catalyst for cutting child and maternal deaths, and lifting people out of poverty. Investing early and sufficiently, including everyone, and leveraging synergies with other sectors is the best way to reap the benefits of education. Indeed, in the absence of a major drive on education, we shall not complete the great social reform struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries – the struggles against child labor and child marriage.

The first generation where every child goes to school

Inspired by examples of extraordinary educational advancement around the world, and challenged by the urgent need to continually reshape education to meet the needs of a new generation, the Commission articulates a progressive way forward for global education. We show how our vision of a world in which all children and young people are in school and learning is not a dream. It is an achievable reality already witnessed in some countries. If we transform the performance of education systems, unleash innovation, prioritize inclusion, expand financing, and motivate all countries to accelerate their progress to match the world’s top 25 percent fastest education improvers, we can build the “Learning Generation.”

Securing the finances to fund the Learning Generation

Creating the Learning Generation requires closing the gap between 2016’s $1.2 trillion in annual education spending and the $3 trillion level needed in low- and middle-income countries by 2030. We expect national governments to lead in financing education, leveraging the dividends of growth and meeting realistic targets for education spending. Their commitment to reform and investment will be the most important driver in achieving the Learning Generation. For those governments willing to substantially invest and reform, we believe the international community has a responsibility to provide concomitant financial assistance and support.

The global investment mechanism

The Commission envisions a “Financing Compact” for the Learning Generation where one country’s pledge to invest in education will trigger the support of the international community. Mobilizing new finance will require innovative approaches to financing and new ways to leverage existing resources. In today’s world of economic insecurity and cynicism about the potential impact international spending, making the smart and evidence-driven case for more funds – louder and more effectively – is vital. But it simply won’t be enough. We need to find new and creative ways to shake up the global financing of education.

The Commission makes bold recommendations to bring together the one set of institutions that can make the biggest difference today – the multilateral development banks (MDB) that have the power to leverage up to $20 billion of extra funding for education annually. Our proposal for a groundbreaking Multilateral Development Bank Investment Mechanism for Education combines the unique opportunity to leverage substantial additional MDB financing and scale financing for education with the key strengths of earlier proposals for a global fund for education. Raising international funding levels for education to match those already achieved by the health community is not just a moral imperative. In an inter-connected global economy, it is a smart and vital investment.

Value for money

We need more resources for education. But we must also utilize existing resources more effectively. We need to raise new resources, cut waste, and ensure that every dollar delivers real learning. A 21st century education should not just confer a credential. It must expand the capabilities of all. Therefore, innovations in teaching and learning must move to the center of the education agenda. As factories are automated, hospitals digitized, and homes hardwired, what message do we send when classrooms today mirror those from centuries ago? We need to invest in the education workforce and reimagine what it could become. We need to place the teacher at the center. This means thinking of the skills of the teacher in a new and most positive light — the guide by your side as well as the sage on the stage — and investing in the entire education workforce. And we need to get all classrooms online with a scalable digital infrastructure. Under our plan, all classrooms – from the remotest village and the most desolate refugee camp to the most crowded city –will be online with a scalable digital infrastructure.

Progressive universalism

In all this, we need to give greatest priority to those children most at risk of being excluded from learning so unequal opportunities in one generation do not lead to unequal outcomes for the next. And we need to give greater emphasis to the needs of the rural child, the street child, the refugee child, and the child who is disabled or visually impaired. Each of them need more resources and a willingness to harness new technology to meet their needs. We can accomplish this only through a progressive universalism that will combine a commitment to every child with more resources devoted to those children who need most help.

The civil rights struggle of our generation

We have, as this report sets out, the means, the knowledge, and the tools to get all children learning. Harnessing the reform momentum already underway in some countries, and working within the confines of expected growth rates and feasible budgetary expansions, the Commission’s recommendations are both radical and credible. But alarmingly, few governments are under sufficient public pressure to resolve education shortcomings where they exist. Rarely do leaders believe they might lose an election over their failures over education, even if their education systems are in a state of collapse. So this report, in part, endeavors to create a public opinion groundswell where parents, pupils, students, teachers, and all interested in the future of education demand that every child’s right to an education be honored. To support this, we call for new action to ensure that all countries – developing and development partners – are held accountable for meeting their responsibilities to children, and for the United Nations to scrutinize countries’ educational advancement and draw attention to any who are failing to invest and improve. As parents and teachers – as influencers and change makers – we all can do a better job upholding this promise. We know learning unlocks hope, develops talent, and unleashes potential. Now we must reaffirm education’s status as a human right, a civil right, and an economic imperative.

It has been said that every moment is an opportunity. If that is true, then we must seize ours now.  This Commission asserts that potential is best developed, talents best unleashed, and dreams best fulfilled at the point a child and teacher are brought together. Most of all, it is education — our ability to plan and prepare for the future — that gives us hope. Let us remind people of a basic equation: child + teacher equals infinite hope.


Rt Hon Gordon Brown

Chair, International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity

United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education

Photos, left to right: Tabitha Ross/ Theirworld, Pius Utomi EKPEI/AFP/ Getty Images, Mahmud Rslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


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