Keynote speech by Directorate-General for International Cooperation Kitty van der Heijden at the GPE board meeting

Keynote speech by Directorate-General for International Cooperation Kitty van der Heijden at the GPE board meeting, 9 June 2020.

Your Excellencies, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It’s my pleasure to welcome you all to this online meeting of the Global Partnership for Education Board – the first of its kind.

Of course I would have liked to welcome you to the Netherlands in person, as this would have been the first GPE board meeting to be held here. COVID-19 has forced us to postpone that event, but a meeting delayed is not a meeting denied, and I hope to be able to welcome you to my country in person at a later date.

We’ve all had to adapt to this new reality, and I’m glad we’ve been able to figure out the logistics for this board meeting so we can continue the GPE’s important work.

Because it’s especially necessary today. The world is changing all around us, and in truly drastic ways. We don’t yet know where all this will lead.

There are only a few things in life that help us prepare for this fundamental uncertainty – and the most important of these, I believe, is education.

Education offers people ways to make sense of the world. It provides the necessary tools for a better future, and it helps people to change and adapt, when that future turns out differently than expected.

This is why it’s a fundamental right for every child. It lays a firm foundation for future growth and development. That’s what a good education can be, and it’s our job to ensure that more people have access to that opportunity, especially the most vulnerable among us.

Today, we must put this quality of flexibility front and centre. As the world changes around us, we must change too: through openness to new ideas and innovations. Today, I’d like to emphasise the three steps we can take to better enable this.

The first is to discuss what the current COVID-19 reality means for the GPE.

The second is to address the importance of new solutions, like innovative financing.

And the third is to foster the growing need for better international cooperation and complementarity, especially when it comes to global action on increased funding for education.

Ladies and gentlemen,

At the moment, each of us is being forced to rethink how we live and work. Realities we took for granted have changed. Of course, our approach to education is no different. We’ll need to rethink both learning and teaching, physical institutions and intellectual traditions. Already, we’re behind schedule in reaching SDG 4. The COVID-crisis compounds this problem: both directly, and through its knock-on effects. The loss of parents’ income, for instance, will lead many of them to keep children at home, rather than in schools – especially girls.

But if we do the rethinking right, we can boost resilience. Both in general terms and specifically in relation to pandemics, for instance through better sanitation and hygiene education.

None of this is easy. It’s challenging enough in wealthy nations, and considerably more difficult in the poorest countries. Take digital education. New ways of teaching and learning offer exciting opportunities. Digital literacy is now an essential skill for any schoolchild, and for almost any adult in the workforce. The GPE is making great strides to embed digitalisation in education systems.

But… for digital education to work for everyone, you need a consistent supply of electricity, a reliable internet connection and the right technology – as well as a place to study without being disturbed. And in much of the world, that can’t be taken for granted – particularly not in lower-income countries.

However, that’s the direction we should be moving in, especially now that it appears coronavirus will be with us for some time. Hundreds of millions of children around the globe have missed months of classes. Their generation was already falling behind. Now they risk becoming a lost generation.

Over the next three days you’ll be discussing the GPE’s new Strategic Plan. It already was an ambitious document, but it needs to be even more so now. Currently, most national corona-response plans pay little attention to education. Such an omission is understandable in the short run, but ultimately it’s self-defeating, as it undermines our collective ability to achieve the SDGs. We need stronger, future-oriented investments that help educators everywhere to accelerate what they were already doing, and adapt to the new worldwide reality. To do this, we need more resources for education at all levels – both through development aid and in national budgets. With an economic decline looming, I realise that this won’t be easy to secure.

This brings me to my second topic: the need for innovative financing.

This is essential, because achieving SDG 4 is almost unthinkable without it. The ‘business as usual’ of grants and contributions simply won’t generate the funding we need to achieve the goals the international community has set for itself. It’s an old problem, but new thinking offers solutions.

The Netherlands is one of the initial supporters of the International Finance Facility for Education, or IFFEd. We do this because we strongly believe in this innovative financing mechanism, and its aim of closing the financing gap in education. IFFEd offers the type of multiplier we need to keep the goal of achieving SDG 4 by 2030 within reach.

I urge you to do the same, and to work with IFFEd wherever you can. In some cases – like in the poorest countries – the grants-only approach will remain the preferred option. But for a large number of lower-middle-income countries, IFFEd could be a real opportunity to channel greater funds to their education systems. This would ensure that vast numbers of poor children do not suffer the consequences of their countries’ classification in an income bracket with lower access to donor funding – while their needs are no different than those of poor children elsewhere.

This is emphatically not an argument for private or for-profit schools. It is, however, an urgent plea for private funds to be invested in education. After all, this isn’t just a moral choice, it’s a sensible investment strategy. Education improves not only the lives of those that receive it, but also the economies and societies in which these people work and live. It’s hard to imagine a sector with a greater positive impact. Private investors looking for meaningful investments and long-term results will find them here.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This brings me to my final point: if we want increased funding to truly have an impact, we must improve coordination and complementarity.

Because the international aid architecture for education has become a crowded field. There are myriad initiatives, programmes, and institutions available, and most do good work. But this variety simply isn’t the most effective way of channelling aid and distributing additional financing. There are hundreds of international institutions, private foundations and NGOs working in education. Sometimes they work together, but increasingly, they are competing for the same funds.

This has to change.

If we want our partner countries to be more effective and efficient, we should lead by example.

We can do this by:

developing a joint narrative for the pivotal importance of education;

coordinating aid and investment efforts in this sector; and

pooling resources.

If you want to know why this is necessary, just look at the international health sector. Where most educational aid is still bilateral and project-based, health initiatives are more global, integrated and visible.

Considering the effects of good education on economic growth and development, why isn’t it a more high-profile issue?

Education has to come first; otherwise none of our other goals have a future. That’s what SDG 4 is about. It’s a foundational goal. Without it, achieving the other SDGs becomes a lot more difficult. So it’s imperative to get every girl and boy in school. The world needs their skills, and school is where these are skills are honed.

How can we achieve this?

With ambition. With vision. And with drive.

This is why a Global Action Plan on Education matters so much: to reprioritise and better coordinate our future efforts.

The first step in that direction is to ensure that education becomes an essential part of any coordinated international COVID-19 response.

The second step is to agree on a joint narrative and identify the areas where different initiatives can better complement each other.

The third step is to launch a major drive for education funding, grounded in the new reality, strengthened by our common narrative and emboldened by the knowledge that any effort towards improving education is an effort towards achieving all other goals. The Global Education Forum has a key role to play in achieving this.

That’s where I believe our ambition should lie, and I’m confident that over the next three days, great strides will be made in all these areas.

The Netherlands is proud to have been one of the initiators of the GPE back in 2004, and we’re excited to be here today. Together we can generate the momentum to make a real impact, and I’m proud to be part of a platform that’s working to achieve that.

I wish you all the best of luck.

Thank you.