Niger: Donors Cut Aid to Basic Education, Focus On Future Trade-Unesco

Dakar — Most sub-Saharan African countries will not meet the Millennium Development Goal of ensuring that all children receive a primary school education by 2015, partly because of a shift in donor focus towards security and governance, a U.N. official said on Wednesday.

South and West Asia had the fastest rise in numbers in primary schools, contributing more than half the rise in primary school pupils, Pauline Rose of UNESCO (U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Addis Ababa.

At the bottom of the group are the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, where 22 percent of the primary school age population were still not in school in 2011, said Rose, the author of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report which was launched on Wednesday.

Rose highlighted the disproportionate cut in aid to education as a key reason for the lack of progress in reaching the goals.

"Today, there are 250 million children around the world who aren't learning the basics. This is primarily the responsibility of national governments, but donors need to step up to the mark in supporting states that are committed to improving their education systems," Rose said.

"There is a concern that there has been a shift in recent times towards donor countries becoming more selfish," she said. "Aid to education is seen as a soft sector that doesn't necessarily improve trade relations so it is often one of the first areas to be cut in the development budget."

Overall aid to education rose steadily after 2002 but peaked in 2010 and fell by 7 percent from 2010 to 2011, the monitoring report said. Aid to basic education was cut by 6 percent to $5.8 billion in 2011.

Aid to basic education in low-income countries, which receive about one third of all basic education aid, was cut by 9 percent in 2011 to $1.86 billion or $16 per child, the report said.

"In sub-Saharan Africa, home to over half the world's out-of-school population, aid to basic education declined by 7 percent in 2011," a cut of $134 million that could have provided school places for over 1 million children, it said.

Rose criticised the Netherlands, which has been giving around 0.7 percent of its Gross National Income in foreign aid, as one of nine major donors reducing aid to education and focusing more on building strong democratic institutions and good governance to improve security and stability.

A spokesman for the Dutch Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Ministry said the Netherlands had shifted its development efforts from social sectors such as education and healthcare towards productive sectors like private sector development, water and food security.

"That is not to say that education is not important. It is. Rather, the Netherlands has focused its development efforts on issues in which it can make the biggest difference, among others vocational education," he wrote in an email to Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Rose said that while security was important, "... the real reason for this spending on security ... is to make sure these trade partners are going to be in a good position for trade relations."

The cut meant the Netherlands fell from being the largest provider of aid for basic education in 2007 to 11th place in 2011, leaving the United Kingdom in first place followed by the United States, the report said.

NIGER NEEDS 100 YEARS

Primary education in Niger remains the worst in the world, although the government spends about one fifth of the national budget on education, showing a real desire to tackle the problem in the sparsely populated desert country.

Niger has one of the lowest enrolment rates in the world and pupils are not learning much: only 8 out of 100 children of primary school age are learning the basics, the report said.

Girls suffer disproportionately as many poor families cannot afford to send all their children to school, and choose boys over girls. Nigerien society also expects girls to stay at home, cook, look after siblings and get married at an early age, the report said.

Going on current trends, boys in rural parts of Niger are not projected to reach primary education goals until the year 2090, and it will be 2120 before all rural girls receive a basic education.

Abdou Abdouramane, a teacher and union leader in Niger, said the government had built more than 2,000 fully equipped classrooms per year for the last three years, trained teachers and bought textbooks, but still faced problems, given the state of the education system over the last two decades. - Thomson Reuters Foundation

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