Aid Through Education

Canada is an international leader. Now act like one, writes Jennifer Jeffs.
By: /
May 2, 2012

A new C.D. Howe Institute paper, “What CIDA Should Do: The Case for Focusing Aid on Better Schools,” makes two compelling points: first, that the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) should invest its foreign aid more heavily in human capital, particularly primary education; and second, that if host governments in developing countries do not share this priority, CIDA should work more independently of those governments to achieve its development goals, forming pragmatic partnerships with government and non-government agencies alike.

Governments in developing countries tend not to prioritize basic education when less labour-intensive investments promise faster returns. Yet universal primary education ranks second only to the eradication of hunger among the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for 2015. By stepping up to this challenge, Canada would show international leadership both in addressing one of the UN’s highest priorities and in discovering new and effective ways of executing aid programs beyond the typical government-to-government model.

Canada is well-positioned for international leadership in education development. The latest statistics show that Canada already has a record of significant investment in primary education. While countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) spend, on average, 31 per cent more on secondary education than on primary, Canada weighs primary and secondary education more equally, spending only 11 per cent more on secondary. 

Canada’s investments pay off, according to the results of the OECD’s latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) index. Among all OECD countries, Canada’s average scores ranked in the top 10 in all categories – reading, mathematics, and science. Canada also showed a weaker correlation between socioeconomic status and assessment performance than OECD countries did on average. In other words, Canada does a relatively good job of ensuring that wealth and social capital do not monopolize academic success. Canada also continues to lead in higher education: The country’s advanced research programs attract a higher proportion of international students than OECD countries in general.

Successful education results across socioeconomic strata provide an excellent foundation for development programs abroad. But Canadian education policies cannot simply be exported. To raise human capital in developing countries, we must send our human capital to developing countries. CIDA turned a blind eye to this fact when it cut its retired teachers volunteer program last year without explanation.  The program, which was more than 50 years old and partnered with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, sent retired teachers to work in developing communities in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. As C.D. Howe points out, CIDA’s budget does not reflect the UN’s priority of making primary education accessible to all. Successful Canadian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Canadian Bureau for International Education and Aga Khan Canada have tended to partner with CIDA in areas such as public-sector training and maternal health. While these are both worthy goals, they do not reflect the UN’s broader development mandate and Canada’s particular strength in education.

As the C.D. Howe paper suggests, NGOs specializing in education should not limit themselves to pursuing CIDA’s funds or host governments’ support. They should partner with other non-government actors, both in Canada and in host countries, to build education agencies where public schools have failed for lack of political will. As old aid models of government subsidy give way to new models of pluralistic partnerships, Canada should lead the way.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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