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U.S. Aid for Education and the Fast Track Initiative: Q&A with Desmond Bermingham

March 2, 2009

CGD visiting fellow Desmond Bermingham, the former head of the Education for All–Fast Track Initiative (FTI), draws upon his experience to offer practical suggestions for improving aid effectiveness in the education sector. In this Q&A he describes the FTI’s biggest successes and challenges—and some of the potential implications for a proposed U.S.-led Global Fund for Education.

Q: What is the FTI?

A: The FTI is a global program to help poor countries expand and improve their education systems, particularly at primary schools. Set up in 2002 by the World Bank, it has the support of most major bilateral donors and the main multilaterals and UN agencies working in education. As of January 2009, 36 developing countries—including 21 in Africa—had joined the FTI, and donors had committed more than $1.5 billion.

Q: How will the global economic crisis affect the FTI?

A: The FTI will launch a replenishment campaign later this year to mobilize up to $1 billion per year from 2010 onwards. This is obviously a big ask in the current financial climate as donor countries come under pressure to reduce their budgets. The FTI will need to demonstrate that the existing investments are used well.

Q: What were the FTI’s biggest successes?

A: Helping some of the world’s poorest countries rapidly increase enrollment in primary school. As Michael Clemens noted in “The Long Walk to School,” today’s rich countries took more than 100 years to achieve universal primary education; many of today’s poor countries are on track to achieve this goal in less than 50 years. In fact, the FTI estimates that most participating countries will achieve 100 percent primary intake rates by 2010. Of course, this is only the first step—you have to make sure those children stay in school and that they learn useful skills. But getting everybody enrolled is a crucial first step. And the good news is that the biggest advances have been achieved in the countries with the lowest enrollment rates.

Q: What else has gone well?

A: Getting donors to work effectively together and to support a single national education plan. This sounds like common sense, but many countries still have to deal with a dozen or more different donors, each with their own set of planning and reporting requirements. The FTI requires all donors and multilateral agencies to work together in support of the government’s own education plan. These principles of ‘harmonization and alignment’ are widely accepted in theory by all donors (see, for example the Paris Declaration), but the practice is often very different. At the FTI we conducted a pilot survey of 10 FTI recipient countries and found some improvements; in particular, donors reported that they were using more joint missions and joint reporting mechanisms. The FTI secretariat will continue to monitor this in all FTI countries.

Q: What is the biggest challenge?

A: Ensuring that FTI financing is delivered in a timely and effective manner. The main FTI trust fund is called the ‘Catalytic Fund’ because it was intended to ‘catalyze’ faster progress by delivering finance in a more streamlined manner, aligned with countries’ own systems. To be honest, we struggled to make this happen. The Catalytic Fund is managed by the World Bank and, as such, is subject to all the same procedures that apply to standard World Bank investment operations. A typical Bank project can take up 18 months to get approval and has to go through up to 30 different approval processes.

While such procedures may be needed for some large-scale construction projects, they are too cumbersome when the goal is to provide money quickly and flexibly to buy books, repair schools, or pay local teachers. In some cases, countries had to wait 18 months or more before receiving their first tranche of funding. This made budget planning almost impossible. The need for speedy disbursements is even greater in the current crisis. The FTI co-chairs have acknowledged that such delays are a problem and they are having intensive discussions with the World Bank to try to improve performance (see the FTI 2008 Annual Report).

Q: President Obama has called for a U.S.-led Global Fund for Education, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also spoken strongly in favor of increased U.S. support for education in developing countries. Would this complement or compete with the FTI?

A: It must complement the FTI. In a new CGD Note I recommend that the Global Fund for Education build on the strengths of FTI – especially the donor coordination mechanisms at the country level. But it should also learn the lessons from what didn’t work so well in FTI and try to fill the gaps that FTI is not covering, such as supporting adult literacy programs and financing education in conflict countries. There is a lot for everyone to do.