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Education for All–Fast Track InitiativeDonors, multilateral agencies, recipient countries, and NGOs supporting the Education for All–Fast Track Initiative (FTI) gather in Copenhagen this week for the 2009 FTI Partnership meeting. Participants will consider the preliminary findings of an independent evaluation team and seek solutions to the continuing challenges facing the FTI.

The FTI is at a turning point. As the recent former head of the FTI, I have argued that the initiative has achieved many successes but has also had difficulties, especially the slow disbursement of the FTI Catalytic Fund. This World Bank–managed fund has attracted commitments of over $1.5 billion through to 2011, but it has failed to live up to its promise of providing predictable long-term financing. Disbursements have improved slightly in recent months, but several countries promised Catalytic Fund allocations in May 2007 are still waiting for their first payment!

Of course, slow disbursement is not unique to the FTI. Homi Kharas estimates that the aid pipeline contains up to $60 billion in approved but undelivered commitments, including some $33 billion undisbursed funding from IDA, the World Bank’s concessional lending window for the poorest countries. As Nora Lustig pointed out last week, the problem is not the direction of commitments but the speed.

That being the case, some additional donor attention to the speed of delivery could pay big returns. In Copenhagen this week, the donors are scheduled to consider a proposal to launch a large-scale campaign later this year to mobilize up to $1 billion more for the Catalytic Fund. Maybe they should first pause to consider whether the funds that have already been committed are being delivered in a timely and effective manner.

I suggest five steps that could help to make this happen:

  1. Additional pledges to the Catalytic Fund should be conditional on improved performance in the delivery of existing commitments. The FTI Secretariat has proposed challenging targets for the World Bank to deliver funds in a timely and effective way. The donors should insist that the World Bank agree to these targets and stick to them.
  2. Additional pledges should also be conditional on greater use of country systems and flexible Bank financing instruments, such as budget support and program-based approaches. All donors—including the World Bank—have already committed to this in the Accra Action Agenda. The donors should insist that the World Bank act accordingly.
  3. Use the Catalytic Fund to leverage additional funding for education from IDA by offering countries buy-down arrangements that would turn loans into grants. The Catalytic Fund is currently crowding out IDA—only $45 million was directly committed to basic education projects in the Africa region in FY08. A buy-down arrangement would reverse this trend and help to mainstream the Catalytic Fund within the World Bank.
  4. Strengthen the FTI Secretariat and make it genuinely independent. The Secretariat staff members are currently on World Bank contracts and are required to “solely serve the interest of the World Bank.” The head of the Secretariat reports to the World Bank’s director of education. This obviously makes independent monitoring impossible.
  5. Give the FTI Secretariat the mandate to monitor all education financing in FTI countries. Bilateral and multilateral donors should be required to submit the figures on commitments and disbursements to the Secretariat. Only financing that is delivered in line with the Paris Declaration principles should be counted toward the FTI totals. In this way, the FTI could leverage significant improvements in the quality of aid for education.

The Copenhagen meeting should not be just another global talking shop. Bold steps are needed to deliver on the promise and the rhetoric of the past six years. These measures would secure the future of the FTI and put it in a strong position for collaboration with the proposed U.S.-led Global Fund for Education. The question now is whether the FTI partners will have the courage to act.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.