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Were Gordon Brown and I right? Were poor children actually left behind by the Millennium Development Goals for education?

Adam Wagstaff's picture

It’s quite fun being picked up by a prime minister. Not literally of course. Unless you happen to be a baby seized from your mother’s arms during an election campaign, in which case it must be rather exciting, and quite possibly the highlight of the day. No, I mean being picked up in print. 

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and current United Nations’ Special Envoy for Global Education, cited a Let’s Talk Development blog post of mine asking whether inequality should be reflected in the new international development goals. Toward the end of the post I presented some rather shocking numbers showing how – in a large number of developing countries – the poorest 40% have made slower progress toward key MDG health targets than the richest 60%. Although I didn’t actually offer any evidence on education, I argued: “If inequalities in education and health outcomes across the income distribution matter, and if we want to see “prosperity” in its broadest sense shared, it looks like we really do need an explicit goal that captures inequality.

Brown cited the health data, and concurred with my conclusion, writing: “While the public justification for all our efforts is to offer the most help to the poorest and most vulnerable, setting a universal goal without targeting the most disadvantaged is a recipe for them to be left behind. And when the next set of Millennium Development Goals – with more ambitious universal targets for learning outputs and secondary education – raise the ceiling before we have put the floor in place, then they will continue to lose out.” 

Since Brown’s op-ed, current UK Prime Minister, David Cameron – along with co-chairs of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, President of Indonesia, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia – has thrown his weight behind the idea that without explicit targets for them, poor children will be left behind. In their recently-published report, Cameron and his fellow panelists wrote: “We propose targets that deliberately build in efforts to tackle inequality and which can only be met with a specific focus on the most excluded and vulnerable groups. For example, we believe that many targets should be monitored using data broken down by income quintiles and other groups. Targets will only be considered achieved if they are met for all relevant income and social groups.” 

As I read all this, I felt I needed to some dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s. Yes, we know that poor children were left behind by the health MDGs. But were they actually also left behind by the education MDGs?

The basics 

The task of completing the picture on the progress among the poor for the education and health MDGs isn’t an arduous one. My education colleagues in the World Bank have already produced the necessary data. They have computed quintile-specific data for key education indicators – attendance and completion of primary and secondary education, and years of schooling among young people aged 15-19 – for a large number of countries, often for several years. It’s just a few steps from these data to average annual rates of growth for the poorest 40% and richest 60% for each country, and maps of the results. 

The first set of maps below show whether progress on primary and secondary attendance and completion has been slower (red) or faster (green) among the poorest 40% than the richest 60%. There’s quite a lot of green, which is encouraging and shouldn’t be forgotten. But there’s also quite a lot of red. So, yes, it is true that in education – as in health – poor children haven’t always made as fast progress as the better off toward the MDG goals. 

To allow some comparisons with health, the second set of maps show “excess growth” among the poorest 40% for four of the health MDG indicators. There’s actually slightly more red in these maps. So if Brown is right to raise the alarm for education, his health counterpart at the UN would be at least as right – if not more so – to raise the alarm for health. 


More countries and a more demanding education indicator 

Unfortunately far fewer countries have trend data on primary school completion (28) than on primary school enrollment (50). So there are lots of countries that have a pro-poor growth of primary school enrollment for which we don’t know whether their growth of primary completion is also pro-poor. The secondary attendance data help here, but only so far – a lot of children drop out of school after primary school. And in any case, as Brown argues, the primary completion target isn’t terribly ambitious.
Years of schooling among young people aged 15-19 is an indicator that has been computed for 50 countries, and is a more demanding indicator than primary completion. The map below shows that is a sizeable fraction of countries (one third) the poorest 40% have seen slower progress in years of schooling than the richest 60%. That’s quite a sobering statistic. 

Next stop UN General Assembly 

The maps above suggest I wasn’t barking up the wrong tree in urging the devisors of the post-2015 targets to think about explicit human development targets for the poorest. So it’s good we have a couple of prime ministers and a large group of eminent persons now making that case. 

All eyes are now on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. At the end of September he is expected to present his vision for post-2015 development agenda at the UN General Assembly. The world’s poor will be watching closely.


Submitted by Daniel Stein on

Thanks for this nice analysis. But I don't really understand why this result is shocking or alarming. Let's take the exmple of primary school completion. Assume an (I would say realistic) situation where children don't complete primary school due to factors correlated with income, and family income needs to be above some threshold for children to complete school. In this case, if income is rising equally among all quintiles, you would expect the richer students to have higher growth in completion rates, as they are closer to the threshold. This of course only holds for families that start below the threshold, but in countries that start with very low education rates, this could mean large growth among students in the upper quintiles. If this effect is driving the patterns above in some countries, it doesn't really seem like something that needs to be fixed.

Submitted by Bob Prouty on

Sorry, Adam, but in answer to the title question of your blog, you and Gordon Brown were wrong on this one. The evidence shows clearly that the poorest children showed far greater gains for both enrollment in and completion of primary education than the wealthier children (weighting the per-country analysis by population will show the trend even more strongly). I also don't agree with your suggestion that years of schooling for 15-19 year-old children is a better measure of MDG progress, since the MDGs focused on primary completion, and children entering school in 2001 wouldn't be showing up yet in the 15-19 age group data. I do nonetheless agree that the forthcoming goals should explicitly address equity concerns, because while virtually all development partners are already building a poverty focus into their programs, they should be doing more. They should now pay attention to the transition to secondary, and they should pay attention to categories of marginalization that currently get little attention--children with disabilities, children from ethnic and linguistic minorities, children living in extreme poverty, working children... But I'm worried at the suggestion implied in Gordon Brown's comment that it could be seen as further penalizing poor children to address learning issues and transition to secondary ("raising the bar")even before all poor children have access to school. There's plenty of reason to believe that poor children will be the first to drop out when quality is low--and dropout is one of the major factors keeping us from achieving the access goals...So yes, more attention to equity is a great idea, but no, poor children weren't left behind by the MDGs.

Bob, thanks for taking the trouble to write.  
Let’s look at the data. The unweighted data show that 84% of the 50 countries for which we have trend data achieved propoor growth on net primary attendance. In the case of attendance, your hunch was right: weighting the data by population pushes the figure up – to 92%. But on primary completion, the figure is bleaker, and your hunch was wrong. The unweighted percentage for the 28 countries for which we have trend data is 68%, and the population-weighted percentage is just 59%. So a full 40% of the developing world’s children live in a country where the poorest 40% of children have made slower progress toward the primary completion MDG.
Forgive me, but given me these numbers, how can you say so categorically: “Adam, you’re wrong – poor children weren't left behind by the MDGs.”?  Especially as what I actually said was: “So, yes, it is true that in education – as in health – poor children haven’t always made as fast progress as the better off toward the MDG goals.” If I’m guilty of anything, it’s understatement!
On the years of schooling variable, this variable will pick up post-2000 increases in primary completion in surveys fielded after 2003 (15-year olds in 2003 would have been 12 in 2000). For some reason, EdStats doesn’t seem to have the latest DHS and MICS surveys, so in practice you’re right: insofar as it reflects increases in primary completion rates, my last chart will reflect increases that occurred prior to 2000.
Does that make the chart irrelevant? I don’t think so. If you look at MDGs 1, 4 and 5, the MDG baseline is explicitly 1990 not 2000. For MDG 6, it’s not explicitly so, but progress on TB is measured using 1990 as the reference. MDG 7 in general doesn’t have an explicit start date, except 7c which also explicitly uses 1990 as the baseline.
So my question is – what’s special about education? What’s wrong with assessing progress using 1990 as the baseline, as almost all the other MDGs do?

Reflecting the analysis of Universal Primary Education here in Nigeria. As a Video advocacy producer researching on the accomplishment of UN MDG in Nigeria. I was opportuned to be consulted by the office of senior special adviser to the president of Nigeria on MDGS. We went round the country researching and shooting documentaries of MDG successes in Nigeria. I agree with your figure that the wealthy children are more in school than the poor children but their enrolment is not as a result of the MDGs. Here in Nigeria, Educational projects implimented under the MDGs are automatically sited in remote villages where primary school enrolment is low. The statistics of poor children enroled as a result of the MDGs is higher than the statistics of wealthy children that enroled in primary school as a result of the MDGs. This details is as a result of my field works and interviews of direct beneficiaries. Thank You.

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