Financing constraints on the right to education – what is the role of debt?

In January 2024, Aljazeera reported that global debt – public and private combined – had reached a record USD 307 billion in 2023. For African governments debt is at its highest since 2001. Sovereign debt in sub-Saharan Africa averages almost 60% of GDP. At least 23 low-income African countries face a debt crisis with the service bill on external debt over USD 68 billion. Along with rising total debt, interest and repayments have shot up – affecting governments’ ability to finance the human rights needs of their populations. In 2022, Save the Children reported debt as one of the key concerns regarding the ability of states to fulfil obligations on the right to education.  

As shown in our 2023 Debt and the Right to Health blog series, increasing debt burdens on governments are crowding out much needed expenditure in areas such as health, education and social protection. Low and middle-income developing countries face constraints from all sides. Low tax bases with regressive systems, corruption, rising inflation, weakening exchange rates and slow economic growth add to rising interest costs. Prolonged recovery from Covid-19 and increasing costs related to climate change compound the debt and the right to education problem. 

In recent years, international pressure by both multilateral and bilateral creditors, including IFIs, has been placed on African countries to review and renegotiate their external debts to both avoid default and address their sustainable development goal (SDG) commitments. SDG 4 (of 17) covers education and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates the current annual funding gap to meet this goal by all countries by 2030 is USD 100 billion, of which USD 70 billion is for sub-Saharan Africa. The right to education is captured in SDG 4, but because education has a positive impact on several other development areas, it also affects targets under a number of other goals including 35812 and 13. This is also reflected in UNESCO’s Constitution when it states that education is a “sacred duty” given its positive impact on human well-being. 

Yet according to UNESCO’s 2023 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) report, total spending on education by government and donors declined across all country income groups in 2021. It was only in low-income countries that government spending did not decline, but these countries are likely reliant on budget support and direct donor funding to supplement education financing – which did decline. Since Covid-19, general budget support from aid has continued to decline with increased aid going to addressing growing refugee numbers. UNESCO reports that over the period reviewed (2020 – 2021), aid to education fell by 7%. In this context UNESCO estimates that it is families and households that have had to step up to cover education fees during this shortfall – contributing more than one third of education expenditure in low and lower-middle income countries. However, this will have had an impact on the incomes of those families, reducing the amount of money they have to spend on other essentials such as food, energy, housing, etc. 

The right to education is extensively recognised and guaranteed under international and regional human rights law. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights guarantees the right to free and compulsory elementary education. This provision is further elaborated by Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights which emphasizes the state’s obligation to guarantee the right to free and compulsory primary education, together with the obligation to make secondary education ‘generally available and accessible’. Article 17 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights along with child-specific instruments such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Articles 28 and 29) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (Article 11) also emphasize the state’s obligation to guarantee free and compulsory basic education. Other related education provisions are found in Article 5(e)(v) of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination; Article 8(1) of the Declaration on the Right to Development; Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Person with Disabilities; Part III of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; and national constitutions and legislation. The Abidjan Principles as well as various UN Human Rights Committees have clarified specific aspects of the right to education such as the role of private actors.  

In realising the right to education, it is important to define its content and assess progress accordingly. General Comment No. 13 (1999), the Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has emphasized that the right to education must exhibit acceptability, adaptability, accessibility, and availability all of which require adequate resourcing. Furthermore, the state is legally obliged to progressively respect, protect and fulfil these features regarding the right to education. State parties are legally required to make primary education compulsory, and free to all, as a matter of priority, while taking steps to realise secondary, tertiary, and other fundamental education for all. This, according to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, requires adequate state budgeting.  

The human rights framework and other international agreements have taken steps to support states in financing education. In General Comment No. 13, paragraph 60 outlines the obligations of non- state actors to ensure efforts to realise the right to education are coordinated stating “the international financial institutions, notably the World Bank and IMF, should pay greater attention to the protection of the right to education in their lending policies, credit agreements, structural adjustment programmes and measures taken in response to the debt crisis”.  

The 2015 Incheon Declaration for the implementation of SDG4 commits all states to increased domestic resource mobilisation and specifically an allocation of between 4 and 6 % of GDP and/or 15 to 20 % of total public expenditure to financing education. In support of this process developed states also reaffirmed their original MDG commitment to provide 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) to overseas development assistance for developing countries and 0.15 to 0.2% of GNI to least developed countries. This was also agreed at the third Financing for Development conference in July 2015. Previously, the Dakar Framework for Action on Education (2000) had committed sub-Saharan African governments to budget 7% of GDP within 5 years of the declaration, and 9% within 10 years. The 2023 GEM report indicates the current annual average for sub-Saharan Africa is 3.4% of GDP, rising to an estimated 4.6% by 2030. 

With Education the African Union’s 2024 theme, there will hopefully be renewed impetus for African states to better resource this critical public service and ensure that all children and young people have access to a decent education. It is within this spirit that this series will provide a snapshot of the debt position and performance on public spending on education in four countries in East and Southern Africa. Read on to learn about Zimbabwe.