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August 27, 2014

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Funding for preschool gives biggest bang for buck

WITH the deadline for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals fast approaching, the world is gearing up to establish a new set of goals for the next 15 years.

Given limited resources, policymakers and international organizations must ask themselves: Where can we do the most good? Should a larger share of the US$2.5 trillion that will be directed toward development aid over that period, and of developing-country budgets, be directed toward health, the environment, food, water, or education?

With these questions in mind, the Copenhagen Consensus (which I direct) asked some of the world’s top economists to assess the economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits of many different targets. Education for all was among the goals that were assessed.

The importance of education is indisputable.

The problem is that the international community’s credibility in promising universal education has been compromised; it has pledged to achieve this goal in at least 12 UN-sponsored declarations since 1950.

For example, UNESCO promised in 1961 that, by 1980, primary education in Africa would be “universal, compulsory, and free.”

Yet, when the time came, about half of primary-school-aged children in Africa were still not attending school.

When target dates pass, the goals are simply reformulated on a new timeline, and more money is thrown at the problem, with little consideration of how, exactly, it should be spent. And, in fact, the goal of ensuring primary and secondary education for all could well end up costing more than the entire global aid budget for education.

With 60 million children still out of school, the international community should not simply postpone the same universal-education target until 2030. Instead, it is time to abandon this unrealistic goal in favor of an achievable, targeted, and cost-effective approach.

Tough choices

As the economist George Psacharopoulos recommended in a recent paper, the highest priority should be what works best: early education, especially preschool.

The most obvious reasons why earlier education makes for a better starting point is that people are most receptive to knowledge when they are young.

In order to prioritize development targets, estimates must be made.

First, there is the straightforward work of adding up the costs of education, such as teacher training and compensation, school construction and maintenance, and even the opportunity cost of child labor. Then there is the more ambiguous process of assessing the benefits, which, though difficult to quantify, are convincing enough that many economists champion early education.

Maximizing the impact of scarce resources on the lives of the world’s poorest people demands tough choices.

Amid competing demands for basic necessities like health care and potable water, narrower, more cost-effective education targets are essential.


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