There are innumerable obstacles to achieving the new education sustainable development goals. Thankfully, there are probably even more answers. How we finance education systems may offer one such solution.
The idea of financing development results is centered on the belief that introducing the right incentives within education systems can help resolve bottlenecks. These incentives can release the binding constraints that will otherwise prevent us from achieving the education global goals. While it is tempting to think of Results-Based Financing (RBF) as a silver bullet that will guarantee value-for-money and make aid “smarter” or more effective, the truth is that realities on the ground offer very different reasons for employing RBF, for they tend to focus on finance as a tool to strengthen country systems.
I have just returned from Beirut, where the Syrian refugee crisis is an excellent example of how education financing can help achieve results. Lebanon alone is hosting nearly 2 million refugees, with as many Syrian children enrolled in Lebanese public schools alongside Lebanese students. Despite tremendous progress achieved over the last years in getting more refugee children enrolled, the Government of Lebanon, together with its international partners, is now working to keep them there, and ensure they learn. All this while keeping its own education system from cracking under the considerable strain caused by the crisis.
Before we look at the application of RBF in Lebanon, let us take a step back and consider what this approach is, what it can deliver, and how.
Briefly, we define two types of RBF: i) RBF Programs, consisting of public sector reform elements featuring fiscal transfers (including external resources such as World Bank financing) that bind on results, and ii) RBF Modalities, whereby a specific bottleneck can be resolved through rewarding the verifiable results achieved (e.g. through performance-based contracting, or teacher incentives).
RBF can strengthen education systems by helping align various elements of the system—such as schools, teachers, curricula, materials, as well as policies, accountability mechanisms, resources and financing—more effectively. When there is better alignment, higher-quality services for children are not far behind. It is critical to think about how resources are mobilized and managed, and how those resources flow to – and through – education systems to coalesce efforts, provide incentives, bring attention to results and raise accountability. Given the particularities of all education systems, RBF solutions need to be crafted to the singular context that they are operating in.
Returning to the Lebanon case then, we believe an RBF program could help chiefly for the following four reasons:
First, it would shift the policy dialogue, both externally and internally within ministries. The Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Education is working extremely hard in very tough conditions. It is in a constant fire-fighting mode, resolving problems that arise at each school. Simultaneously, it is worrying about equipping schools, paying bills for water and electricity, running teacher training programs, mobilizing psycho-social support, and—on top of this—must find the time to meet with each external donor that finances one small sliver of this overall program.
In contrast, an RBF program would force all actors to take a step back, and start the conversation with where they want to be next year – or five years hence – and work backwards, identifying each binding constraint along the way. An RBF program would then condition disbursements to the achievement of the results, whether final outcomes, or intermediary results, or even on conditional payment on the resolution of the bottlenecks along the way. This won’t resolve the need to firefight, but it will keep the results in view, insuring that all of the activity moves us toward our objectives.
Second, it attracts and retains much needed attention – from policymakers to parents – to the ultimate results that are sought. By shifting the policy dialogue to results and tackling the bottlenecks preventing their achievement, the sustained attention will translate into resources, whether fiscal or in the form of staffing, to make sure the program stays on schedule for achieving the results.
Third, it serves to galvanize and align important (yet often uninvolved) actors in the pursuit of results. In this case, an RBF program would bring the Ministry of Finance more closely into the fold, helping to address liquidity constraints impeding the attainment of key results. It would also serve as a vehicle around which international partners could coalesce, using one unified government-owned program as the platform to coordinate planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. Attaching disbursements to results would also bring complementarity between the initiatives that international actors are supporting. Building on the good principles of sector-wide approaches, RBF can take donor harmonization to the next level toward the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development ‘s 2005 Paris declaration on aid effectiveness. http://www.oecd.org/dac/effectiveness/parisdeclarationandaccraagendaforaction.htm
Finally, it necessarily instills a culture of measurement, eventually to be institutionalized through strengthening systems. Predicating disbursements on results elevates the importance of monitoring systems, forcing data collection to be more accurate, timely, and meaningful. When designed properly, this enables government capacity to be stronger and better positioned to tackle future challenges.
Financing results is promising. However, to succeed, it must be carried out correctly: supporting clients willing to focus more on results, building in the requisite systems, working with policymakers to identify and resolve binding constraints, and accompanying program implementers through the technical challenges and course correction needed for success. Such an approach will not resolve the Syrian refugee crisis. But it might offer the best chance for Lebanon’s education system to survive – and perhaps even thrive – during these unprecedented times.
Peter A. Holland is the Program Manager for REACH, the World Bank’s Results-Based Financing initiative in the Education Global Practice.