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Education: Overview

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Education is a powerful driver of development and one of the strongest instruments for reducing poverty and improving health, gender equality, peace, and stability. Although there has been great progress in the last decade—many more children attend schools and girls’ education has markedly improved—57 million children are still out of school. Even when children complete school, they often do so without acquiring basic skills necessary for work and life. This is particularly detrimental when unemployment is high and labor markets are demanding more skilled and agile workforces than ever before.


Today, amid a growing urgency prompted by widespread joblessness on the one hand and serious skills shortages on the other, the World Bank is more committed than ever to expanding opportunities for children and youth and nations alike, through education. In fiscal year 2013, the World Bank’s new support for education totaled $2.9 billion, up sharply from $1.8 billion in 2011 and boosted by increased support for basic education.

The World Bank is one of the largest external education financiers for developing countries, managing a portfolio of $8.9 billion, with operations in 70 countries as of August 2013. The World Bank supports education through an average of $2.6 billion a year in new financing for the poorest countries as well as for middle-income countries. The World Bank helps countries achieve their education goals through finance and knowledge services in the forms of analytic work, policy advice, and technical assistance. This support includes working with countries to help identify the role and contribution of education to their overall development and poverty reduction strategies. This means understanding countries’ individual priorities, needs, and constraints, and collaborating with governments, donors and development partners to design programs in response to countries’ respective needs.

In 2011, the World Bank launched its Education Sector Strategy 2020, “Learning for All.” The strategy recognizes that the knowledge and skills that children and youth gain through learning help lift them out of poverty and drive development. The strategy encourages countries to “invest early” because foundational skills acquired early help lifelong learning, “invest smartly” in efforts proven to improve learning, and “invest for all” children and youth, not just the most privileged or gifted.

To achieve learning for all, the World Bank is promoting reforms of education systems and is helping to build a robust evidence base to guide these reforms. In over 100 countries, the World Bank is beginning to use a systems approach to achieve better education results, with support from analytical tools developed under the Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) initiative. SABER is a global knowledge platform that is helping countries assess their education policies and identify actionable priorities to help education systems achieve learning for all. Policy areas covered by SABER include early child development, student assessment, teachers, and workforce development, to name a few.

Better evidence and knowledge are the levers that make effective reform possible. The World Bank conducts and supports rigorous impact evaluations to generate stronger evidence about what works in education under different country conditions. Recent regional skills reports focus on increasing labor market productivity and examine how education can play a role in addressing the skills mismatch present in many countries around the world. For example, Putting Higher Education to Work addresses ‘disconnects’ between higher education and the labor market in East Asia and the Pacific, whereas Skills, Not Just Diplomas identifies problem areas in the education system in Europe and Central Asia and suggests key reforms. Other new reports include the recently launched Education in the Republic of South Sudan: Status and Challenges for a New System, which provides a comprehensive snapshot of the education sector in this fragile state and points to key issues related to rebuilding the education system in that country.

The World Bank collaborates with United Nations (UN) agencies and development partners to support countries’ education goals, including progress toward the Millennium Development Goals. Most recently, the World Bank joined the UN Secretary-General as a member of the Global Education First Initiative to help put every child in school, improve the quality of learning, and foster global citizenship. As an important contribution to this initiative, the World Bank convened and co-hosted the Learning for All Ministerial in April 2013 that brought together global development leaders and other partners with ministers of education and finance for a discussion that focused on accelerating progress toward ensuring that all children can go to school and learn.

The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) has been a critical partner in basic education since 2002, when the World Bank was instrumental in creating this multi-donor partnership; today, the World Bank is the supervising entity for most GPE-funded projects. Efforts to better coordinate financing for education from GPE and the International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank’s fund for the poorest countries, are underway.

The World Bank partners with a number of bilateral donors as well, including Russia, through the Russia Education Aid for Development (READ) trust fund, which supports activities to strengthen student assessment systems. Several other trust funds support the World Bank’s operational and knowledge work in education, reflecting collaboration with Australia, the European Commission, Ireland, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Japan, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The World Bank is also working with new partners including Teach for All, the Arab World Initiative, the Early Childhood Consultative Group, the Building Evidence in Education (BE2) Group, and the Global Compact on Learning Donor Network to help these learning-focused programs have a global impact.


World Bank assistance has contributed to global achievements in education:

  • Between 1999 and 2011, the total number of out-of-school children worldwide declined from 105 million to 57 million; South Asia lowered its total of out-of-school children by two thirds.
  • Between 1999 and 2011, the global primary completion rate increased from 81% to 91%; Sub-Saharan Africa increased its primary completion rate from 53% to 69%.
  • All regions increased pre-primary enrollments during 1999-2011; South Asia doubled its gross enrollment rate to 50%.
  • Over 100 countries are beginning to apply a systems approach to education reform using the analytical tools that the World Bank has been developing as part of its new education strategy.

IDA support to countries has contributed the following country-level results:

  • In Ethiopia, the net primary enrollment rate increased from 69% in 2005 to 86% in 2011.
  • In Malawi, 98% of the 5,086 primary schools in the country benefitted from a program that enabled schools to procure required learning and teaching materials at the local level.
  • In Afghanistan, girls’ enrollment increased to 2.7 million in 2012 from less than 200,000 in 2002, and boys’ attendance increased to about 4.4 million from less than a million.
  • In Bangladesh, between 2004 and 2012, “second chance” primary education was provided for more than 790,000 out of school children (more than half of them girls) from the 90 poorest sub-districts of the country.
  • In Nicaragua, approximately 609,000 preschool and primary school children in the most vulnerable areas benefited from school lunches with schools seeing improvements in attendance and retention.
  • In Timor-L’Este, more children are completing primary school with completions rates increasing from 73% in 2009 to over 83% in 2012. Primary school dropout rates also decreased from 12% in 2008/09 to 4% in 2010.
  • In Mexico, support to tertiary education has increased equity with the share of 18-24 year old students in tertiary education from households in the two lowest quintiles of the income distribution increased from 5.5% in 2004-5 to 20.6% in 2010-11. And the share of indigenous students in tertiary education increased from 5.2% to 12.6% in the same period.
  • In India, the employment rate of graduates from industrial training institutes increased from 32% after a year of graduation in 2006 to above 60% in 2011.

Last updated: 2013-09-27

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