Financing girls’ education in Africa: Setbacks and opportunities

Courtesy of Mariam Steven Ngowo
Courtesy of Mariam Steven Ngowo

At a U.N. vote on November 22, Malala Fund urges global leaders to adopt a proposal from African countries on global tax cooperation that could secure vital resources for girls’ education.

Sub-Saharan Africa faces significant challenges in financing education, including large national debts and revenue loss from global tax evasion and tax abuse. The region spends 1.5 times as much on debt payments as it does on education, health, social protection and climate action combined. Lower-income countries also lose $47 billion annually to tax abuse by wealthy corporations and individuals, which we estimate is equal to 22% of their education budgets. 

These constraints on public resources, which could be funding teachers, learning materials and school buildings, contribute to a sobering statistic: 50 million girls are out of school in sub-Saharan Africa. It is the only region of the world where that number is growing. 

Multilateral institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) influence and determine global economic policies that impact African governments’ resources to invest in education and other public services. However, high-income countries overwhelmingly hold the decision-making power in these institutions. 

Without equal representation in multilaterals, African countries cannot influence policies that restrict their investments in girls’ education, as seen at this October’s World Bank and IMF annual meetings. Despite the meetings being held in Morocco — the first time they have taken place on the African continent in half a century — the institutions’ proposed policies and reforms around debt relief, austerity and IMF decision-making resulted in few prospects for real progress on girls’ education in Africa. 

Positive outcomes for African governments are more likely to emerge at the U.N., where each member state has one vote on proposals, also known as U.N. resolutions. Global leaders have an important opportunity on November 22 to increase investment in education by adopting a proposal on global tax cooperation at the U.N. General Assembly. 

Malala Fund joins tax and debt justice organisations to support African countries’ draft resolution for a U.N. tax convention — a legally binding agreement between countries — to make global tax rules more inclusive, help tackle tax abuse and free up public funds for girls’ education.  

Lack of debt relief and austerity squeeze government spending

IMF leaders confirmed at their annual meetings that there would be no change to their current debt negotiation approach — a process too slow and cumbersome for countries in debt distress who have to use scarce revenue to avoid default. While the IMF celebrated Zambia’s debt relief agreement, the debt restructuring process took two years, precious time that out-of-school girls cannot afford to lose. 

Governments in Africa and elsewhere face further difficulty financing education due to IMF-advised policies that require “fiscal tightening” —  adherence to macroeconomic targets that can only be met with public investment cuts. At the annual meetings, the IMF pointed to advice on “social spending floors” — targets meant to protect minimum levels of social spending by borrowing governments — as evidence of their learning from past mistakes. However, research suggests these spending floors actually encourage cutbacks in social spending, contributing to the conditions that deny girls their right to free, safe, quality education.

World Bank and IMF marginalise critical voices

Power imbalances are also reflected in global discussions.  At the annual meetings, World Bank and IMF staff either declined invitations to civil society-organised panels or made little effort to engage with evidence of the material harm their debt and austerity policies have had on the most vulnerable. Women’s rights advocates in particular criticised the World Bank’s decision to not hold a formal, broad-based consultation on its Gender Strategy 2024-2030, despite the presence of girls’ and women’s rights organisations in Morocco. 

At the IMF, wealthy countries maintained the status quo in the institution’s governance,  preserving the U.S.’ veto power and the European Union’s overrepresentation in decision-making. While the IMF Committee agreed to create an additional seat for Africa, it did not address the wider issue of Africa’s very low voting share relative to the region’s population and number of member countries. With such an unequal balance, the region with the most pressing needs for girls’ education continues to have little power to influence key decisions. 

U.N. vote offers a glimmer of hope 

African countries are hoping for better results at the U.N. to increase their influence on global economic decisions. They are calling for the negotiation of a comprehensive U.N. tax convention to mobilise revenue that governments need to invest in education. Nigeria, for example, loses $554 million a year to global tax abuse, and households end up shouldering 72% of total education spending due to persistent government underfunding of the sector. 

Malala Fund urges all member states to challenge the status quo on global tax systems and clear the way for a U.N. tax convention by 2025 — a decision that would only be good news for girls.


Naomi Nyamweya

Naomi conducts data-driven research and policy analysis to support Malala Fund's advocacy for girls' education.

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