Tensions Implementing SDG4
Today we look at some of the tensions implementing Sustainable Development Goal 4, which aims to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”
My guest is Antonia Wulff who has closely followed the development, adoption, and implementation of the SDGs for nearly a decade. She even edited an open-access book about it, which was published last year. That book is Grading Goal Four: Tensions, Threats, and Opportunities in the Sustainable Development Goal on Quality Education. In our conversation today, she details some of the tensions in the SDGs, from its lack of accountability framework to limited financing to problems balancing a broad and inclusive conception of quality with one that is narrow and based on global learning metrics.
Antonia Wulff is the Director of Research, Policy and Advocacy at Education International (EI), the global federation of teacher unions. She coordinated EI’s advocacy and engagement in the intergovernmental negotiations on Agenda 2030.
Citation: Wulff, Antonia, Interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 247, podcast audio, July 19, 2021. https://freshedpodcast.com/wulff/
Will Brehm 1:22
Antonia Wulff, welcome to FreshEd.
Antonia Wulff 1:23
Thanks so much. Great to be here.
Will Brehm 1:24
So, when the SDGs, the sustainable development goals, were adopted in 2015, what made them different from the previous sort of global goals, and particularly in relation to the education goal, which is SDG 4?
Antonia Wulff 1:42
So, you could say that everything was different. We went from quite a narrow and very specific agenda of the MDGs with eight goals to suddenly an agenda with 17 different goals. And it’s really the recognition that you couldn’t have an agenda that looks only at social development, for instance, but you need to look at development in a more holistic way. You needed to pull together the social, the economic, and importantly, the environmental side of the picture. And what many of us within the education community were fearing was really that we would end up with an agenda that was very, very narrow. So, possibly fewer goals than the MDGs. We were worried that maybe there wouldn’t be an education goal at all because that was really some of the signals that we were getting there in 2012-2013, when the whole post-2015 conversation started. So, within the education community, there was great mobilization, a great fight put up to make sure that we would have an education goal to start with -a dedicated education goal. And that this goal would actually include more than just primary education. That’s what’s really so fascinating with SDG 4, it somehow captures so many of those discussions around what does the right to education mean today? What’s a legitimate demand on any government? What’s the minimum standard that would have to be ensured in 2015, and eventually 2030, which is the deadline for the current agenda?
Will Brehm 3:28
So, I find it so surprising that back in 2012-2013, during the lead up to the sort of adoption of these 2015 Sustainable Development Goals that there was even a question about including education at all in those future goals. I guess I never really realized that was a possibility. It just seemed like education would be there. So, when you said the education community sort of had to rally together to advocate for having an education goal, who were you putting pressure on? Like, what is the body that got to decide to include an education goal?
Antonia Wulff 4:05
So, the process was quite confusing in some ways back in 2012 because as you know, the education community, we had had our own Education for All (EFA) agenda as well. And much had been said or written about all the challenges of having an EFA agenda that basically ran in parallel to the MDGs. And within the education community, many were very grumpy about the fact that it felt like the MDGs got so much more of the political attention, so much more of the financing. And I think there was this sense that had there not been these two parallel agendas, maybe we could have made more progress. And at the same time, there was a sense that because of education still having been included in the Millennium Development Goals, there was this risk that maybe it would be new issues, issues that had not have been included at all, that would now be included. And in practice, there were many different processes where the future goals were discussed. So, to start with, the one closest to us was, of course, a kind of post-EFA conversation within the UNESCO led education universe. At the same time, there was a kind of United Nations (UN) level conversation around what to do with the millennium development goals that were expiring in 2015, as well. And then there was a third kind of process that was building on the Rio +20 sustainable development process where the question was really “Okay, but what do we do with sustainable development where we’ve made very, very little progress?”. And without going into any of the details, what happened was that there was a group, a body, established at the UN in New York, what they called an open working group that was supposed to look at Sustainable Development Goals. And what was exciting with this group is that it started off as a small group. It was supposed to just be 30 member states coming together to discuss. And because of it being so popular, there were so many member states that wanted to be part of this group, they ended up with a bizarre set-up where you had 70 countries sharing these 30 seats. So, you had groups of countries coming together and having to speak with one voice. And some of them were very kind of obvious allies from decades. Others were really, really strange bedfellows.
So, you had this meeting room at the UN in New York and the discussion was led by the ambassador from Kenya and the ambassador from Hungary. And they really started from quite the blank page, you know, they started with the kind of “Where are we now? How are we doing? What are the big development challenges of this time?”. And that meant that the conversation was actually super open, and it allowed for an exchange that the Millennium Development Goals had just not allowed for at all. And it allowed for the involvement of civil society. So, you had a number of different civil society actors attend each of these sessions. And with civil society actors are really in the broadest possible sense. So, you had the trade unions, but you also had business, you had the farmer’s, children and youth, women, indigenous peoples, and what you really ended up with was more than a year of a process, super participatory, super transparent, trying to figure out where should we be headed as a world. This is really something that I want to convey through the book as well, that the agenda that people now see that is so broad, often laughed at, ridiculed for being so broad and so ridiculously ambitious, that is actually the result of a lot of conversations, and a lot of advocacy from those who really should have a say when a new development agenda is being crafted. So, when we were discussing it, we had some amazing exchanges where you had -I remember, for instance, at some point, the representative of Pakistan was saying, “But what do you mean, do you really mean that the Prime Minister’s son should be in the same school as a poor village boy”. And that kind of an exchange is very far from what you would expect from a kind of UN level negotiation around development goals.
Will Brehm 8:56
What I like about the analysis that you do in looking at this history is the organizational set- up of the group that came up with these SDGs. It’s the very structuring of that group: having 70 states share seats for 30 spots on this committee, having a blank page, so to speak, to figure out what is important in the world in 2015, and potentially in 2030 looking ahead. And so, it’s that very structure that sort of created the messiness of the SDGs that we now know today and like you said, we sometimes laugh at. Now, I must say, I’m one of those people that have sort of laughed at the SDGs for being both messy and enormous in its 17 goals but also contradictory. Some goals seem like they don’t match up always. But knowing this history, it sort of makes sense as to why they look the way they do in a sense.
Antonia Wulff 9:49
Yeah. It’s funny because in some ways, I have a bit of a bias because I was working so hard on our advocacy, that there’s an emotional somehow involvement in all of this. But I can think that it is something politically really courageous in these really simplistic times to kind of dare to just adopt an agenda with 17 goals. And just basically say that, “Okay, but the world is complex, the challenges we are facing are interconnected, there are a lot of contradictions, and we can’t get away from it”. And then at the same time, of course, SDG 4 is also capturing some of the tensions. And another thing that I think we do try to do in the book is also show how many of the tensions are within the education community itself and how, of course, different actors fighting for an education goal have very different understandings of what such a goal should include. And some of those tensions are really defining the implementation of SDG 4. Other tensions were resolved through the adoption of the agenda.
Will Brehm 11:05
Right. So, let’s look at some of these tensions. Because I think it’s an interesting insight that the tensions that are present in SDG 4, as you’re saying, are really a reflection of the tensions that existed in the education community. So, one of the big tensions that you highlight is the very idea of quality education. Like on the one hand, it’s celebrated for being included in the SDG. But having to come up with a definition of quality education is hugely difficult, particularly when you’re going to do it across every country in the world. So, tell me a little bit about this tension when it comes to quality education and the meaning of it and potentially how it’s been implemented since 2015.
Antonia Wulff 11:46
At the start of the negotiations, the whole debate was, of course, very shaped by the analysis of the EFA era -how well we had done, some of the structural shortcomings. And there was a widespread recognition that we had a challenge with the quality of education. We had managed to get a lot of people into school, but we hadn’t necessarily been able to put in place all of the things that were needed to really ensure that it would be an education of quality. And I think very early on, you had split within the education community between those of us -being very open- with Education International, being on the side that was arguing for quality education, and a very broad notion of quality. And then another side that was really looking at learning very much using the famous figure, identified by the GEM (Global Education Monitoring) report at the time, of the millions of children who had been in school and hadn’t learned. And I think that figure ended up having a huge impact on the whole education debate, the whole education discourse. At the same time, if you look at what member states were saying at the very beginning when the conversation around “Where are we at in relation to the education goal?”, member states had a much, much broader approach to where the challenges were. Very many of them talking about the shortage of teachers, challenges in relation to buildings and infrastructure, materials. Very many of them talking about all the different levels of education so far from focusing on primary only. And that, of course, was another central tension, how ambitious would we be post-2015 in relation to the whole continuum of education. And interestingly, the whole tension around a broader notion of quality and the narrow focus on learning, and particularly literacy and numeracy that keeps shaping the education debate. And if you look at where we are now, in the middle of COVID, so much of the debate is about learning loss. So much of the debate looks at learning loss in very, very narrow terms. And it’s really primarily concerned with measuring the learning or the lack of learning. So, that’s really a tension that’s been with us from the very beginning of the post 2015 process up until today.
Will Brehm 14:26
It seems like COVID 19 has sort of made that tension worse in a way, or maybe I should say that COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for those who support the idea of a more narrow understanding of learning to sort of push that discourse and agenda a bit further through the idea of something like learning loss.
Antonia Wulff 14:48
It’s a fact that COVID-19 has deepened and exacerbated all of the problems in education. And I think that fundamentally that means the structures of inequity have been deepened and exacerbated. And that’s really where I would want us to also focus when we then go on to talk about learning and how we can support students at this time. But I think, in some ways, you could probably say that the adoption of SDG 4, that broader notion of quality won, in a way, because we are looking at a very, very broad scope for education. I mean it includes dedicated targets, early childhood through to higher education, adult education. It has dedicated targets on teachers. So, I mean, it really does commit us to a broad notion of progress in education. However, looking at the implementation that we’ve seen, you could argue that those who were advocating for a more narrow focus on learning have maybe won some of the battles in terms of implementing SDG 4.
Will Brehm 16:04
And where do you see that?
Antonia Wulff 16:05
There was a peculiar thing that happened at the stage of translating the goals and targets into indicators. And there was a great recognition from the beginning that you need indicators because you need to be able to tell where are we now, and how are we doing over the years up until 2015. And so, indicators as a crucial tool for determining where we are, how we are doing but also as a crucial tool for holding governments to account. And I think that’s maybe something we could come back to. But I think that lack of accountability at the heart of the SDGs is really the principal challenge. So, we were keen on ensuring good indicators because they are, in some ways, our best bet for, in a way, making up for the lack of accountability, and the member states who had spent more than a year negotiating. And that means negotiating every word in Agenda 2030, the 17 development goals, all of the 169 targets. When we got to the moment of the indicators, they got tired, I think. And fair enough, you know, so they just concluded indicators are not political, that’s a technical matter.
Will Brehm 17:20
It would be 2030 by the time these indicators get a grid.
Antonia Wulff 17:24
Yeah, it’s a hilarious claim that indicators would be a technical matter only. But, as I said, I think there was just a recognition that there’s no way we can have intergovernmental negotiations on this. So, we end up in this bizarre space where the UN statistical commission is supposed to sort out the indicators for 169 targets. They put together a small technical working group, basically consisting of the chief statisticians of each member state that is part of this committee to just work their way through these indicators. The chief statistician is generally not an education person. And the chief statistician didn’t only have to think about the indicators for SDG 4 but also on indicators on health, and on oceans, and economic growth, and so on. So, to make a very long story very short, there was a decision that each target would have only one indicator at the global level. And that this indicator would be the means through which we determine progress made towards the targets. And I think this is where it really gets tricky for the education community. Because, of course, we had had a parallel process looking at the post-EFA agenda, working out indicators that eventually became thematic indicators under SDG 4. And these indicators were really aspirational. They were identified, in many ways to help us make progress towards the target. They were developed to really look at progress in education in the broadest sense. So, for instance, having an indicator around the language of instruction, recognizing that’s a key piece if we want to look at equity and quality in education.
So, we had this really quite gorgeous set of thematic indicators that were really capturing, reflecting the breadth of SDG 4. Then comes this global level committee, and basically, we end up with one narrow indicator per target and this is where the learning outcome really ended up winning maybe if continuing with my earlier terminology. And in part, this is of course, also related to a shift in not just education but maybe development more broadly where we are just obsessed with outcomes. So, there was a general preference for the SDGs as a whole to have outcomes- focused indicators. And I think that really helped to also open the door for then indicators on learning outcomes. And that means that, for instance, that target 4.1 -which is the target that has received the most attention maybe- it’s a target that promises a lot of things because it promises completed primary and secondary education of quality, it promises free primary and secondary education, which is a huge victory. And I mean, the fact that we got primary and secondary education included was also a victory. And I mean, at the very, very last hours of negotiations, we were fighting with some of the Northern European governments who were arguing that it’s just not realistic to commit to upper secondary for the whole world despite it obviously being realistic in their respective countries that pretty much every student finishes upper secondary. So, you have these hugely ambitious targets that is promising completed free quality primary and secondary education that leads to relevant learning outcomes. And then you have an indicator that looks at the learning outcomes side only and basically translates relevance into literacy and numeracy, and a whole machinery that has gone into developing indicators, methodology that allows for learning outcomes to be recorded in a comparable way at the global level.
Will Brehm 21:49
So, it’s so fascinating to see in the procedures of coming up with the SDGs, how you can go from such ambition, such in a sense, a participatory process that brings such diverse groups together to sort of say, “What is an agenda for sustainable development?”. And in education it was so diverse. And when you read the targets of SDG 4, like you said, it includes so many different things. But then in the very process, from going from the targets to the indicator, you see this huge shift from being really ambitious to being sort of incredibly narrow. And I guess it’s a bit disheartening in a way to sort of realize that that’s what’s happened. And you said earlier that one of the problems was that the SDGs didn’t have an accountability structure. Why was that? Why wasn’t there some sort of an accountability structure built in that could have potentially preserved down to the indicator level, some of this sort of more, dare I say, revolutionary ideas that were included in the very SDGs?
Antonia Wulff 22:57
So, that’s a great question. And I think this is really, I mean should be, at the heart of all the conversations around SDG 4. Just remembering and recognizing that SDG 4, or the SDGs as a whole, could not have been adopted had there been a robust accountability framework created around them. So, it goes back to the political reality of 2015. And just the political landscape where it’s very, very hard to get any multilateral agreement that commits member states in a binding way. So, the heart of that tension, not even a tension. I mean, it’s a tradeoff. In some ways, you could say that it was a choice between an accountability framework and a very, very, very unambitious agenda. Or an ambitious agenda and just no accountability framework. This is really fascinating because you have ended up with an agenda that is somehow kind of capturing all of the aspirations for the future while at the same time reflecting the very here and now of 2015 in terms of power dynamics. So, that’s the thing. The level of ambition is really what explains the lack of accountability. And it goes back to the political context of this time where governments generally refuse to sign up to anything binding. So, we ended up with a lack of accountability because the agenda is hugely ambitious. And that’s a tradeoff that I think we really need to remember particularly now within the education community as we are discussing the global education architecture. At the end of the day, the lack of accountability is designed. It’s a political choice made by the governments. Sure, individual governments will tell you that “They did everything to fight for accountability”. The truth is there was not enough political will for any accountability. And this leaves us really with an agenda that is basically voluntary.
Will Brehm 25:16
It’s like it’s easy for governments to do the talk -to agree with some discourse. But then walking the walk or being held accountable is a lot harder for a government to get them to say yes to. And I can understand the sort of politics there. So, given that you’re saying it is more or less a voluntary set of targets, what has implementation looked like over the last five or six years?
Antonia Wulff 25:46
There is two things. So, it’s voluntary in the sense that if you look at Agenda 2030, which is the formal agreement around the SDGs, it is, implementation is voluntary. It is country led. However, if you look at the targets, very many of them are basically protected through international human rights standards. It’s not like governments are completely free to do as they please. There are obligations that they have committed to. This is a key part of why this book felt so important because we really wanted to challenge the education community and basically get people to think beyond “Oh, this is so ambitious! Oh, nothing will be done on SDG 4” to really look at okay, but what is the agenda committing to? What are the power dynamics like? What are the obstacles to implementation? And to really help somehow both inspire and challenge people to engage a bit more critically and more thoughtfully with SDG 4 because the only accountability that will be there is the one that people force through. And that means education unions, it means civil society, it means all of those of us that do fight for the right to education to be ensured. And then the other thing related to accountability, I think I like is really that Agenda 2030 in the way it’s been formulated. It talks a lot about this kind of global partnership that needs to be formed around the goals and that being a precondition for any successful implementation. And what that really means is that member states have positioned themselves as one of many that contribute to the implementation of these goals. So, if you read Agenda 2030 and you actually look for references to governments and their obligations, you’ll be surprised to see that in a majority of the cases it’s followed by private sector, civil society, all these other actors that are presumably also contributing to the goals. And while we all will contribute, there’s a great difference between the obligations of a government to provide education, to ensure its quality and then the contributions that can be made by other actors. This is setting us up for a really challenging situation where the whole ‘holding anyone to account’ becomes way more complex as well. So, what we are really looking at with the SDGs is not just a lack of accountability, but we are looking at yet another piece in a much, much bigger jigsaw puzzle that is, fundamentally we negotiating the role of the state.
Will Brehm 28:39
Interesting. I mean, it’s like not only is there no accountability framework, there’s also more actors that, at least on paper, should be held to account which gives those actors the ability to pass on the burden of accountability to some other actor to take care of it. It’s sort of a situation where nothing will get done almost. And so, I can see how this could be problematic. But it sounds like, and maybe correct me if I’m wrong, it sounds like for you the SDG’s, one of the reasons they’re so valuable is that, in a sense, they’re an advocacy tool to try and change some of these power relationships that you’ve so clearly identified. And then basically hold governments in particular to account for the obligations that they’ve already made under various international laws and treaties.
Antonia Wulff 29:24
In many ways, the SDGs is a global commitment. It’s a global aspiration. But the implementation is really supposed to be at the country level. And that is also where some of these processes to further define, further decide what the targets should mean in a given context should be taking place. And the kind of positive signs that we’ve seen so far are really about national level processes and how progress can be made within the country context. At the same time, what we see is very, very patchy implementation. And we do see a challenging environment in the sense that because of the lack of accountability but also because of the lack of any more kind of specific guidance on how to implement the goals and targets. And it is the case that the Education 2030 Framework for Action, that was negotiated to basically guide member states in their implementation of SDG 4. That has just not become the tool that it was designed to be. And that means that we see a lot of education initiatives, all of them claiming to contribute to SDG 4. Some of them being very far from my understanding of what SDG 4 is, and stands for, in terms of values, principles, so on and so on. But because of the accountability looking the way it does, you end up with this bizarre set-up where basically anything education-related can be framed as a wonderful contribution to SDG 4. And we are yet to figure out how -knowing the structural shortcomings in terms of the political context- how can you create those spaces that would really look at some of those values and principles, and the extent to which they are respected and really realized?
Will Brehm 31:33
So, it sounds interesting that you’re saying at the country level is where a lot of the work and implementation is taking place. And some exciting work potentially is happening. But is there any divergence or conflict with what’s going on at these country levels compared to what some of these global actors are looking at when it comes to these very specific indicators that they are agreeing to?
Antonia Wulff 31:59
In some ways you’re putting your finger on the principal tension, looking at SDG 4’s implementation. So, on the one hand, you have governments responding to a set of general aspirations working out: What does quality mean, in their context? How can they respond to the needs within that context? In the best-case scenario, working with teachers, students, civil society, to really define what implementation should look like in that space. That’s the only way you can realize the commitment to quality education. And then on the other hand, of course, you have these global processes, a lot of impatient international organizations who, in some ways, are taking advantage of the lack of specific implementation modalities, and quite happily, cherry-pick among the targets. This is really dangerous and difficult to development to start with, because it’s hard to hold these international organizations to account particularly those that are not intergovernmental structures. And in part, because we end up just skewing the whole SDG 4 vision that in some ways, the 10 targets under SDG 4, they are really the recipe for ensuring a continuum of quality education. Really starting from early childhood and all the way through to higher education and adult education. So, you end up with a disproportionate emphasis on small parts of the system which in itself is just undermining a more holistic approach to quality education systems. That’s really why you’ve seen so much frustration with all the work around learning outcomes indicators as well. Because it just takes a small part of the agenda. And I guess I should be adding the disclaimer that no, I’m not saying that literacy and numeracy doesn’t matter. It should obviously go without saying that those are key ingredients in any quality education system. But basically, you’ve seen a disproportionate amount of political tension and financing go into a small part of the agenda.
And I think it is very clear now, six years in, that it’s been done at the expense of work on 4.7. For instance, looking at education for global citizenship, sustainable development. Or the teacher targets 4.C, we’ve seen very little progress on indicators under the teacher targets. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we can’t afford being guided by a very, very narrow approach to measuring literacy and numeracy. And despite what I said earlier about indicators as our only tool for accountability in some ways, there is also a really important and legitimate question to be asking around the tradeoffs in relation to indicators and the extent to which indicators should be developed in a way where they force countries to go in a particular direction just to be globally comparable. And then indicators that allow for more diversity across countries. That’s really where SDG 4 ends up being such a fascinating kind of overview as well of the tensions that we keep struggling with within the education community.
Will Brehm 36:05
Well, Antonio Wolf, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. You’re gonna have to come back on in a couple of years when we know more of how these SDGs unfold and get implemented. So, thanks again for joining.
Antonia Wulff 36:16
Thanks so much.
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Related Guest Publications/Projects
Grading Goal Four: Tensions, threats, and opportunities in sustainable development goal on quality education
Global education governance in the context of COVID-19: Tensions and threats to education
2015 Sustainable Development Goals
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Open working group on sustainable development
Framework for Action for the implementation of SDG4
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‘Who will be accountable’ for the SDGs
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