Transforming Education: Escaping Poverty Traps

Published on 5th December 2022

The challenge we face: a crisis of equity, of quality and of relevance

The COVID pandemic hit a terrible blow to education systems all around the world but, as we strive to recover from the educational impact of the pandemic, it would be a mistake simply to recover the losses and to go back where we were in 2019.

The truth is that even before the pandemic education was facing a global crisis which is, in fact, a triple crisis: a crisis of equity, as millions are out of school; a crisis of quality, as many of those who are in school are not even learning the basics; and, of course, a crisis of relevance, as many educational systems are not equipping the new generations with the values, knowledge, and skills they need to be active citizens in today’s complex and rapidly changing world.

The education we need: an education for life

To confront such crisis, we must reimagine and transform education so that it supports learners in four key capacities:

First, they must learn to learn. All learners should develop their ability to read and write, to identify, understand, and communicate clearly and effectively. They must also develop numeracy, digital and scientific knowledge and skills. Education must also instill in them the curiosity, the creativity, and the capacity for critical thinking and to nurture social and emotional skills, empathy, and kindness. This is essential for developing their capacity to deal with complexity in an increasingly uncertain world.

Second, they must learn to do. As the world of work undergoes rapid and fundamental changes, so must education change, in order to prepare every person for the challenges of the future – including the green, the digital and the care economy – and offering them life-long learning opportunities both in formal and in informal education.

Third, and this is a bigger challenge for educational systems, they must learn to live together. In a world of increasing inequality, rising tensions, fraying trust, weakened democratic culture and a dramatic environmental crisis, education must help us to live better with each other and with nature. This has to do with ethics, equality, and justice; with civic responsibility, democracy, and human rights; with the respect, understanding and enjoyment of our rich human diversity; and, of course, with our capacity and active commitment as global citizens with the goals of a confronting poverty and inequality and promoting a more sustainable development.

Of particular importance here is the unabashed respect for human rights and the pursuit of gender equality. This requires a gender-sensitive curriculum that promotes sex and affective education, addresses gender-based prejudice, norms, or stereotypes, empowers and equips learners to combat violence against women and sexually diverse persons, and ensure adequate sexual and reproductive health for all.

Finally, and this is something educational systems very often forget or underestimate, they must learn to be: The deepest purpose of education lies precisely in learning how to live well, instilling in learners the values and capacities to lead a meaningful life, to enjoy that life, and to live it fully. Education must expand every learner´s potential for creativity and innovation; their capacity to enjoy and to express themselves through the arts; their awareness of history and the diversity of cultures; and their disposition for leading a healthy life, to practice physical activities, games, and sports.

Transforming schools, teachers, and teaching resources

To meet these higher purposes of education we must transform the curriculum and the pedagogy but, as we argued at the Summit, we also need to transform three essential elements of our educational systems.

First, schools. Education does not happen in a vacuum. If we want to solve the crisis of equity we face in education, we must transform schools into safe, healthy, inclusive, and stimulating learning places. The schools of the future, whether formal or informal, physical, or virtual, must not exclude anybody, they should accept every person and make them feel welcome, cared for, protected, stimulated, and supported in their needs and according to their capacities. The school must become the space and time of human integration, of our coming together in our rich human diversity, without discrimination of any kind, mockery, abuse, or aggression. 

Second, teachers. To transform education, we must support teachers, so that they can also transform themselves into agents of change. Teachers must become knowledge producers, facilitators, and guides in the comprehension of complex realities. They must be trained and empowered to transcend from passive to active, from vertical and unidirectional to collaborative. They must promote learning based on experience, enquiry, and curiosity; develop the capacity, the joy and discipline for problem solving. They should also guide their students in their learning to care for each other, to confront and solve conflicts peacefully, and to enjoy each other in their diversity.

And third, the digital revolution. If harnessed properly, the digital revolution could be one of the most powerful tools for ensuring quality education for all and transforming the way teachers teach and learners learn. But if not – as we have seen during the pandemic – it could rather exacerbate inequalities and divide us into increasingly intolerant bubbles.

The problem here is that these are typical public goods because, while they require a significant effort and a high fixed cost to be produced, once they are produced, they can be widely used by an increasing amount of teachers and students everywhere, with very little or no additional cost. If left to the market, such resources would become artificially scarce and quite expensive. That is why we must effectively transform digital teaching and learning resources into global public goods, so that their financing, design, production, and distribution is organized so as to guarantee free and open access of teachers and learners all over the world, allowing digital learning resources to effectively foster the sharing of human knowledge from an intercultural perspective.

Investing more, more equitably, and more efficiently in education

All this requires significant investments, and the fact is that, in today´s world, we are not investing enough in education, we are not investing equitably in education, neither are we investing efficiently.

Today, we invest roughly US$5 trillion in in education in the world. In average, that is about 6% of global GDP. But averages are deceiving. High-income countries account for 63% of global investment in education but only serve 10% of the world´s school-age population. Next, we have upper-middle-income countries, with 29% of global educational investment and 15% of the school-age population. On the other hand, we find lower-middle-income countries which, with only 8% of global investment, must educate 50% of the world's school-age population. Finally, low-income countries try to educate 25% of the world's school-age population with only 0.6% of global investment in education[i]. Roughly, this means we are educating three quarters of the world’s children with less than one tenth of the global investment in education.

This obviously means that the resources we are investing per-school age person are very unequal across the world, thus reproducing educational inequality. Roughly, by 2020, per capita spending in education was over $.8000 per year in high-income countries, about $1.000 in upper-middle-income countries, only $300 per year in lower-middle-income countries and merely $50 per year in low-income countries[ii]. That is about one dollar per week. You do not have to be an expert to understand what this means.

In the low and lower-middle income countries, the challenge of educational investment can only be solved if the national effort is substantially complemented by international cooperation. In most countries, however, this investment should be financed with national resources, because it makes sense to do so.

Investing in education should be seen not only as a moral and political imperative – which it is – but it should also be understood as a sensible economic investment. There is plenty of evidence that “education pays”. It has been shown that a single dollar invested in education at the primary and secondary level yields an estimated $2.50 in additional gross lifetime earnings in lower-middle income countries, and as much as $5.00 in lower-income countries – that is a 500% return on investment. And these are only the private returns. If we were to add the economic impact of indirect benefits of education, we would find, for example, that every $1 spent on early childhood development interventions would yield about $13 in economic returns[iii].

But if we know that, why is it, then, that countries do not invest more in education? “There is no fiscal space” – the Minister of Finance would say. But then, why is it that they don’t pursue a progressive revamping of their tax systems that could increase the tax to GDP ratio and open more fiscal space for the financing of education? If education has such a high rate of return, it should make economic sense to finance it. So, why not?

Education and poverty traps

To answer this question, we need to understand that there is a very strong relation between the kind of development, the kind of economy a country has and the kind of education that comes with it; and it is a relation that goes both ways.

Putting it in very simple terms, when a country is highly unequal and has a large supply of very cheap labor, it can find itself in a low-level equilibrium or poverty trap. The type of investments more easily attracted by the abundance of cheap labor is that of typically unsophisticated investments, with low capital intensity, low productivity, and little need for human capital. But still, they can be very profitable, not because they contribute with increasing productivity, but because of their continued access to low-cost human and natural resources. With no need for an increasingly qualified labor force, there is little incentive from the economic sectors for raising taxes to finance education, which is perceived as a mere expenditure. The situation can be even more complicated when countries get entangled into the typical race to the bottom, where they deregulate the labor market, the exploitation of natural resources, devalue their currencies and grant generous and perverse tax incentives to further reduce costs and attract foreign investment.

As many authors have argued, in countries where these extractive or low-productivity economies prevail, the institutional framework tends to be weak and the balance of economic and political power is significantly skewed towards the upper echelons of income and wealth, which again tend to oppose the kind of progressive tax increases that would be necessary to finance universal quality education and social development in general.

Education is the only way out of a poverty trap, but poverty traps curtail the capacity to invest in education, even though such an investment would make social and economic sense in the long term. Short term profits will not allow it. It will take vision and, more than vision, it will take a movement capable of altering the balance of power, for a country to break free from these poverty traps and embark on the virtuous cycle of sustainable development: increasing wages, increasing productivity, expanding and improving education, making a sustainable use of natural resources and strengthening political institutions.

In order to achieve sustainable development, less developed countries must transform education, but in turn, in order to transform education, they must also break free from perverse poverty traps and race to the bottom strategies. Every country needs and deserves a good education for its people – all of its people. Every country needs and deserves a just and sustainable development.

In the end, this is about ethics. And it is about politics. It’s about changing the balance of power and escaping poverty traps. It is about reverting the dynamics of increasing inequality. And yes, education must play a key role in such transformation.

By Leonardo Garnier

Special Adviser, UN Secretary General, Transforming Education Summit


[i] UNESCO, World Bank: Education Finance Watch 2022, United Nation Statistics.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] World Economic Forum (2022), Catalyzing Education 4.0 Investing in the Future of Learning for a Human-Centric Recovery


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