The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were elaborated by the United Nations in 2000, aiming to end poverty and inequalities worldwide by 2015, by focusing on eight specific targets: (1) eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; (2) achieve universal primary education; (3) promote gender equality and empower women; (4) reduce child mortality; (5) improve maternal health; (6) combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; (7) ensure environmental sustainability; and (8) develop a global partnership for development. One of the most successful targets has been MDG number two, since school enrolment having increased by 57 million worldwide between 2000 and 2011. Nevertheless, despite this impressive increase, the number of well-educated children in developing countries has not seen the same improvement.
As argued by the professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and authors of Poor Economics, Abhijit Banerjee and Ester Duflo, even in middle-income countries-which directed massive funds and integrated education into large social programmes-the ultimate goal of bringing quality of education for all is far from being achieved. If enrolment increased, why hasn’t the quality of education followed? First, the MDGs were conceptualised by international actors who lacked the contextual knowledge of developing countries. As specialist Michael Edwards argues, ‘conventional approaches to development research and practice value the technical knowledge of the ‘outside expert’ over the indigenous knowledge of people being ‘studied’ or ‘helped’’. Second, increasing enrolment only was easier and cheaper than promoting actual quality education, which was interesting for many politicians in developing countries.
In May 1996, OECD’s countries presented the Shaping the 21st Century: The Contribution of Development Co-operation, a report on future actions to promote development and reduce poverty worldwide. This document was followed by the Millennium Declaration in 2000, where leaders of 149 countries committed to reducing poverty by 2015 through the eight set Millennium Development Goals. Although the MDGs were agreed by Heads of States from these countries, they were conceptualised by the members of the OECD countries, UN and World bank officials.
The way the Education MDG was phrased demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of problems in the education systems of developing countries. As Banerjee and Duflo argue, ‘somewhat bizarrely, the issue of learning is not very prominently positioned in international declarations: The Millennium Development Goals do not specify that children should learn anything in school’. What those who conceptualised the MDGs did not consider was that in most low and middle-income countries, education systems are extremely flawed and increasing enrolment has a more negative than positive impact.
Strategies for international development are usually elaborated in a top-down way, with external actors constantly dictating which and how policies should be implemented in developing countries. This can be seen in the education MDG, where there was little consideration to the problems in education systems from developing countries that would act as hurdles in the process of translating an increase in enrolment into well-educated students.
It is also necessary to develop a strategies to keep students in school since in countries like Turkey, only 50 per cent of the students enrolled in primary education manage to reach Grade 8. In countries like India, Kenya and Pakistan, where national surveys took place to monitor the learning outcomes of investments in education, it was discovered that children were going to school and graduating without learning the most basic skills such as reading and writing a sentence or doing simple math.
It is possible to see in the Table bellow how the indicators show a significant proportional increase in school enrolment, but not in youth and adult literacy. Furthermore, it can also be argued that in many countries, being literate does not necessarily mean to be functional literate. Thus, by targeting an increase in enrolment rates, the MDGs ended up paying little attention to improving aspects that could lead to school retention and functional literacy, such as more qualified teachers, better curriculum, school facilities etc.
Table 1: Progress towards the six Education for All goals in Latin America and the Caribbean
It is important to note, however, that the “top-down” aspect of the MDGs was not the only reason for failure in keeping students in school and promoting quality education. They were only possible due to the compliance of national politicians, who usually preferred more superficial policies. Aiming on increasing enrolment favoured those in power, since these policies are cheaper and easier to implement. Furthermore, they have short-term positive results, making leaders look good in the eyes of voters and the international community.
How did the MDGs were implemented in Brazil?
In Brazil, a new era for education began a few years before the MDGs came to life, with President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1995. Reforms that involved decentralisation of the education system, improvement of teachers’ capacities and more investments towards schools’ structures were made during Cardoso’s two mandates. He was also responsible for the creation of Bolsa Escola, Brazil’s first Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programme with the primary goal of increasing school enrolment. These reforms were conceptualised as a first step towards deeper structural reforms that were planned to take place in the years to follow.
When President Lula took office in 2003, the government increased investments in education, including expanding Bolsa Escola into a more comprehensive CCT called Bolsa Familia (Family Allowance in English). At the beginning of Lula’s administration, both domestic and international scenarios favoured investments in education (Hall, 2008). At the international level, the MDGs had just been established and at the domestic level, there were many good outcomes from Cardoso’s education policies that could be expanded.
President Lula aimed, in line with the Millennium Development Goals, to tackle poverty in Brazil, while improving the health and education system. It was in that scenario that Lula turned the Bolsa Familia into one of the largest CCTs programmes in the world, having reached as of 2013 around 26% of Brazil’s population. One of the programme’s conditionality was enrolling children in schools and ensuring they attended at least 80% of classes. Making school enrolment a condition for receiving Bolsa Familia was a way to show both the country’s population and the world how serious the government was about achieving the Millennium Development Goals.
Bolsa Familia was indeed successful in increasing families’ income, but in terms of quality education, the results did not match the investment. Neither Cardoso nor Lula moved forward with the deep structural reforms needed to provide quality education in public schools and these were not able to deal with the high influx of new comers-especially after Bolsa Familia. Even though some important reforms were done, like the decentralisation of education, deeper reforms would be more costly and would take years to be fully implemented.
For the government the benefits of focusing only on increasing enrolment were many. First, it pleased international stakeholders by showing that the MDGs were being achieved. Second, high enrolment rates showed the low and middle classes that the government was indeed promoting education for their children, even if this was not producing any long-term results. Together, these factors meant simultaneously, more approval at the international level and more internal approval –to be translated into votes in national elections.
So, now what?
The MDGs were designed with a ‘developed and westernised’ rationale that did not take into consideration the peculiarities of education systems in developing countries. This, however, was not the only reason for failure, since national governments were benefiting from the short-term positive results of increasing enrolment without spending a lot of money. By not reinforcing the aspect of quality education, the MDGs made national governments in charge of the decision of whether or not to promote deep and costly structural changes that would lead to quality education.
Although, internal policies matter significantly, changing this scenario needs to begin with international pressure for more comprehensive targets. This is especially important now, as the new MDGs, to be called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are in the final stage of negotiation and are about to be officially announced later in 2015. Due to resistance of some internal actors, it would be important to combine international and internal pressure (of civil organisations and other social movements for instance) to push for these reforms.
 The Oxford dictionary defines Functional Illiteracy as ‘a person whose level of ability to read and write is below that needed to do the ordinary tasks required to function normally in society.’ (Oxford Dictionary)