"You can’t just wave a magic wand"

Alice Albright tells Cathryn Newbery how the Global Partnership for Education is leading the charge to get millions of children into school.

Globally, there are 58 million children out of school, 50 per cent of whom are in fragile or conflict-affected countries – those where citizens are affected by poverty and a vulnerable leadership. There are also 250 million children who have learned very little after four years of school and 27 developing countries who pledged to raise their education budgets, which amounted to US$26 billion.

These are the numbers that prey on the mind of Alice Albright, CEO of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), which is the only multilateral organization focused on supporting countries’ efforts to educate children from early primary age through to secondary school.

For Albright, taking the helm at the GPE was the culmination of a professional quest to improve the lives of impoverished people in developing countries. Raised in Washington DC, she is the daughter of famed US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. Since college, she’s been “absolutely fascinated” with the issues surrounding economic, political and social progress in developing countries. After working on mobilizing capital to enable growth in developing markets for much of her career, Albright joined the fledgling Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI) in 2001 to explore the developmental issues that fascinated her.

From 2009, until joining the GPE in 2013, Albright served as the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, which she says “has a huge role to play in providing technology through the availability of finance to emerging countries.” IB World speaks to Albright in Washington DC about the GPE’s evolving role in the global community, the challenges that face educators and governments all over the world, and the prospects for education systems to reshape minds for the future.

What attracted you to the challenge of leading the GPE?

When I started looking at the issue of education, I became absolutely captivated by its transformational power. And I quickly realized that it’s not one single problem, but a collection of very complicated – but hopefully solvable – issues.

What’s distinctive about GPE is the interaction between the global and the local. The GPE is a partnership that brings together every major player in the education space: developing countries, donors, civil society organizations, teachers, UN organizations and the private sector – everybody who has a contribution to make.

This gives us a valuable global platform for advocacy, as well as enormous reach into every possible area of the world – we are able to draw on the global enthusiasm for education to create the will and ‘the art of the possible’ in the countries we work in. We have to act together to tackle this problem. The challenge of education in poor, developing countries is enormous and one that exceeds the wingspan of any single organization alone.

What is education’s role in improving living standards in fragile states?

Its role in advancing a society is profound but, in some ways, very basic. Education is at the heart of building essential skills – from taking care of children, to starting businesses and participating in democracy – not to mention contending with climate change and political extremism.

Schooling is vital for enabling people in fragile countries (50 per cent of its funding support goes to fragile and conflict-affected countries) to live in a settled, stable society. Many current conflicts have been caused by people rising up against their governments and each other because of a lack of hope, or because they lack the ability to get along with one another. Much of this can be tackled through education.

Often a lack of education provision is not considered to be a humanitarian emergency. A very tiny fraction of the money that gets deployed in humanitarian emergencies – less than two per cent – is designated for education. But when a crisis erupts, schooling stops very quickly, and it can be years before education gets back on track. By then, you’ve lost a whole generation of kids. You can’t recover that.

If you look at places like Syria and Lebanon, you can see the devastating effects of conflict and displacement on education. We’re also worried about Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia – how do we help those countries recover once the Ebola virus has been contained?

Is there a trade-off between universal access to education and access to quality education?

It’s not a choice. You wouldn’t choose quality over availability, and you wouldn’t choose availability over quality. You want there to be availability for everybody, and quality for everybody. 

All the countries we’re working with are at different stages. There are some that have made great progress on availability and are now beginning to work on quality. But you have other countries that are just beginning to figure out how to get started again. You need to have a set of policy tools that enable you to address both things. 

How should teaching and learning be assessed in developing countries?

Teachers at conferences around the world have told me that if testing is used as a punishment, it’s not going to be well received. But, for school systems, families and government ministers to know if their children are getting educated, you have to have some way of assessing that.

The challenge in the developing countries is that there is a patchwork quilt of tests – some are not available, some are not comparable, some measure the wrong things. A new international group called the Learning Metrics Task Force will help us make progress in addressing these issues. What’s your assessment of the progress made towards the Millennium Development Goal of primary school education for all?

Enormous progress has been made in the past 15 years. The number of children that are not in school has almost been halved since 2000: 108 million down to 58 million. That is terrific, but we shouldn’t feel complacent about it because reaching the remaining 58 million will be much more difficult. Many are girls, many are in fragile states, and many are in countries that have a very serious lack of schooling capacity such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Why is educating girls vital, and how much work is there still to do? 

Girls account for around 31 million of the 58 million children that we know aren’t in education, and for a large proportion of the 250 million who haven’t learned very much after four years at school.

There are a number of intertwining reasons why this happens, ranging from security concerns to sanitation issues. Childhood marriage is also a big concern, and one that is often a reflection of poverty. Families with limited means often choose to educate their son but not their daughter, and marry their daughter early.

But it’s a very complex knot of issues. Does lack of education opportunities for girls cause early childhood marriage, or does early childhood marriage cause families to keep their girls away from school?

If you educate girls there are enormous positive knock-on effects. They send their own kids to school, they make better financial decisions, they have a settling impact on communities – the list goes on.

It’s terrific that the issue is getting so much attention. And we are thrilled that Malala [Yousafzai] was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, given her bravery and her courageous focus on this issue. But lots more local advocacy work is needed.

What lessons and inspirations do you draw from the people you meet?

I’ve come away with so many impressions from the countries I’ve visited. First of all, how complicated this is. Anybody who thinks you can wave a magic wand and make it all happen is completely wrong.

But when I meet government ministers and teachers, I get this overwhelming sense of will: of their determination to really make progress. I remember meeting teachers and the Principal at a school in Addis Ababa [Ethiopia], and it was remarkably impressive what they were able to do in difficult circumstances.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, I travelled to a small town a few hours’ flight out of Kinshasa, where we were starting construction of a school.The town was so remote, it was surrounded by jungle. The look on the kids’ faces that they were able to have a school was so exciting. Every visit, every experience leaves me feeling so inspired to make a difference.

What do you want the GPE to achieve during your tenure as CEO?

The GPE has achieved so much since it was founded in 2002. For many of our achievements we have to thank Carol Bellamy, who was the GPE’s Board Chair for many years and is now the Board Chair of the IB.

Looking forward, I’d like to see us make real progress in chipping away at the 58 million children who aren’t in school; in introducing a really robust learning outcome agenda at the country level so we begin to tackle the quality issues. I’d also like us to continue to shore up the funding from partner countries and donors.

What are your views on education systems such as the IB, and their role in improving access?

When I think about IB programmes, the two words that come to mind are ‘international’ and ‘excellence’. Any programme that is able to foster good understanding between people of different backgrounds is absolutely essential right now. If you think of all the major problems we’re facing, understanding the world and being able to work with other people is a basic requirement. But I also love the idea that the IB drives for excellence at a time when you hear so much about declining standards.

What I think the IB needs to do next is to continue to make its programmes accessible to people of all walks of life. Globally, we have a duty to ensure that education is not just a privilege of the elite.

How can IB World Schools support the GPE’s work?

It’s never too early in a child’s education to remind them of the challenges around them. Not in a way to depress or stress them, but to make them aware of the world and that there are kids who have nothing and don’t even know what a school is, and that it’s good to become a global citizen. The IB has a huge role to play in this area, as it does in giving children the confidence and empowerment to go out there and try to fix the big global problems we’re facing today, and in the future.