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Charities have blamed the UK's aid cuts for an “underwhelming” outcome at a major fundraising event.
Speaking at a summit to boost the number of children in schools across the globe, Boris Johnson described education as a “silver bullet” to tackle some of the world’s most difficult challenges.
“[Education] is the silver bullet, this is the magic potion, this is the panacea, this is the universal cure, this is the Swiss army knife – complete with allen key and screwdriver and everything else – that can solve virtually every problem that inflicts humanity,” the Prime Minister told the conference, co-hosted in London by the British and Kenyan governments.
Alongside lifting GDP and life expectancy, Mr Johnson said education can “help end all kinds of ignorance and prejudice”, helping to tackle challenges from terrorism and war to climate change.
But, despite the Prime Minister’s searing rhetoric, the summit has been described as “decidedly underwhelming” by NGOs, after falling $1 billion (£716 million) short of fundraising targets.
The two-day summit had hoped to generate $5 billion (£3.67 billion) for the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). Over the next five years, the initiative aims to create an extra 88 million school places and support the learning of 175 million children in 90 of the world’s poorest countries.
But with the pandemic wreaking havoc on access to education the world over – 1.6 billion children were affected at the peak of the crisis in 2020 – charities warned the shortfall of funding would have big ramifications on attempts to “build back better”.
“After all the rhetoric from leaders about the importance of investing in education, this is a decidedly underwhelming result,” said Lis Wallace, the UK head of advocacy at the ONE campaign.
“Although these commitments will help secure the futures of many more children, the reality is that we’re around $1 billion short of the original target. Unfortunately, the report card for leaders after the summit tells an all-too-familiar story – they must do better.”
She added that the “UK has to shoulder responsibility for this outcome”, with aid cuts undermining efforts to encourage other countries to make large donations.
“The UK aid cuts have impaired the Government’s efforts to leverage others, and damaged our credibility,” Ms Wallace said. “This is not just letting down millions of children, it’s a bad look for British diplomacy.”
Emma Wagner, the head of education at Save the Children, added: “The failure of the UK as co-host to mobilise sufficient funds is a clear example of its diminishing leadership on the world stage following its devastating aid cuts and a lacklustre G7 summit. The UK’s own pledge in June fell well short of expectations and clearly failed to galvanise the global action required at the summit.”
Rose Caldwell, the chief executive of Plan International UK, made similar comments, noting that “this is the first time in history that the host of a major education finance summit has simultaneously cut their overall funding for global education”.
“Girls around the world called for the UK to listen and fund education; they asked for leadership, but they got broken promises,” she said.
But, after the conference, the GPE struck a more optimistic tone, suggesting that $4 billion (£2.86 billion) is one of the biggest sums ever raised at an education fundraising event.
The initiative said it is also optimistic that it is on the right track and, in the coming years, the remaining funds will be raised.
“The summit is an important success for millions of children and young people around the world whose education has been upended by the pandemic, and a critical step to ensuring that education is at the heart of our response and recovery,” said Julia Gillard, the chairman of GPE and former Prime Minister of Australia.
In total, the UK pledged £430 million to the GPE – its biggest ever contribution.
Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, has set out goals of getting 40 million more girls in school and 20 million more girls reading by age 10 in low- and lower- middle-income countries by 2026.
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