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Pompeo must improve foreign aid, trickle-down education doesn’t work

As published in The Hill - 03.20.2018

By most accounts, Mike Pompeo earned his new job as Secretary of State by urging the U.S. to flex its muscle in North Korea, Iran, and other hotspots around the globe. But if Pompeo is to succeed as secretary, he'll have to do better at deploying American soft power. Standoffs over nuclear weapons and election influencing understandably dominate the headlines, but U.S. foreign policy is much broader than those issues. High-profile flashpoints are occurring alongside ongoing and unprecedented challenges that are coming to define the 21st century: climate change, civil conflict, and mass migration.

Military might cannot solve these unfolding megatrends because there is no single enemy to be defeated. Instead, people and societies will need to cope and adapt to our changing world through learning and education. This requires changing how we think about our global investment in improving learning across the lifespan.

In his new job, Pompeo has the opportunity to reset and improve how the U.S. uses its foreign aid, and fix mistakes that we’ve been making for decades while working in the developing world. Before he can retool U.S. foreign aid spending, Pompeo will have to argue against the proposed 30 percent spending cut in Trump’s budget. If carried out, these cuts would be especially harmful for education, which accounts for only 4 percent of U.S. aid. U.S. assistance has been highly successful in improving basic education in many developing countries, especially in early grade literacy. To cut funds now could reverse gains that have been made and damage the U.S. leadership role in education, contributing to a less literate world, and leading to greater social instability. Preserving current foreign aid funding — only one-fifth of 1 percent of U.S. GDP — is only the first step. Despite popular misconceptions, educational aid has always been limited, and previous administrations had to make choices about how it would be spent. They didn’t always spend the money that was available to improve the lives of the poorest populations. Instead, educational aid often winds up supporting the schooling of the middle and upper classes. The theory is that, as these better-off groups become more knowledgeable and literate, learning will somehow trickle down to the poorest children. This is inaccurate. Overall, the poorest children are four times less likely than the richest children to complete a primary education and this disparity is increasing. These trends are devastating for poor children, and show that simply increasing spending to get children access into school have had only marginal benefit to the learning of the children most in need. Some people see these results as evidence of the failure of foreign aid, and as a reason why industrialized nations should invest less in developing countries. That’s the wrong conclusion to draw. There are proven approaches that dramatically improve learning for the poorest children. We just need to implement them. Indeed, evidence shows that if we invest in the poorest children first, we will be better able to ensure that all children will learn better — the reverse of what we have been doing to date. Why should this matter to Pompeo? When poor children are better educated, societies often become freer, fairer, and more stable. In a very unstable world, that helps the U.S., and it costs pennies on the dollar compared to military options. What would a model of investment focused on the world's poorest citizens, look like? Invest more on the youngest children. We know that the earlier we invest in a child's development, the higher the impact potential the child has on her community. Strategically investing aid to support preschool aged children (a sector often still ignored by government funding) will produce significant benefits as children grow and develop. Culturally sensitive materials and well-trained teachers actually make the biggest difference in nurturing literacy and critical thinking skills. Invest in programs that give girls equal opportunity. Recent results in South Africa on the education of girls show that, everything else being equal, their results and aspirations in learning are stronger than boys. The problem is that in most poor countries, everything else is not equal, and dropout rates for girls remain much higher than those of boys. As Pompeo steps into his new job, he will need not only to protect foreign aid from proposed cuts but also focus on education for those at the bottom of the pyramid.

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