Education Cannot Wait Interviews Liesbet Steer, Executive Director of the Education Commission
Dr. Liesbet Steer is the Executive Director of the Education Commission, chaired by UN Special Envoy for Global Education and Chair of the ECW High-Level Steering Group, The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown. Under Liesbet’s leadership, the Commission has been at the forefront of new thinking in education financing calling for more effective and “progressive” domestic spending, innovative international and private financing (through the International Finance Facility for Education (IFFEd), the Education Outcomes Fund and Greater Share) and better coordination of external funding (including through her leadership of the Global Education Forum and Save Our Future).
Liesbet has over 20 years of experience in international development and finance across the world – working for the World Bank, IFC, Asia Foundation, ODI and the Brookings Institution. Between 1997 and 2007, she lived in Viet Nam and Indonesia where she worked on economic development in the Asia region. Liesbet has written widely on development finance and education, and presented in a wide range of fora and advisory panels. She currently serves on the Board of Greater Share, the Global Leadership Council of Generation Unlimited (UNICEF), the High-Level Steering Group of the Education Outcomes Fund and the World Economic Forum Education 4.0 Alliance. Liesbet was educated at the Universities of Antwerp and East Anglia, and the London School of Economics. She holds a M.Sc. in Quantitative Economics, and Ph.D. in Development Economics. She is married to Andrew Steer and has two college-age children.
ECW: At this year’s Transforming Education Summit, UN Secretary-General António Guterres and The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education and Chair of the ECW High-Level Steering Group, launched the International Finance Facility for Education (IFFEd). How will the new facility help address the growing global education funding crisis along with other funds?
Dr. Liesbet Steer: The launch of IFFEd in September with the UN Secretary-General was a special moment for all of us involved in the IFFEd journey! We are deeply grateful to all our supporters, including the ECW team!
IFFEd will bring much needed additional finance to address the global education and learning crisis, which has been exacerbated by the global pandemic and other shocks as a result of climate change and conflict. IFFEd aims to unlock an additional $10 billion of concessional low-cost financing for education and skills by 2030.
IFFEd uses a new form of sovereign guarantees and combines these with donor grants to mobilize additional affordable education financing through the Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs). While guarantees are used to expand the lending capacity of MDBs, grants are used to buy down the interest rates. This combination allows IFFEd to multiply every donor dollar seven times, compared to traditional aid. This is a great deal for donors and partners in the current resource-constrained environment. This is also why IFFEd has been recognized as a major financial innovation for development finance, including in the recent G20 review of the Multilateral Development Banks.
IFFEd fills a gap by targeting the urgent needs of lower-middle-income countries (LMICs), which are home to more than half of the world’s children and youth and host a large share of refugees and displaced young people. In LMICs, 1 in 5 children are out of school and 3 out of 4 young people leave school without the basic skills to thrive. The financing gaps in these countries are too large to be filled by traditional grant aid. IFFEd complements grant-based instruments like ECW and GPE.
ECW: From 2019-2020, 43 donors reduced their bilateral aid to education, and 40% of low- and lower-middle-income countries reduced their education budgets. How will IFFEd work with Education Cannot Wait and other relevant organizations to address the funding gap and build complementary supports to deliver on our collective goal of ensuring education for all by 2030 (SDG4)?
Dr. Liesbet Steer: The long-term future of #222MillionDreams✨📚 will be determined by our ability to complement the critical short- and medium-term support ECW provides with the longer-term support IFFEd provides to help rebuild and improve systems. While ECW can respond immediately with critical finance in the wake of natural disasters like the recent floods in Pakistan, IFFEd can provide longer-term financing to rebuild and recover.
As LMICs develop or recover from crises, they often have large financing gaps that prevent them from meeting their education needs. They often face a structural finance problem because as LMICs enter middle income status, their international assistance tends to fall faster than tax revenues rise. To fill the gap, they can afford to borrow for education at very low cost, but not at commercial rates which are typically offered to them. IFFEd offers this low-cost finance to invest in education.
Working through the MDBs, IFFEd also encourages countries to increase domestic resource mobilization, which is a key eligibility requirement and an important strategy towards long-term sustainability. In an environment with scarce resources, it is essential to tap all available finance and use it effectively. Like ECW, IFFEd’s results framework is focused on improving learning and skills outcomes with a focus on those furthest behind. Program priorities will be developed based on an assessment of the impact of investments in education or related issues (e.g. health and nutrition) with an impact on learning outcomes.
ECW: As the Executive Director of the Education Commission, you oversee five key transformations that have been identified through The Learning Generation Report, including learning models, education workforce, service delivery, financing and cross-sectoral action. How can these transformational approaches benefit 222 million crisis-impacted children and adolescents who urgently need support?
Dr. Liesbet Steer: We focus on these key transformations because we know they can unlock and accelerate the change needed to achieve a learning generation – including the 222 million crisis-impacted children and youth.
We need more financing, but we also must spend it more wisely. Harnessing technology to enable teaching at the right level, rethinking the education workforce in support of the needs of the whole child, and developing systems that can deliver results are key priorities for future education systems.
As a sector, it would be strategic if we could speak with one voice and rally around a shared effort to prioritize effective solutions and increase education funding as we did in the Save Our Future campaign during the pandemic, which united some of the world’s largest education development organizations around shared priorities!
But education must also become everyone’s business! Many of the transformations needed in education require us to work across sectors and approach challenges using a systems lens. In our recent Rewiring Education for People and Planet report, we called on the global community to collaborate across sectors around six “win-win” solutions that can transform education as well as trigger co-benefits for people and planet.
One of these solutions that could provide concrete and immediate benefits to the 222 million crisis-impacted children is the scaling of school meals and school health interventions to end hunger and improve health and well-being. This is the primary objective of the School Meals Coalition. The Education Commission is working with the Coalition to identify sustainable financing options for countries as they progress towards self-reliance.
Hungry children cannot learn. School meals have a significant impact on learning outcomes, especially for the most vulnerable including in emergency contexts, and from a finance perspective represent outstanding value for money – each $1 spent generates $9 of impact.
ECW: ECW and our strategic partners work in several middle-income countries across Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia – e.g. Bangladesh, Colombia and Pakistan. Many have received large refugee and asylum seeker influxes due to conflict, climate change and COVID-19. How can we work together to deliver across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus to ensure economic and social progress?
Dr. Liesbet Steer: ECW and IFFEd are highly complementary and can work hand-in-hand to deliver impactful support to countries that are recovering from recent conflict, climate shocks, and the COVID-19 crisis.
Together they could support countries’ progress from humanitarian to development priorities. ECW is equipped to provide immediate to medium-term emergency support that allows countries to move towards the rebuilding phase of the recovery more quickly. IFFEd can come in with medium- to long-term support as countries look to rebuild after the initial emergency has passed and invest in their human capital development.
As Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif of Pakistan said recently:
“The recent floods have destroyed over 23,700 schools in our country and have affected 22,000 other schools due to closures, damages, or sheltering families afflicted by the flood damages. The impact on the lives and minds of millions of our children and youth will be felt for years to come. As we work to rebuild from this catastrophe, the new stream of affordable education financing from IFFEd will be crucial to help meet our financing needs to provide an inclusive and quality education for our most vulnerable children and youth.”
ECW: Our readers would like to know a little about you on a personal level and we know that readers are leaders. What are some of the books that have most influenced you, personally and professionally, and why would you recommend them to others?
Dr. Liesbet Steer: As a child I loved reading the Adventures of Tintin (my compatriot) – the brave and inquisitive Belgian reporter who went around the world fighting for justice. I always loved Tintin’s taste for adventure and the positive attitude he brought to challenges.
Another book that inspires me is The Four Loves by CS Lewis. In addition to affection, friendship and romantic love, the fourth kind of love is “charitable love” giving of yourself for humanity – it’s the kind you extend without expectations for anything in return. It’s what is critical for us all to overcome the challenges in this world!
Finally, I loved reading The Human Element this year. A book about how to overcome resistance to new ideas (like IFFEd 😊). It compares innovations to a bullet. It argues that the speed of a bullet is determined by the gun powder (compare that to the strength of the innovation) as well as the resistance as it moves through the air (compare that to headwinds like feelings of inertia, threat, and complexity associated with change).
A positive spirit, charitable love, and overcoming headwinds… that is what’s needed now more than ever!