Julia and the four challenges

This may sound like the name for a 1960’s rock band.

However, I am using it to highlight a speech by Julia Gillard in her capacity as Chair of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

I don’t want to get into the debate about Julia’s period as Prime Minister. What I am sure of is that she is a good fit as Chair of the GPE.

If, as I assume, she required the support of the Abbott government to win the position then they deserve congratulations for seeing the benefit to global education and to Australia’s reputation.

In a recent speech (the Kapuscinski Development Lecture) Julia outlined four challenges facing the international community if we are to achieve our goal of education for every child.

The four challenges, which she represented as four overlapping circles were:

  • Poverty
  • Conflict
  • Fragility and
  • Emergency.

Within the circumferences of these four circles are the 58 million children of primary school age who do not go to school.

In this speech Julia also raises some other troubling issues.

Firstly, education is lagging within overall development funding. She cites OECD data which indicates that aid to education has declined by almost 10 percent since 2010 while overall ODA has fallen by only 1.3 percent.

The second big issue is educational quality. Julia reports that 250 million children are unable to read or perform basic calculations even though they may have had four years of schooling.

In part she attributes this lack of attention to education in general, and quality in particular, to the difficulty of measuring results in education.

This reflects an enduring concern of mine, the tyranny of the measurable. It is difficult to win support for measures which seem important but where the results are not measurable. This distortion is a by-product of the very welcome focus on results and outcomes. But we need to guard against ignoring important issues where measurement may be difficult.

These are important issues and I am proud that an Australian is raising them for the world to address.

Bob McMullan was formerly Parliamentary Secretary for International Development and is Adjunct Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy. 

image_pdfDownload PDF

Bob McMullan

Bob McMullan has had a long and distinguished career in the Australian Parliament as one of Australia’s pre-eminent Labor politicians. He is a former Parliamentary Secretary for International Development (2007-2010) and Executive Director for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.


  • Thanks Bob and Joel,

    The ‘tyranny of the measurable’ is indeed a dilemma for someone such as myself who also applauds the virtues of evidence-based policy decision making. Good public policy and governance should be driven by evidence, and hard numbers tend to drive out “soft” information. Joel highlights how this may affect education sector funding relative to health funding. This is even more the case for governance activities. These are very difficult to measure – although the World Bank at least makes an effort through its support for worldwide governance indicators. Time scales are very long – well beyond a usual election cycle, especially if trying to measure sustainable reform. In addition, there are real differences as to what is regarded as a success in the governance sector (for example, whether creating statutory authorities in PNG for immigration and taxation is a positive governance outcome or not). A third issue in the ‘tyranny of the measurable’ is that even when there is information on “measurable wins”, it often cannot be released in public. Some of the best contributions from advisers working in the governance sector cannot be revealed as they could break the secrecy provisions of another sovereign country (this would be the same issue for any foreign adviser working in Australia on issues that went to the Australian Cabinet). I will do a blog on these issues in the context of PNG and the governance sector in coming weeks.

  • Dear Bob,

    Thanks so much for this piece. Wonderful to hear. I have long wondered how and why education aid funding paled in comparison to global health funding. And I think you are right about the measurability aspect. I would also argue that the elements of global health that people like to fund are acute and finite – “people diagnosed”, “treatments provided”. While good, quality education is a multi-year, multi-faceted endeavour. I was discussing this with students in class last week – in education, we like to measure enrolment (ie. see the MDG report which reports on enrolments rates) but we don’t measure completion or, even more importantly, quality nearly as much.

    On a slight tangent, I think this is part of the reason why health systems are often seen as too hard to support. We like supporting polio eradication or malaria elimination because they are finite. But supporting a health system is a long-term complex endeavour with uncertain outcomes.

    All the more reason for long-term predictable aid – something that seems to be eluding us at present.
    All the best,

Leave a Comment