The level of access to basic services such as primary education and basic healthcare varies considerably across the nations of the Southwest Pacific. PNG ranks low, if not the last, on this count. Its geography in the form of the rough terrain and archipelagic nature, history in terms of a highly fragmented and sometimes strongly divided society, and climatic conditions which makes malaria (and other vector-born diseases) endemic to the nation is major handicaps to universal and effective delivery of basic services. The recent arrival and galloping spread of HIV compounds the problems many fold.
Education is critical for development. The international community, via the 2nd Millennium Development Goal (MDG), committed itself to achieving universal access to primary education by 2015. This same MDG also targets the elimination of gender disparities in primary and secondary schooling. While this goal may be achieved at the global level, the same is unlikely to be true for the Pacific region. Australia, moreover, will carry some blame for this failure. Any progress on MDG#2 within the Pacific Islands requires significant improvements in enrolment rates and primary school completions in Papua New Guinea. This is so for three reasons: (i) PNG is the largest country within the island- Pacific, accounting for some 6 million of the 8 million inhabitants for the region as a whole; (ii) PNG lags the most in terms of school enrolments; and, (iii) gender disparities are the largest for PNG. Primary school enrolment statistics from the National Department of Education (NDOE) and population census from the National Statistics Office (NSO) show that only 53 percent of children in the 6-14 year age cohort are in primary school. This means that some 680,000 children of school age are not enrolled in school. Girls comprise 45 percent of children in elementary and primary school. But only 29 percent of girls who enter grade 1 complete primary schooling. And gender disparities widen as students move up the education ladder. Furthermore, the quality of education delivered is poor. A recent survey reported that some 37 percent of primary school graduates were unable to read or write. Australia shares some responsibility for the above.
PNG is the largest recipient of Australian aid. A significant proportion of this aid is channelled to the education and health sectors. PNG, as of 2006-07, accounted for approximately 30 percent of total Australian ODA. Education and Health sectors received some 10 and 11 percent, respectively, of the total. In terms of progress made on the second MDG, that of universal access to primary education, the most recent data – that of 2004 – reveals PNG ranking last within the Pacific Islands and only marginally above Nepal within the Asia-Pacific region. The reality could be worse since some recent updating of the data suggests that the initial estimates may have been optimistic. Australian aid is being scaled up. Some of this rise will flow on to PNG, and to the poorly performing island nations within Australia’s neighbourhood. We could, with these additional funds, do more of the same old programs and projects.
This would be a risk-averse strategy. Much of the efforts to date have been targeted at funding teachers, school buildings, road, etc; the focus, in short, has been on increasing inputs with the assumption that bumping up inputs will lead to increased outputs and improved developmental outcomes. Hindsight suggests that the assumption of a tight relationship between inputs and outputs is flawed.
I propose that we can be more ambitious in getting better value from our aid. Specifically, aid funds can be used to directly purchase outputs from individual suppliers. The analogy of coffee shops takes us far on this proposal. Good coffee gets supplied wherever there is a market for the above. Could a similar model be used to improve access to quality primary education in PNG? Some experimentation and learning would be necessary to make this work with ODA. I propose a Progress Education Fund (PEF) that will ‘buy’ progress on primary school completions and in terms of the number of students passing the national exam in the graduation year.
This proposal has its genesis in the Cash-On- Delivery (COD) mechanism that has several advantages over the current system of input subsidisation. Five of these are enumerated below. (i) It uses existing machineries of the PNG Government, thus will strengthen existing delivery mechanisms. (ii) It takes resources to the frontline of service delivery, thus bypasses the centre. (iii) It is administratively low maintenance as the requisite data for PEF is already collected by the provincial authorities. (iv) The risks of gaming the system is contained by the fact that exams are set and administered nationally. (v) The proposed scheme is consistent with the 2005 Paris Declaration that seeks to increase local ownership of aid-funded programs, is focused on results (with flexibility on mix of inputs used for the deliverables), is aligned with Government priorities, and delivers funds on a predictable basis.
The PEF pays for progress made in terms of throughput from primary schools and the quality of education delivered. The emphasis is on standards and outputs while structures to deliver the above are left to the discretion of local suppliers of the service.