Why Boris Johnson's maths on funding for girls' education worldwide doesn't add up

Children receive schooling at the Malkohi Internally Displaced Person Camp in Yola, Nigeria. Credit: AP

Last week, Boris Johnson described spending money on girls’ education across the world as the “panacea, the universal cure”, saying it was the single best investment that could be made on “the future of humanity”. 

In typical Johnson style he then dropped in a slightly strange analogy - arguing that getting more girls into school was the “Swiss Army knife, complete with Allen key, a screwdriver and everything else”. 

At the summit, jointly hosted by Britain and Kenya, the prime minister pledged £430m to the Global Partnership for Education (less than the £600m charities were calling for but one of the largest donations) and called on others to follow suit. 

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Many did, with £4bn raised in total, a significant amount praised by the government and welcomed by delegates. But, for now at least, it falls a billion short of the £5bn the GPE was hoping for. 

For many charities the shadow of the UK’s international aid funding cuts - reducing our commitment from 0.7 to 0.5% of gross national income - is key. 

Cutting the international aid budget has been condemned by MPs across the House. Credit: AP

Laurie Lee, chief executive of Care International U.K. said to me: “The government asked other countries to increase funding for global education by 30% while cutting its own aid budget by the same amount. It didn’t surprise anyone that this diplomatic strategy didn’t work.” 

He said Johnson had enthusiastic words about the importance of investing in education, and said UK aid was still funding girls education through his charity, Care. 

However, he pointed to suggestions that the aid cuts could mean that outside any commitment at the summit, the foreign, commonwealth and development office spending 25% less on education itself around the world. 

And it’s not as simple as money meant directly for education. Funding cuts are being felt by organisations working to prevent forced early marriage, sexual violence against adolescent girls and pregnancy, according to Lee. All of those, in turn, help to keep girls in school. 

Campaigner Malala Yousafzai has said the pandemic has dramatically hit girls' education. Credit: PA

In fact, this week I was sent figures from a recent analysis by the charity MSI Reproductive Choices - suggesting that increasing access to reproductive services (that will in turn avoid unplanned pregnancies) could keep 4m extra girls in school in sub-Saharan Africa.

They say that in Niger, one in two girls will give birth before their 18th birthday while only one in 100 will finish school. 

Given that, charities like MSI think it’s hard to square Johnson saying he wants 40m more girls in school, with sweeping cuts to the women’s integrated sexual health (Wish) programme and and 85% reduction in funding for the UNFPA. 

MSI say the hit to the charity could result in 7m unintended pregnancies, 2m unsafe abortions and - 23,500 maternal deaths - all with a knock on effect to the education of girls.

The charity’s chief executive, Simon Cooke, argued: “The benefits of supporting girls to stay in school are far-reaching. When girls can access quality education, they are better able to pursue a career, create opportunities in their communities and drive positive change in wider society. Each additional school year can increase a woman’s earnings by up to 20%.”

Johnson says he agrees, but to these charities, the numbers simply don’t add up.