Accountable international organizations

A meeting of the Steering Committee for the fourth Sustainable Development Goal on education.

Credit: A Fernandez

Accountable international organizations

Key Messages

  • International organizations have considerable influence and responsibility regarding the development of global education, as they are responsible for reflecting all voices in formulating global education goals. But there is an accountability vacuum concerning their role and responsibility in achieving those goals.
  • Accountability is conspicuous by its absence in the foundation document of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and its presence in the Education 2030 Framework for Action.
  • Countries hold international actors to account for setting formal global standards, including monitoring frameworks for goals. Importantly, such frameworks also help other actors hold their countries to account for progress. In some cases, organizations without a formal mandate set international standards, such as education indicators, leaving it hard to hold them to account.
  • There is a stark lack of donor accountability for ensuring that adequate, effective and welltargeted aid reaches countries in need. In 2015, only 6 of 28 OECD-DAC countries met their commitment to allocate 0.7% of national income to aid. And aid predictability, at least in the short term, slightly decreased between 2010 and 2015.

International, transnational and supranational organizations mobilize and support countries in meeting international standards. But holding them accountable is difficult, partly because they are responsible to multiple stakeholders. For example, the United Nations is accountable to both member states and the people whose rights member states may be violating.


International organizations should help member countries and other stakeholders devise common education goals and establish implementation mechanisms. They should be accountable for ensuring diverse voices are reflected in education agendas and agreements. However, to take the example of the sustainable development agenda, accommodating diverse interests has meant cumbersome goals, unclear prioritization and relatively weak monitoring. ‘Accountability’ is conspicuously absent from the SDG foundation document.

In the absence of a precise description of who is responsible for what, there is an accountability vacuum, not only for countries not living up to their commitments but also for international organizations. An evaluation of the Education for All coordination mechanisms found that partner and agency roles were unclear and accountability mechanisms were lacking. Multiple roles and competing agendas result in a situation where illdefined responsibilities make holding any actor accountable difficult. Holding organizations accountable also requires resources that may be scarce.

While the responsibility of international organizations for setting goals and facilitating their achievement is considerably diluted at the global level, the situation may be different at the regional level. In Europe, the ET 2020 strategic framework addresses education as part of its overall growth strategy. The European Union uses its dense institutional structures to delegate tasks. The European Commission prepares an annual report tracking countries’ progress against targets and benchmarks and, along with the European Council, submits a report every five years on priorities and common challenges best tackled through cooperation. But despite strong institutional and organizing capacity, accountability for coordinated actions remains fragmented.

Taking the example of the sustainable development agenda, accommodating diverse interests has meant cumbersome goals, unclear prioritization and relatively weak monitoring


International organizations set standards for formal education processes to support coordination, consensus and equity. The development of the SDG indicator framework, which is open to considerable consultation, is one example. Another is the Bologna Process, which established a European Higher Education Area linking 48 countries with a common qualifications framework, credit system, quality assurance standards and implementation tools to facilitate mobility. It is praised for providing an accountability mechanism without coercing national implementation.

International organizations have also driven the dissemination of education standards generated outside formal processes, e.g. for learning standards. The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has shifted education policy towards outcomes but is also criticized for influencing non-OECD-country systems to which it is not accountable.


Several organizations’ missions include responsibility to improve poor countries’ education systems through financial or technical assistance. Donor agencies are accountable to both donor country citizens and aid recipients, presenting potentially competing responsibilities. There is a lack of follow-up mechanisms holding donors to account for aid commitments. In 2015, only 6 of 28 OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) member countries met their commitment to allocate 0.7% of national income to aid. Organizations are held accountable for aid volumes through formal processes, such as the OECD’s peer review mechanism, and informal channels, such as the media and NGOs.

It is not just volume of aid that matters but also its effectiveness. The Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation monitors development partner activities. Its 2016 monitoring report showed modestly improved transparency in aid reporting. However, aid predictability decreased between 2010 and 2015, and mutual accountability conditions concerning inclusiveness were not met. Strong monitoring processes have
neither increased aid volumes nor improved targeting towards countries most in need, although it is difficult to tell what the collective record would have been without these processes.

Multilateral donors disburse about one-third of total education aid. NGOs have expressed concern that policy decisions affecting citizens occur outside the democratic process. The World Bank is the world’s largest education lender. Following the 2015 shareholding review, it expects the vote share of developing countries to exceed 50% as part of a reform process to increase their representation.

Aid predictability decreased between 2010 and 2015, and mutual accountability conditions concerning inclusiveness were not met

Results-based aid does not necessarily achieve effectiveness and accountability

The 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness was an effort to increase donor and partner country accountability to citizens and legislatures. One of its commitments was to increase results-based management. ‘Payment by results’ is part of this drive, which, ideally, gives recipients greater autonomy and shifts away from processes. In practice, things are more complicated.

Results-based programmes target outcomes and impact, unlike earlier forms of conditionality that tied aid to adoption of policies. They take many forms. The World Bank’s Program-for-Results financing links disbursement directly to results. A key education example is the Big Results Now in Education programme in the United Republic of Tanzania, with indicators on pupil/teacher ratios but also on improved reading skills.

Some programmes contract with non-government providers to deliver education services. The donor covers per-student service delivery costs and sometimes variable incentive-oriented payments. Challenge funds make organizations compete for aid allocations, aiming to strengthen provider accountability. The United Kingdom Department for International Development’s Girls Education Challenge Fund is one of the largest examples in education.

Few evaluations of such programmes have been made. Process evaluations have included that of the Program-for-Results instrument, which found that, contrary to expectations, results were mostly achieved at the institutional rather than the outcome level. Moreover, impact evaluations have faced challenges attributing observed changes to results-based programmes, partly because most interventions target a range of results, complicating efforts to draw conclusions about the payment approach’s effect. Finally, it takes time for data to be made available and results to appear. Donors are currently investing to improve the evidence base.

The evidence that exists points to some questions. Superimposing external incentives can damage providers’ intrinsic motivation. Since the level of aid is uncertain, recipients also assume risk, which undermines part of the rationale. Giving providers autonomy to innovate through results-based programmes is expected to increase effectiveness, but providers are reluctant to change trusted methods if they must ensure results for payment. Measurable and cost-effectively verifiable indicators are difficult to develop. Indicators must also be aligned with long-term goals. Inappropriate indicators that ignore equity can provide indirect incentives to target the most easily reached recipients.

Furthermore, payment by results can undermine country ownership, since the approach originates in donor countries and does not always align with country systems. Donors often favour non-government providers and neglect investment to strengthen public sector capacity. Basing aid disbursements on outcomes may also jeopardize the predictability of resource flows. Indeed, the approach may work best where it is needed least: in education systems that have a clear sense of purpose and well-aligned objectives, and can afford to take risks.

Indicators used in results-based financing must also be aligned with long-term goals, and prioritise equity