FLN Profile: The World Bank

Last updated: February 23, 2024


Total funding to education

The World Bank spent an overall US$3.1 billion on education with primary education and Education Policy and Management (EPAM) as the largest subsectors. According to OECD CRS Database, estimated World Bank funding to education amounted to US$3.1 billion in 2020. The majority of earmarked funding channeled through the World Bank are accounted in bilateral donors’ contributions to GPE.

Estimated funding to FLN

The World Bank self-reports significant funding to FLN, but it is likely that these figures include funding to broader foundational learning efforts. The World Bank self-reported a total of US$732 million in funding for FLN in 2020 across 34 projects, although this amount may include broader funding included under foundational learning. This funding was identified by the World Bank under the Education Global Practice, filtering for projects in Primary Education (excluding EPAM). Within this, the World Bank self-identified seven categories as relevant towards FLN, including 1) reading and language instruction, 2) mathematics instruction, 3) bilingual/multilingual education, 4) local languages, 5) teaching and learning materials, 6) reading materials, and 7) teacher training for learning materials use. As this definition differs from the methodology applied to other donors as described in the annex, it cannot be directly compared to analysis of other donors.

Policy Priorities

Education sector

The World Bank is the largest funder of international education financing. Education is a long-standing sectoral priority of the World Bank, the largest funder of education financing in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). The World Bank’s total disbursements to education amounted to US$3.1 billion in 2020, covering a portfolio of 178 projects in more than 90 countries. Additionally, the World Bank hosts several pooled trust funds for education, such as Foundational Learning Compact (FLC), as well as GPE, which combine funding provided by multiple donors.

The World Bank has a strong focus on basic education and has only recently diversified its portfolio. It has long focused its education activities on basic education, which encompasses FLN projects; these activities have historically been driven by a rationale grounded in human capital economics. Subsequent developments maintained a central emphasis on basic education, integrating concerns for educational opportunity, growth, and competitiveness with a poverty reduction and equity agenda. The continued emphasis on basic education has, over the last two decades, been increasingly complemented by a movement to diversify the World Bank’s education portfolio, expanding towards ambitious systemic reform, all education sectors, and more client-driven lending. Notably, the Bank’s Education Sector Strategy ‘Learning For All: Investing in People’s Knowledge and Skills to Promote Development’, published in 2011, was pivotal in spurring a new focus on whole-of-system reform, the development of new targets, policy, and assessment tools.

The World Bank’s role in FLN

The World Bank plays a predominant role in the education landscape and influences FLN in five key ways:

  • Funder: As the largest education funder with a significant basic education portfolio, the World Bank drives funding priorities across the donor landscape;
  • Agenda-setter: The World Bank drives overall policy priorities around foundational learning and shapes the strategic orientation of other actors by setting standards and targets, such as the new global learning target, and providing measurement frameworks such as the Learning Poverty indicators;
  • Thought leader: The World Bank produces policy-relevant evidence and provides technical advice;
  • Convener: The World Bank convenes partners in joint programs such as the Accelerator Program with BMGF, FCDO, UNICEF, and USAID, and develops global public goods such as global learning assessment tools together with UNESCO UIS and others; and
  • Platform for pooled funding: The World Bank pools funding from bilateral donors in World-Bank hosted trusts such as the Foundational Learning Compact (FLC).

The World Bank prioritizes foundational skills or learning. Foundational learning is conceptualized broadly, as encompassing basic literacy, numeracy, and transferable skills that are building blocks for a life of learning. Related concepts that are frequently used include quality education, learning outcomes, and learning crisis. Following a range of evaluation reports that highlighted limited advancements in learning (e.g. IEF, 2006), the World Bank has refocused its efforts towards quality education and learning outcomes with the 2011 education strategy ‘Learning for All’; this strategy is complemented by the 2020 Strategic framework ‘Realizing the Future of Learning: from learning poverty to learning for everyone, everywhere’. Recently, the World Bank has reaffirmed its commitment to foundational learning at the Transforming Education Summit (TES) 2022, endorsing the Commitment to Action on Foundational Learning and building a Global Coalition on Foundational Learning. Foundational learning is viewed as a critical building block for access to opportunities, human capital, poverty reduction, economic growth, and the achievement of the SDGs overall. In its coding exercise for foundational learning, the World Bank identified seven categories as relevant for foundational learning, including 1) reading and language instruction, 2) mathematics instruction, 3) bilingual/multilingual education, 4) local languages, 5) teaching and learning materials, 6) reading materials, and 7) teacher training for learning materials use.

One key indicator which conceptualizes foundational learning is the Learning Poverty indicator. Learning poverty is defined as the inability to read and understand a simple text by the age of 10. Developed with UNESCO UIS, the Learning Poverty indicator brings together schooling and learning indicators, to identify the share of children who have not achieved minimum reading proficiency by the age of 10, adjusted by the proportion of children out of school. The World Bank’s focus on learning poverty is due to the pervasive learning crisis; the World Development Report (WDR), ‘Learning to Realize Education’s Promise’ (2018), noted that 57% of children suffer from learning poverty in 2022. Strategic documents that set out the World Bank’s approach to tackling learning poverty include ‘Ending Learning Poverty: What Will it Take’ (2019)', and ‘Realizing the Future of Learning: from learning poverty to learning for everyone, everywhere’ (2020). Recent documents focus on learning loss experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic (cf. ‘State of the Global Education Crisis: a path to recovery’; ‘State of Global Learning Poverty: 2020 Update’). According to the RAPID Framework for Learning Recovery and Acceleration, policy options to address learning losses include:

  • Access: Reach every child and keep them in school (back to school campaign, etc.);
  • Monitoring: Assess learning levels regularly;
  • Teaching fundamentals: Prioritize teaching fundamentals (essential missed content and foundational skills);
  • Efficiency: Increase efficiency of instruction (adopt effective teaching practices such as structured pedagogy).

The World Bank launched a new global target focused on learning. In 2020, the World Bank introduced a global learning target: to cut the learning poverty rate by at least half by 2030, halving the share of ten-year-old children in LMICs who cannot read or understand a basic story.

FLN thematic focus areas

A three-pillar framework guides the World Bank’s approach to foundational skills and learning. In 2020, the World Bank introduced three key pillars to guide its FLN-related agenda: a literacy policy package, a five-pillar education approach to strengthen the education system, and a measurement and research agenda. Additionally, umbrella trust funds, notably the Foundational Learning Compact (FLC), pool partners’ funding and expertise toward foundational learning. The World Bank prioritizes literacy interventions with the literacy policy package and Learning Poverty. The Bank’s main FLN indicator, Learning Poverty, focuses on literacy. The literacy policy package covers interventions targeting reading proficiency skills among primary-school children, organized around four components:

  1. Ensure political and technical commitment to clear goals, means, and measures for literacy;
  2. Ensure effective teaching for literacy;
  3. Ensure timely access to more and better age- and skill-appropriate texts; and
  4. Ensure that children are taught in the first language they speak and understand.

The World Bank applies a broader, systemic, and whole-child approach with the five-pillar education framework. The five-pillar strategic education policy approach emphasizes a multi-sectoral and whole-of-government approach, with clear country ownership. Interventions target the broad concept of foundational learning, including enhanced literacy, socio-emotional skills, and whole-child development. Countries commit to carrying out reforms across five pillars:

  1. Learners are prepared and motivated to learn (with a stronger emphasis on whole-child development and support to learning continuity beyond the school);
  2. Teachers are effective and valued (ready to take on increasingly complex roles as facilitators of learning at and beyond the school);
  3. Learning resources, including curricula, are diverse and of high quality;
  4. Schools are safe and inclusive spaces; and
  5. Education systems are well-managed (school leaders who spur more effective pedagogy and a competent education bureaucracy adept at using technology, data, and evidence).

The World Bank emphasizes measurement to improve foundational learning. Multiple learning assessment platforms are developed to eliminate the measurement gap between learning outcomes and drivers. The Global Education Policy Dashboard (GEPD) collects data in a multi-dimensional dashboard that measures, tracks, and links progress on learning outcomes in basic education to service delivery, policy, and political measures. International assessments links national student assessments to global learning outcome indicators. The Learning Data Compact commits to ensuring that all countries have at least two quality measurements in two grades in two areas by 2030.

The Foundational Learning Compact (FLC) and other umbrella trust funds pool funding for FLN. Multi-donor umbrella trust funds are set up to boost funding and strengthen interventions by leveraging partners’ funding and expertise directly. The FLC is an umbrella trust fund for early childhood, primary, and secondary education, set up to improve foundational learning and reduce Learning Poverty. FLC is made up of 3 pillars:

  1. Measurement: improve country capacity to measure and monitor learning outcomes and drivers of learning, support a greater focus on accountability to achieve key foundational learning outcomes, and increase learning measurements;
  2. Evidence-based policies and systemic reforms: provide the best evidence on what works in education, develop resources to inform systemic reforms and support their implementation; and
  3. Capacity building: improve the effectiveness of education systems and increase government implementation capacity to improve foundational learning skills, professional development, and teacher capacity.

The Early Learning Partnership (ELP) multi-donor trust fund, now associated with the FLC, was set up to scale up access to quality early childhood interventions and improve outcomes for young children.

The Accelerator Program leverages partners’ expertise and funding to support countries’ FLN-related reforms. In 2020, the World Bank launched the Accelerator Program with BMGF, USAID, UNESCO, UNICEF, and FCDO. The program aims to help member countries in monitoring learning, establishing national targets, strengthening accountability, and channeling education investments effectively to improve foundational skills at scale over 3-5 years. Support is conditional on countries’ demonstrated commitment to tackle learning poverty, and willingness to measure learning outcomes and submit an investment plan. The World Bank and Accelerator Program stakeholders align on resources and expertise to support partners in (1) developing country targets, (2) developing costed investment cases for achieving those targets, and (3) supporting implementation capacity.

Impact and Outlook


Previous impact assessments highlighted limited impact of past projects on learning. Impact evaluations conducted by the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group noted the limited effectiveness of the Bank’s education interventions on improving learning outcomes, in particular within primary education (IEG, 2004; IEG, 2011). Issues included the complexity of project design, lack of country ownership, political commitment, and technical capacity among client countries. A new evaluation, began in mid-2022, is yet to deliver results; the increasing strategic focus on learning outcomes and learning poverty, together with a number of new projects, suggests that the World Bank has, at least in part, responded to some of the issues in earlier reports.


FLN-related funding is expected to increase. The World Bank’s strategic focus on and funding for FLN-related topics is likely to expand further. Recently introduced new strategic frameworks and initiatives suggest that learning remains a key priority for the World Bank, illustrated by the Commitment to Action at the TES 2022. Funding is likely to follow suit, given that, with bilateral funding receding, the World Bank and other UNICEF are poised to play a larger role in development finance. The World Bank states that in FY2020-2022, new commitments for projects to improve learning amount to US$5 billion. Following the World Bank’s recent strategic ambitions around foundational learning and learning poverty, a significant portion of this will likely be translated into funding disbursed to FLN specifically.


IBRD and IDA disburse the majority of international education finance. Of the five institutions composing the World Bank Group, the IBRD and IDA are most relevant for development finance, commonly referred to as the ‘World Bank’. Within the education sector, IDA and IBRD make up around 60% of the World Bank Group’s yearly commitments. IDA is the World Bank’s concessional window and was established in 1960 to complement the IBRD. While IBRD mostly raises its funds on the world’s financial markets, IDA is largely funded by donors’ contributions, gathered through three-year replenishments. In 2021, the World Bank ran its 20th IDA replenishment (IDA20), resulting in the largest financial package mobilized so far, totaling US$93 billion.

The World Bank also hosts GPE Secretariat, and acts as board, trustee, and largest implementing agency of GPE grants to low-income countries (LICs), managing 55% of GPE’s total grant portfolio in 2022, or US$2billion of US$3.6 billion active grants. Additionally, the World Bank also hosts sector trust funds from bilateral and private donors.

The Education Global Practice leads work on FLN-related topics. Basic education- and FLN-related programs sit under the Education Global Practice led by Jaime Saavedra, formerly the Department of Education, responsible for designing the overall approach to learning and FLN. World Bank country teams support the implementation of priorities in close cooperation with country clients. The Human Capital Project Team also plays a part in FLN-related topics.

FLN-related programs are often implemented with partners. Many of the key World Bank-led programs and trust funds within the FLN landscape are implemented in close collaboration with partners. For instance, the umbrella trust fund FLC is funded by BMGF, FCDO, the Lego Foundation, and Finland. The Result in Education for All Children Program, set up to help countries strengthen educational services and boost learning outcomes, is funded by Germany, Norway, and the US. The World Bank and UNESCO UIS cooperate on several initiatives to strengthen learning assessment systems and better monitor students learning outcomes.

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