FLN Profile: The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)

Last updated: February 23, 2024


Since there are no publicly available data on UNICEF’s FLN-related funding, the only sources available are the OECD CRS data and UNICEF’s reporting, which aggregates funding at a higher level. A detailed review of the project descriptions provided in the CRS data showed that most UNICEF projects do not focus on a particular age group, but address issues across age groups, including many reported to the primary education subsector in the CRS dataset.

It can be assumed that using only CRS data would overestimate UNICEF’s current FLN funding compared to other donors. In addition, of the projects included in the education sector overall, 65% provide project descriptions of fewer than 10 words on the project goals and contents. Taken together, these points suggest that the keyword-based estimation strategy used for the bilateral funding of FLN would not provide meaningful results in the case of UNICEF.

UNICEF’s Global Annual Results Reports provide complete funding data in education, with concrete separation between age groups. However, they do not report on funding specific to FLN interventions. The current aggregation levels mean that a reliable estimate is not possible. The Global Annual Results Report 2021 provides information on funding flows to three results chains separately:

  • Equitable access to education;
  • Improving learning outcomes; and
  • Skills development

Overall, only a small portion of the total education spending (US$1.2 billion) in 2021 aligns with the FLN definition used for this research, as less than 30% of the funding across the three results chains focuses on the interventions at the primary school level. The following data illustrate the individual funding estimate and their potential connection to FLN funding.

Funding for ‘equitable access’ comprised US$802 million in 2021 and likely contains a non-negligible proportion targeting FLN. Of this amount, US$644 million was focused on adolescents. Spending on equitable access accounted for the largest proportion (67%) of UNICEF’s education funding in 2021. The sub-categories within access are listed in the chart below.

Based on the examples of specific work provided, it can be assumed that the Humanitarian Cluster contains elements of FLN. One example mentioned is UNICEF’s support to the Turkish government in implementing the Accelerated Learning Program, which prioritizes literacy and numeracy skills for the inclusion of Syrian refugee children into the national education system. Another example is UNICEF’s support to 47,857 out-of-school children in non-formal education programs, including 14,997 children in basic literacy and numeracy programs. The initiatives leverage a remedial learning approach in Lebanon, where children’s education is affected by slow-onset and compounding crises.

Moreover, acquiring FLN skills is a key challenge for children with disabilities. UNICEF mentions in the Global Annual Results Reports that compared to children without disabilities, children with disabilities are 42% less likely to acquire FLN skills suggesting that current spending under ‘inclusive education for children with disabilities’ contains FLN-related elements.

Funding for ‘improving learning outcomes’ totaled US$309 million in 2021, of which US$225 million focused on adolescents and US$51 million focused on early learning. This funding prioritizes the global learning crisis. As FLN skills are a key component in this initiative at primary the level, it can be assumed that this area contains FLN-related projects. FLN funding targeted at improved learning outcomes was estimated based on the total spending for learning, minus spending that can be attributed to early childhood learning and adolescents.

Based on this information, it is estimated that funding for FLN-related projects under the results chain for improving learning outcomes was approximately US$33 million in 2021. This estimate includes funding for projects primarily focusing on curricula and learning materials, teacher development, community participation and training of school management committees, learning assessment, multilingual education, and gender-responsive learning, both at the system-strengthening and service-delivery levels.

Funding for ‘skills development’ totaled US$80 million in 2021, of which US$68 million was focused on adolescents. This priority is based on a skill typology including five skills:

  • Foundational skills, defined by UNICEF as across age groups from one to 18 years old;
  • Transferable skills;
  • Digital skills;
  • Job-specific skills; and
  • Entrepreneurial skills.

While foundational skills are mentioned under skills development, this results chain mainly focused on secondary-level skills with an emphasis on transferable, entrepreneurial, and digital skills. Accordingly, it can be assumed that FLN funding would account for a small portion of this results chain.

UNICEF's 2022 Global Annual Results Report reports on two results areas on education that include funding flows and results achieved, however, it does not provide granular funding information on the result chains as the 2021 report did, hence the usage of the 2021 report.

  • Result Area 1: Equitable and inclusive access to learning opportunities, including in humanitarian and fragile contexts; and
  • Results Area 2: Improved learning, skills, participation, and engagement for all children and adolescents in development and humanitarian contexts.

Total education funding for 2022 amounted to US$1.56 billion, of which US$983 million or 63% went into Result Area 1 and US$576 million or 37% was funded through Results Area 2.

Funding types

Within FLN funding, UNICEF provides exclusively grants. UNICEF provides three types of funding, including Regular Resources, Other Resources (regular), and Other Resources (emergency). Regular Resources, also called Core Resources, are the unrestricted funding type for UNICEF to carry out its Strategic Plan with maximum flexibility. Other Resources are earmarked funds, focusing on areas such as thematic-, goal-, or project-specific purposes.

Funding sources

Partners contributed US$621 million for goal area 2 Every child, including adolescents, learns and acquires skills for the future of UNICEF's Strategic Plan 2022-2025. A large proportion of Other Resources funding came from public sector partners, accounting for 81% of funding. The top five resource partners for goal area 2 in 2021 were Germany (US$142 million), Norway (US$84 million), GPE (US$81 million), the European Commission (US$70 million), and ECW (US$30 million).

Key recipients

Countries facing emergencies and humanitarian crises generally received the largest education funding in 2021. The Syrian crisis continues to have an impact on many countries, including Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

Most education funding went to LICs and LMICs in 2021, accounting for more than 70% of total educational funding. Other education funding flowed to UMICs and HICs.

Policy Priorities

Education sector

As the UN agency working to protect the rights of every child, especially the most disadvantaged children, and adolescents, education is one of UNICEF’s top priorities according to the UNICEF Strategic Plan, 2018-2021. UNICEF works in 147 countries to provide equitable and quality learning opportunities that equip children and young people with the knowledge and skills they need to achieve their full potential.

UNICEF is also one of the key organizations responding to humanitarian crises, working with other partners such as the UN Refugee Agency. UNICEF’s education disbursement (US$1.2 billion) accounted for 19% of its total disbursements in 2021 and is the second-largest spending among all strategic areas after health, which received US$1.7 billion, or 26%.

UNICEF plans to achieve the vision of ‘every child learns’ through a recent shift to a greater focus on improving learning outcomes, including for FLN skills. In support of this vision, the Education Strategy 2019-2030 includes three goals:

  • Equitable access to learning opportunities;
  • Improved learning and skills for all; and
  • Improved learning and protection for children in emergencies and fragile contexts.

While access to learning opportunities has long been the focus of UNICEF’s work and received 67% of UNICEF’s total spending for education in 2021, the other areas are receiving increasing attention following findings on the impact of factors beyond access on learning outcomes. This is reflected in the focus UNICEF Education Strategy places on promoting not only access but also other strategies to improve learning outcomes.

In terms of age groups, UNICEF prioritizes primary and secondary education with a recent shift to expand support to children in early childhood (3-5 years old) and during adolescence (10-19 years old). According to the Global Annual Results Report 2021, more than 70% of educational disbursements in UNICEF focused on adolescents. UNICEF has emphasized and continues to expand its prioritization of providing multiple learning pathways for adolescents in the successful transition to adulthood. Moreover, UNICEF considers funding for pre-primary education as an unparalleled positive return on investment. It plans to increase disbursements in projects targeting children under five years old.

UNICEF works on a variety of thematic areas including education in different age groups (early childhood, primary level, and adolescent), equity in education (girls, inclusion, and emergencies), and innovation and systems in education (digital learning, data, and systems strengthening).

UNICEF’s role in FLN

UNICEF acts as a leader in education in emergencies, aiming to "improve learning and skills development for boys and girls from early childhood to adolescence, in particular for the most marginalized and those affected by humanitarian situations."

To achieve this vision, UNICEF adopts the following programmatic approaches and influences FLN in the following ways:

  • Systems strengthening: Collaborating with government counterparts to make learning a primary goal in the education systems at the country level;
  • Data and evidence: Acting as a critical driver of data and evidence co-creation and deployment in development and humanitarian settings;
  • Innovation: Brokering innovative solutions with partners to create multiple learning paths to solve scalable challenges;
  • Communication and advocacy: Engaging in communications, campaigns, and advocacy at country, regional, and global levels to advance education goals through initiatives like the “Let me learn” and Commitment to Action campaigns;
  • Community engagement: Supporting the engagement of the community, including parents, social norms, and social accountability; and
  • Service delivery: Supporting emergency and humanitarian contexts and providing technical assistance and program guidance.

UNICEF has increased its funding for education in recent years. According to the data in its Education Strategy 2019-2030, UNICEF has consistently spent more than US$1 billion on education annually since 2018, compared with approximately US$500 million annual spending on education between 2006 and 2010. The increase has been driven mainly by more resources needed for emergencies in education in recent years.

Moreover, UNICEF has the largest education presence of any international agency globally. It has over 790 education staff in 144 countries and more than 1238 supply and logistics staff in 119 countries to deliver essential products for all sectors the agency is active in, including learning materials. The increasing proportion of cross-sectoral staff at UNICEF is also a major resource for implementing intersectoral approaches.

UNICEF leverages partnerships to drive its goals in education, including other UN agencies, the public sector, private sector, and civil society partners. For example, ECW one of UNICEF’s partners, is a UN-backed global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises. Similarly, UNICEF collaborates with the UNESCO Institute for Statistics on the ‘All in School’ initiative, which provides governments with actionable data to develop policy that leads to higher school completion rates.

UNICEF prioritizes foundational skills and transferable skills, starting in early childhood. UNICEF uses a fourfold typology to address its goal of ‘improved learning and skills for all’ in the Education Strategy 2019-2030, including foundational skills, transferable skills, digital skills, and job-specific skills.

Within these four typologies, basic literacy and numeracy skills are included in “foundational skills,” which UNICEF supports throughout early childhood, childhood, and adolescence (age groups from one to 18 years). In the Education Strategy 2019-2030, UNICEF has expanded its efforts on foundational skills to the pre-primary level.

‘Primary education’ and FLN

Primary education is one of UNICEF’s priorities. Within primary education, UNICEF works together with governments and partners to:

  • Foster political commitment to quality primary education that emphasizes learning improvement;
  • Advocate for the mobilization of funding and resources in support of primary education;
  • Support access to quality formal primary education, focusing on the most marginalized children;
  • Strengthen non-formal education and alternative delivery models for better learning outcomes;
  • Strengthen countries’ capacity to implement evidence-based approaches for better FLN outcomes; and
  • Leverage innovations (e.g., digital learning) to support access to quality primary education.

Improving FLN skills is the main indicator of the ‘improved learning and skills for all’ goal in primary education. The indicator, following SDG indicator 4.1.1, measures the proportion of children achieving fundamental reading and mathematics proficiency levels. Outcomes for this indicator have remained far below the SDG 2030 goal, contributing to what has been termed the ‘learning crisis’.

In response to the learning crisis, UNICEF, together with J-PAL and Pratham and Delivery Associates, launched its FLN Initiative in 2021. The FLN Initiative aims to increase the number of children mastering FLN skills by 54 million by 2030. As the main goal of the FLN Initiative, UNICEF works on improving learning outcomes in primary education to ensure that children have foundational reading and mathematics competencies by age 10. Furthermore, the FLN Initiative aims to support education systems to focus on FLN and provide quick and scalable solutions to partner governments.

Supported by the World Bank and GPE, the FLN Initiative launched FLN Hub, a website providing evidence-based approaches, capacity building, and learning resources and tools.

More recently, since the Transforming Education Summit in September 2022, UNICEF has been collaborating with other partners (such as the World Bank, UNESCO, FCDO, USAID, and BMGF) to promote a shared commitment to improving foundational learning for all. It aims to build a ‘Global Coalition on Foundational Learning’ to continue addressing the learning crisis beyond TES. The ‘Let me learn’ campaign is one of UNICEF’s actions to endorse this commitment.

FLN thematic focus areas

Working with other partners in the FLN Hub, UNICEF advocates for a four-pillar framework in support of better FLN outcomes:

  • Leaders are committed to enhancing FLN goals for children;
  • Teachers are supported to provide children with contextualized learning strategies;
  • Parents are empowered to take an active role in supporting children's FLN development; and
  • Children are motivated and supported to learn.

In addition to this framework, UNICEF emphasizes the need to ensure gender equity to improve numeracy outcomes across different age groups. The ‘Solving the Equation’ report released in 2020 highlighted gender disparities in mathematics, in particular in girls’ self-confidence in math learning. This disparity is driven by the negative gender stereotypes about girls’ inability to understand mathematics as well as boys. In partnership with the UN Girls’ Education Initiative and others, UNICEF promotes work on gender-transformative education, aiming to utilize all parts of the education system to transform stereotypes, attitudes, norms, and practices.

UNICEF prioritizes conflict- and disaster-affected children (below 18 years old) in its FLN support. This focus is driven by findings that indicate as many as 80% of "Children on The Move,” including internally displaced refugee and migrant children of different categories, do not achieve expected literacy proficiency. A report entitled ‘Education, Children on the move, and Inclusion in Education’ discussed scalable solutions to support the inclusion of CoTM in national education systems. The proposed solutions mainly include sector planning, capacity building, removing language barriers, teacher training and development, remedial learning solutions, and building social cohesion.

UNICEF leverages partnerships to develop advocacy and achieve alignment around FLN learning targets. Together with the World Bank, UNICEF launched the Accelerator Program with the support of other partners ( BMGF, FCDO, UIS, and the USAID in 2020. The program is now also part of the FLN Hub, which aims to help the committed countries develop concrete solutions to fight the learning crisis. UNICEF’s main responsibilities in this program are to:

  • Implement advocacy campaigns to ensure the governments commit to prioritizing FLN; and
  • Align with a variety of resources and partnerships around FLN targets, financial needs, and programming support.

Impact and Outlook


UNICEF’s contribution to improved learning, especially in humanitarian settings, in the last years includes:

  • Supporting 48% of UNICEF-supported countries to reach an effective education system for learning in 2021; and
  • Supporting 149 million out-of-school children with access to education since 2016, including 6.4 million CoTM and 31.7 million children in humanitarian settings;
  • Providing 42 million children with learning materials in 2021, including 18 million children in humanitarian settings.

According to the FLN Initiative and FLN Hub, UNICEF’s efforts in FLN are visible. Although data was not available in tracking UNICEF’s impact on FLN, the launch of FLN Hub and interest in its offers indicate a solid starting point: FLN Academy, a multi-module online course for professional growth and information exchange (part of the FLN Hub), attracted 750 participants from 75 countries in 2021.


UNICEF’s funding for foundational learning is expected to increase in the future. The required funding is estimated at around US$4.9 billion for goal area 2, ‘Every child, including adolescents, learns and acquires skills for the future,’ in the Investment case for UNICEF’s Strategic Plan 2022-2025. Based on this estimation, the average annual spending (approximately US$1.2 billion) in education from 2022-2025 will remain stable compared with recent years (US$1.2 billion in 2021).

In the Education Strategy 2019-2030, UNICEF made a strategic shift to expand the focus on the goal of ‘improved learning and skills for all’, in which it prioritizes foundational skills. However, UNICEF also switched its attention to foundational learning in early learning outside of the existing focus on primary education. Thus, funding estimates at the primary level for FLN are unlikely to prove accurate.


The Executive Board is the governing body of UNICEF, which drives the organization’s policy at the global level. It provides intergovernmental support and supervision to the organization, aligning with the overall policy guided by the United Nations General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. The Executive Board meets three times each calendar year, in an initial regular session (February), an annual session (June), and a second regular session (September) at the UN headquarters in New York. In addition to general oversight, the Board examines UNICEF's operations and grants approval for its budgets, country programs, and policies. The Board’s 36 members represent the five regional groups of UN Member States.

Robert Jenkins is the Director of Education and Adolescent Development. The Bureau, which consists of the President and four Vice-Presidents, each of whom represents one of the five regional organizations, oversees its operations.

The 'Codebook for Donor Profile Data' presents the methodology and data sources used in each section of our Donor Profiles.

Expert insights into the most pressing issues in global development.

At Donor Tracker, we prefer not to call it aid.

Explore other deep-dives