Debt relief and prudent financial management key to adequate education financing in Eritrea

Although Eritrea has a self-proclaimed policy of self-reliance the country remains heavily in debt. According to the World Bank, Eritrea’s debt to GDP in 2023 was estimated at 219% although the figure has since marginally dropped to 211% in 2024. This is significantly above Africa’s average of 63.5%. Eritrea largely owes this debt to domestic banks due to sanctions limiting its access to foreign financial markets.  

By this account, Eritrea has one of the highest debt to GDP ratios in sub-Saharan Africa and globally and is in debt distress according to the World Bank and IMF. In 2022, the country spent 33.4% of the national budget on debt servicing. Heavy debt repayment has undermined budgeting on social services such as education and undermined the country’s progress towards realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Eritrea is at the pre-decision point in the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative and so has not yet benefited from debt relief. Due to continued conflict, international sanctions and the overwhelming size of its debt, Eritrea has been unable to repay its loans.  This has prompted the Qatari National Bank to take the Eritrean government to court in the UK and the US.

At the same time, Eritrea is ranked by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Corruption has undermined budget implementation and reduced resources available for public services including education. The situation is further exacerbated by political repression, weak rule of law and widespread authoritarian practices which limit the ability of politicians, public, media and civil society to exercise sufficient vigilance over corruption.  

Eritrea’s obligation to guarantee the right to education

Eritrea’s obligation to guarantee the right to education is anchored both in Eritrea’s Constitution as well as in international and regional laws to which it is a signatory. These include the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, to which Eritrea has acceded. Eritrea has also ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights as well as the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, all of which obligate states to not just guarantee the minimum core of the right to education duty but also to progressively fulfil it.

Education spending and delivery

Eritrea’s education budget shows that spending still falls below the African average education spending. The Global Partnership for Education estimates that Eritrea’s expenditure on Education was 0.94% of GDP in 2016 rising to about 2% in 2020 but is then estimated to have stagnated at below 2% of GDP in most subsequent years. This is below African average education spending of 3-4% of GDP per year.  The high level of corruption in Eritrea has undermined its capacity to utilize its resources to address socio-economic rights and further undermined the realization of the right to education.  

This low spending calls into question Eritrea’s commitment to progressively realise the right. It should also be highlighted that this expenditure level still falls below the 4-5% of GDP recommended by the Incheon Declaration.  Even where there has been increased expenditure this has not translated into concrete improvement in the quality of education with challenges such as low access to pre-primary education (20%) and secondary education (48%).  48% of primary school-age children in Eritrea are not in school compared to the average sub-Saharan African out of primary school rate of 20%. At tertiary level the male and female enrolment rate is only 4% and 3% respectively which fall below the African average tertiary enrolment rate of 9.4%. Even where children can access school the country continues to experience low levels of primary and secondary school completion and transition rates. The high student to trained teacher ratios are also a major factor impacting the quality of education. According to UNESCO one of the key factors that contribute to low basic education completion rate is the high incidence of child marriage. Eritrea’s education challenges are compounded by the forced conscription of students and teachers as well as inadequate trained teachers.

Sustainable way forward for Eritrea’s debt

Due to extended international isolation, and governance related issues, including the government’s unwillingness to widen the democratic and political space, Eritrea has had limited capacity and opportunity to attract donor funding to the education sector. This in turn has restricted their engagement with creditors on issues related to debt relief. The IMF concluded its article IV consultation with Eritrea in 2019 (more than 10 years since the previous one),but has been unable to get the government to sign it off for publication. In the related press release, the IMF also notes that the country’s continued reliance on agriculture and mining, limited foreign investment, and state control of the financial sector, make it more vulnerable to economic shocks. The AfDB’s economic outlook also notes the country’s high level of climate vulnerability. This makes economic recovery and sustained investment in the SDGs challenging.

Against this backdrop Eritrea must improve its finance and budgetary transparency and open civic space to enhance public participation in governance and public sector finance, as well as fight corruption to promote the confidence of its citizens, trade, and development partners in its economy. The country must enhance its revenue and tax base including through revenues from mining and in turn invest more in education as well as in other public services, including by reconsidering the level of military spending, diversifying its economy beyond the traditional sectors of mining and agriculture and promoting increased private sector competition and foreign investment. Having rejoined the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Eritrea should use this platform to reach out to more multilateral partners. The partial lifting of UN sanctions as well as the normalization of relations with Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti further open room for increased cross border trade which would enhance foreign exchange.

As indicated above, financial limitations and budget allocation policy decisions have undermined access to quality education in Eritrea. Part of this is due to the heavy indebtedness of the country, a reality which forces it to channel a significant amount of resources to debt repayment. Accordingly, Eritrea should work on HIPC qualification, continue to improve fiscal indicators, and re-engage in multilateral spaces by upping official development assistance (ODA), and support from multilateral development banks. These would enable Eritrea’s financial partners and creditors to work with the country in undertaking a debt relief programme that would provide it with the fiscal space to invest in education. Eritrea should equally join the African Continental Free Trade area to ensure that it benefits from increased intra-African trade.

And for education

Eritrea’s education commitments are reflected in the National Policy on Education, Education Plan (2023-2027)  and the Strategic Plan to Expand Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE), all of which seek to broaden access to quality education. However, these goals must be matched with financial investment in the sector by increasing resource allocation, prudence in utilization of resources and engaging more donors for additional financing.

Increased investment in education should be characterised by renewed focus on gender equality to enhance learner retention, addressing climate vulnerability, training teachers and reducing the student-teacher ratio. At the same time, the country must end child marriage, end forced conscription of students and teachers, and address access and drop-out rates including improving transition from primary to secondary school. This would facilitate the implementation of its education plans and policies.