As the financial goalposts for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be agreed at the UN’s September summit, were established a few weeks ago at the Financing for Development conference, the elephant in the room remains the role of the private sector in education delivery. It seems that the World Bank and UN have increasingly different visions of how the education goal and children’s right to education should be met.
On the eve of a World Education Forum held in Korea last May, the Bank, which co-convened the event, pledged £5 billion for education. However this appears to be a drop in the ocean; according to UNESCO there is an annual financing gap of USD 22 billion until 2030 if the SDG education goal is to be met.
By increasingly focusing on low-fee education providers to fill this funding gap, the Bank has provoked criticism from the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh. Singh has spoken out about the negative impact that low-fee private schools, promoted by the Bank, have on children’s right to free education: “Promoting for-profit education, the IFC [International Finance Corporation, the Bank’s private sector arm] considers laws as financial hurdles and provides guidance to private providers of education to be ‘very profitable and flourishing enterprises.’ This is blatantly disrespectful of the human rights obligations of international bodies, including the World Bank.” Several UN committees have also recently highlighted the threat that private schools pose to universal education in Ghana, Chile and Uganda.
In April, Bank President Jim Yong Kim backed the approach taken by private education providers such as Bridge International Academies (BIA). He enthused that: “After about two years, students’ average scores for reading and math have risen high above their public school peers”, with a “cost per student … [of] just USD 6 dollars a month.”
Kim’s support for BIA has been challenged by NGOs worldwide. In a joint May statement over 100 NGOs, including Hakijamii in Kenya, questioned Kim’s figures, pointing out that with “other costs” including textbooks and school meals, “the total monthly bill … ranges between USD 16 and USD 20” per child”. As poor families have three times the number of children of wealthy families in Kenya, the cost of BIA fees for half of households represents “at least 68 per cent of their monthly income”.
The NGOs noted that the IFC has invested USD 10 million in BIA, but “has no active or planned investments in either Kenya or Uganda’s public basic education systems.” Salima Namusobya of the Ugandan Initiative for Socio-Economic Rights said: “If the World Bank is genuine about fulfilling its mission to provide every child with the chance to have a high-quality primary education regardless of their family’s income, they should be campaigning for a no-fee system”.
Clare Woodford is a Communications and Research Officer at the UK-based Bretton Woods Project. This blog is an edited version of an article which was published in the Bretton Woods Project’s latest Observer.