Private, for-profit schools in Africa funded by the World Bank and U.S. venture capitalists have been criticized by more than 100 organizations who’ve signed a petition opposing the controversial educational venture.
A May statement addressed to Jim Kim, president of the World Bank, expressed deep concern over the global financial institution’s investment in a chain of private primary schools targeting poor families in Kenya and Uganda and called on the institution to support free universal education instead.
The schools project is called Bridge International Academies and 100,000 pupils have enrolled in 412 schools across the two nations. BIA is supported by the World Bank, which has given $10 million to the project, and a number of investors, including U.S. venture capitalists NEA and Learn Capital. Other notable investors include Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Pierre Omidyar and Pearson, a multinational publishing company.
In a speech delivered in April, Kim praised BIA as a means to alleviate poverty in Kenya and Uganda. Critics responded that many Kenyans and Ugandans cannot afford private education, further arguing that this type of investment merely supports Western businesses at the expense of local public services.
A section of the letter addressed to Kim asserts:
We, civil society organisations and citizens of Kenya and Uganda, are appalled that an organisation whose mandate is supposed to be to lift people out of poverty shows such a profound misunderstanding and disconnect from the lives and rights of poor people in Kenya and Uganda. If the World Bank is serious about improving education in Kenya and Uganda, it should support our governments to expand and improve our public education systems, provide quality education to all children free of charge, and address other financial barriers to access.”
Opposition to educational neocolonialism
The statement reflects a growing global movement questioning Western policies pushing private education in developing countries. It was written and signed by 30 organizations in Uganda and Kenya and supported by 116 organizations around the world, including Global Justice Now and ActionAid. They claim BIA uses highly standardized teaching methods, untrained low-paid teachers, and aggressive marketing strategies targeted at poor households.
In his speech supporting BIA, Kim said that “average scores for reading and math have risen high above their public school peers.” Opponents questioned these figures, noting that they appear to have been taken directly from a study conducted by BIA itself.
Global Justice Now added that the World Bank president’s assertion that the “the cost per student at Bridge Academies is just $6 dollars a month” was misleading.
“This suggestion that $6 is an acceptable amount of money for poor households to pay reveals a profound lack of understanding of the reality of the lives of the poorest,” Global Justice Now, a London-based organization promoting social justice, wrote on its website in May.
A spokesperson added that Kenyan and Ugandan organizations calculated that for half their populations, the $6 per month per child it would cost to send three primary school age children to a Bridge Academy, is equal to at least a quarter of their monthly income. Many families are already struggling to provide three meals a day to their children.
Moreover, Global Justice Now claimed that the real total cost of sending one child to a Bridge school is between $9 and $13 a month, and up to $20 when including school meals. “Based on these figures, sending three children to BIA would represent 68% (in Kenya) to 75% (in Uganda) of the monthly income of half the population in these countries,” the organization stated.
Another signatory to the letter was Salima Namusobya, director of the Initiative for Socio-Economic Rights in Uganda, who 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 in particular contexts like that of Uganda.”
However, the World Bank insists that it remains a strong supporter of free public education and that the vast majority of its funding was directed to support this sector.
“We at the World Bank Group believe that no child should be out of school because of an inability to pay fees and that all children have a right not just to be in school but also to be learning basic skills for life while they are there,” a spokesperson for the World Bank told MintPress News in an email.
“While our investment in Bridge Academies is US$10 million, our current education portfolio exceeds US$14 billion, of which 95% is support for public education. Of our relatively small support for private education, the majority is for higher levels of education.”
Pointing out that the World Bank is working closely with the governments of Kenya and Uganda to help strengthen their respective public education systems, the spokesperson added that BIA were “complementary” to ensure that parents who invest in private schooling were getting the best possible education for their children.
“Surveys show that in these countries—as in many developing countries—the average quality of education is low across both public and private schools, making it an urgent priority to gather evidence on what works and ensure that all children are not only in school but also actually learning,” the World Bank spokesperson said.
Moving forward, more evidence is required to determine which programs work best and the World Bank is to embark on a rigorous evaluation of the BIA program in Kenya, the first large-scale trial of fee-paying schools in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Bank, measuring effectiveness of these schools will help governments, policymakers and parents determine how to ensure that all children can access a good education.
Concern over upsurge of private education in developing nations
The speech from Kim, president of the World Bank, came shortly after representatives of civil society from several countries, including Uganda, met with education officials of the World Bank to discuss its support for BIA and fee-charging primary schools. The subsequent statement of opposition from NGOs follows an upsurge in the financing of private education across the world, especially in Africa, often with the support of foreign investors.
These investments have attracted growing condemnation, including criticism from Kishore Singh, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to education, who argues that private schools must be resisted because they aggravate inequality.
Writing for The Guardian on April 23, Singh cited a study on private education by the U.K.’s Department for International Development that said a large number of low-fee private schools targeting poorer families in developing countries were unregistered.
“These schools save costs by hiring ill-trained teachers and running large classes in substandard school buildings,” Singh wrote, adding: “Such ‘edu-businesses’, as they have come to be known, are an unsatisfactory replacement for the good public education governments should be providing.”
Despite these findings, DFiD has also invested in BIA, prompting criticism from Global Justice Now. A spokesperson for the social justice organization told MintPress News: “British taxpayers are forcing private education systems on countries like Uganda and Kenya through schemes like this backed by DfID and the World Bank.”
Aid is being used as a tool, Global Justice Now added, to compel the majority of the world to undertake policies which help Western business while undermining public services in emerging nations.
The spokesperson added:
The introduction of universal education, the increasing length of compulsory education, the creation of comprehensive schools — these are some of the greatest social achievements we have ever made in the U.K., and we remain rightly proud of them. The U.K. aid budget and World Bank development policies could and should be used to help others to achieve these vital components of a decent society.”
MintPress contacted DFiD for comment but no response had been received at time of writing.
However, BIA did respond to the offer of right to reply and said the above statement released by the NGOs included numerous “inaccurate” and “misleading” statements. The BIA spokesperson told MintPress:
Bridge International Academies exists for one purpose: to ensure that every child, regardless of the location of her birth or income of her parents, receives an education
that engages her mind and heart, and enables her to succeed academically, socially, and professionally in her country.”
Earlier this month, United Nations Human Rights Council urged states in a resolution to regulate and monitor private education providers for the first time. The resolution demands that states implement regulatory framework that establishes minimum norms and standards for private education providers, as well as “monitor private education providers.”
The HRC resolution also calls on states to ensure that “education is consistent with human rights standards and principles.”
Following the announcement of the resolution, Katie Malouf Bous, of Oxfam International, is quoted by Action Aid as saying:
Too many governments have neglected their duty to adequately finance education, leading to weakened public schools and increased privatization as the inevitable result. Serious and substantial investments to provide good quality public education must be the antidote to privatization.”
Feature photo | Young students in a Bridge International Academy school in Nairobi, in September. Frederic Courbet | NPR