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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #004 – Balsera

By CEID Blogger, on 15 April 2020

The World Bank’s milestone decision to not fund for-profit providers

by Dr. María Ron Balsera

At a time when privatisation of and in education is spreading rapidly around the world, and privately owned digital education firms are filling gaps left by the schools closures linked to COVID-19, the World Bank has admitted the damage done by for-profit providers and decided to stop funding them.

On April 8th, the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC)  officially committed to freeze investments in private for-profit pre-primary, primary, and secondary (also called “K-12”) schools stating a:

freeze of any direct or indirect investments in private for-profit K-12 schools, followed by an inclusive public consultation process to determine whether there are any exceptional circumstances under which future IFC investments in such schools could be made.

The declaration came as part of a series of memos associated with initiatives proposed by the World Bank to offer  more effective help to low-income and vulnerable countries deal with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Bank, particularly the IFC branch, is not famous for joining forces with civil society organisations to criticise the role of private actors, so what led to this milestone decision?

There has been a long history of critiques from civil society organisations of the World Bank’s  education advice to governments on reducing the wage bill of public servants under conditions of austerity, and  imposing teacher caps (together with other public servants, such as health workers, who are now so desperately needed) and promoting private education on public private partnerships. Since 2015, an effort has been organised  by civil society groups to join forces to expose the damaging consequences associated with the promotion of private providers of education. In May 2015, letters signed by over 100 organisations were shared, criticizing the World Bank for supporting Bridge International Academies (BIA), a multinational chain of low-fee profit-making private primary schools targeting poor families in Kenya and Uganda (and which has expanded to other countries). This letter questioned former World Bank President Jim Kim’s speech praising BIA for alleviating poverty, expanding access and increasing quality in education. Evidence was cited in the letter that contradicted the alleged affordable fees and that showed the use of non-qualified teachers and standardised scripted lessons.

Two years later, in August 2017, civil society organisations presented evidence regarding Bridge’s lack of transparency,  the form of its relationship with governments, the poor labour conditions in Bridge schools, and breaches of educational standards.. These concerns led to authorities in Uganda and Kenya to order BIA to close schools. In October 2019, 143 civil society organisations, unions and education coalitions signed another letter that demanded  development aid be used to fund public – not private – education. It denounced the negative effects of funding silver bullet solutions offered by some private education providers such as deepening inequalities, excluding girls, children with disabilities and the poorest children.  These letters represent crystallised moments of a strong movement that aims to reclaim public education, as the best way to truly achieve the goal of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all (that is, Sustainable Development Goal 4) and the right to education.

The World Bank’s position of supporting private schools advances a market discourse of education. It prioritises ideas such as choice, competition and efficiency. Within this discourse, education is treated like a commodity and individuals as consumers under an ‘entrepreneurial-self’ framework. Moreover, education as a commodity fosters competition, rates of return and efficiency, ignoring individuals’ genetic and socio-economic backgrounds. Individuals within a privatised market are to be held accountable for their own choices, which produces actuarial schemes.

Despite the World Bank’s claims otherwise, privatisation of education has increased, entrenched and even created inter and intra household inequalities, resulting in social stratification. In recent research by ActionAid (see here and here), private schools were found to be supplanting rather than supplementing public schools in many highly populated areas such as Accra, Lagos, Nairobi, Mombasa and many others. The UN Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, UN human rights treaty bodies, as well as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights have also repeatedly raised concerns about the negative impacts of the commercialisation of education in the last several years.

Is there another way? Education could also be seen as a human right, which means individuals are entitled to rights and governmental provision. Education as a right promotes equality of opportunity by levelling the playing field. Theresponsibility to provide education falls with the government, not the individual.

The World Bank’s IFC’s move to stop funding for-profit providers is a good, first step towards ending the market discourse in education. A next move will require  to understand the importance of adequately financing public education in order to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all. The World Bank  needs to take responsibility  supporting governments to raise revenue in a progressive manner to be able to provide inclusive and gender responsive public education. After COVID-19, approaches to revenue collection, debt and transnational aid are likely to change enormously. Inclusive and equitable education needs to always be remembered as whatever arrangements follow.

Dr. María Ron Balsera is a Research and Advocacy Coordinator for the Tax, Privatisation and Right to Education multi country project at ActionAid, an international non-governmental organization working against poverty and injustice worldwide.


Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.

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