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Both arsonist and fire-fighter: the World Bank on school fees

23 January 2006 | Guest comment

I was jostling with Kenyan families at Sarit textbook centre in August 2005. The beautiful and expensive school books made me cringe as I calculated how little poor families could afford. My purpose was to see how far the government grant of 480 shillings (about $4) went in supplying school children with free books. Most families ended up with an invoice of ten times as much. That reminded me of glossy World Bank guidelines for textbooks which pledged “to try to ensure that no pupils are excluded from school because they cannot afford to buy books”. It certainly did not ensure affordable school books, and whether it tried is a question which should be raised.

Why? Because Kenyan children are ostensibly enjoying free education after the hated school fees were lifted in 2003. The World Bank pledged support. The model has been, as in other heavily indebted poor countries, to avoid finding out how much schooling actually costs and multiplying it by the number of school children per family. Instead, a capitation grant has been set at a level below the real cost of education. This made schooling cheaper. But primary school is not free in Kenya, or in Tanzania, or in Uganda, where rolling back school fees is often presented as if education were made free. These examples were supposed to be signposts for the World Bank’s transformation from an arsonist to a fire-fighter regarding school fees. This transformation is best known in Malawi. In 1984, school fees were imposed on the World Bank’s assumption that charging people for education would increase its quality and, thus enrolments. That assumption was wrong and enrolments plummeted. The World Bank was there again, in 1994, when school fees were abolished by the new government. The World Bank was not called to account and forced to compensate Malawi for wrecking its education by wrong advice. Nevertheless, it was not amused: “the declaration of free primary education in 1994 undermined popular commitment as parents believed and expected that the government would now take over the full cost of primary education”. Most people would agree that this is exactly what free primary education means and what should happen to enable poor children to go to school. The World Bank has a different view.

Two months later, I examined the World Bank’s contribution to the 2005 Education for All Global Monitoring Report to see what its view might be. It authored table 3.4, Fees still exist in a large number of countries. Kenya is listed as charging both legal and illegal fees. If you are puzzled, look at the small print below the table. It says that the criterion was “policy and practice”, whatever that may mean. It is not too difficult to find out whether primary education in a country should be free or not. The country’s constitution and the law should guide “policy and practice”. The small print below the table says that “data was collected informally from World Bank task teams”. They obviously disagreed among themselves because Tanzania is listed as having no fees at all and also as charging legal fees. This is also the case with Costa Rica. The commissioned paper which should have provided clues as to what for-fee (as different from free) education means does not do this. It lists only five types of fees out of more than two dozen that are levied. It is possible that the World Bank task teams do not know that school children may be forced to pay for school transport, or school meals, or for health services provided at school, not to mention the cost of school books. Or, maybe they do not want to know because this enables the World Bank to square the circle. It can publicly state that it does not promote school fees and define as fees only those charges that it does not promote, at least not at the moment. And the rest? This would require proper research to be carried out rather than asking the World Bank’s task teams. They have been known as both fire-fighters and arsonists.

maybe they do not want to know because this enables the World Bank to square the circle

Katarina Tomasevski is visiting professor at the faculty of law of Peking University. She was United Nations special rapporteur on the right to education 1998-2004 and is founder of the Right to Education.