World Bank youth report carries familiar prescriptions

20 October 2006

Despite bringing much needed attention to the issue of youth and development, NGOs working on children, labour and education have found many familiar World Bank prescriptions in the latest World Development Report published in September.

The report – Development and the Next Generation – says that there are 1.5 billion people between the ages of 12 – 24, of which 1.3 billion live in developing countries. This ‘bulge’ results from a demographic fertility transition, like that which occurred in developed countries several decades earlier. For developing countries, this trend can be understood as both a potential source of risk and opportunity. The overarching message of WDR 2007 is that “investing in young people pays off big time”.

In part one, the report sets out its analytical framework, offering ‘three lenses’ to improve the focus of youth policy development: (i) expanding opportunities for young people; (ii) enhancing capabilities for young people; and (iii) giving young people a second chance if they have already missed out on opportunities. The report then identifies five priorities or ‘life transitions’ encountered by young people, which government action must address: (i) learning for work and life; (ii) going to work; (iii) growing up healthy; (iv) forming families; and, (v) exercising citizenship.

sends out some dangerous messages that primary education has already been addressed

In part two, each of these ‘transitions’ is reviewed in detail, through application of the three lenses to each, to examine how policies might be better designed. Part three gives specific policy recommendations. The report concludes that national governments need to address three crucial issues: Better coordination around youth issues so that they can be fully integrated with national sectoral policies; strengthening the voice of young people so that they can better participate in public life; and ensuring youth oriented evaluations of policies and programmes to accelerate learning and capacity building at all levels.

Ideological attachments

NGOs working with youth issues have welcomed the report’s attention to ‘second chances’, which offers hope to the most vulnerable young people. However, NGO PLAN International believes insufficient attention is directed to confronting the structural factors that generate ‘inequalities of opportunity’ in the first place: “the negative impact of exclusionary structures, political processes, policies and institutions is overly played down.”

The narrative fails to highlight the role that social protection instruments can play to ensure minimum standards of well being for young people and their families. The multiplier effects that investments in social assistance would bring to all five ‘life transitions’ identified in the WDR, are insufficiently explored. In contrast, last year’s WDR on equity concluded that rising global inequalities must be tackled head-on if basic developmental objectives are to be realised.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) slated the report for blaming youth unemployment on minimum wages, unemployment benefits and dismissal rules. “The first step in beating youth unemployment should be to repair the many dysfunctions of the global economy that international institutions like the World Bank themselves are responsible for”, said ICFTU general secretary Guy Ryder. “The Bank’s own standard policies and conditionalities – government austerity, deregulation, privatisation and liberalisation – have created many of the problems the report tries to address”.

The ICFTU urges a more comprehensive approach to youth employment focusing on four issues: creating more decent jobs for young people; ensuring the quality of existing and new jobs; enhancing skills, qualifications and access to education; and improving the transition between school and work as well as shortening the time youth might find themselves unemployed. “The Bank does mention skills, qualifications and transitioning but ignores general job-creation and, in fact, undermines the quality of much work”, said Ryder.

David Archer, head of education for NGO ActionAid International finds the report has similar “ideological attachments” in education. He cites the report’s support for school vouchers, performance-based pay for teachers, public-private partnerships and cost sharing as examples where ideology triumphs evidence. Perhaps most worryingly, Archer finds that the report “contributes to the Bank’s progressive detachment from the Millennium Development Goals and the Education For All initiative”. “The emphasis of the report”, says Archer, “is on post-primary education and it sends out some dangerous messages that primary education has already been addressed”.

The World Bank is exploring the creation of a ‘youth and development foundation’. The foundation would finance youth-led projects which contribute to successful transitions for young people highlighted in the report.

Comments on WDR 2007

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Comments on education in the World Bank’s Development Report 2007, David Archer, ActionAid International

There are a number of concerns about the way in which education is addressed in the World Bank’s 2007 World Development Report on Youth, though there are also one or two positive signs.

First of all, there is a serious concern that the report contributes further to the Bank’s progressive detachment from the MDGs and EFA. The emphasis is on post-primary education and it sends out some dangerous messages that primary education has already been addressed e.g. “Despite great progress in primary schooling in developing countries, the preparation of youth for work is very low” (page 68). With 100 million children still not enrolled in primary school and little change in recent years I cannot see where this declaration of “great progress” comes from. This is particularly the case when one looks at the quality of learning outcomes from primary school. Rather than focus attention on improving access and quality in primary in order to ensure youth are better prepared, the Bank seems to want to shift the agenda. This is premature and dangerous.

Second, the report seems to have an ideological attachment to certain policies like school vouchers(page 87) even though there is almost no evidence of the effectiveness of these policies. The report confesses at one point that “more evidence is needed on the overall impact of vouchers, including the impact on non-beneficiaries” and yet the report still concludes (in the concluding table on page 92) that vouchers are “proven and successful” (even if only able to refer to Colombia.

Third, there are concerns around teachers. There are positives note here, where the report highlights the importance of teachers who are “well motivated and prepared” (p.76) and even suggests that “the level of teacher salaries matters” (p.77). Let us hope that this can be used to challenge the Bank’s support for the spread of non-professional teachers and for keeping teacher salaries unacceptably low in so many countries. Unfortunately, the report continues to flirt with promoting “performance- based incentives” for teachers, despite not being able to find any practical evidence to support this – a fact which they blame on “implementation constraints” – like resistance from teacher or heads (which is unlikely to go away). Yet in the final concluding table “well-designed and negotiated performance-based pay” is said to be “proven and successful”. This claim is based on one example from Chile, which in the main text is said to have suffered the same implementation constraints as others. It seems more likely that the performance of teachers in Chile improved not because of the performance related pay but because (as the report notes elsewhere) “Chile more than doubled average teacher salaries in the 1990s”.

Fourth, there is the old concern about user fees. Now that the campaign against user fees in basic education has proved so strong, the Bank has avoided advocating fees in primary schools. However, this report shows that the Bank is still happy to promote “cost-sharing”, in post-primary education: “Appropriate cost-sharing and demand-side financing can generate the needed resources equitably” (page 80) using the the same old arguments that have really been discredited “Contributions from those willing and able to pay can promote engagement and accountability”. This is not much different than arguing that community “ownership” of primary schools is enhanced if parents pay. That has been discredited and has been shown to be responsible for the violation of education rights on a massive scale. Is it really so different in post-primary?

Fifth, there is some brief reference to ensuring “second chances to learn” and “literacy” – but this is not really followed through with substantive examples. The range of literature on adult literacy is stronger than ever (see for example the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2006 and Writing the Wrongs 2005) but this World Bank report seems happy to overlook or ignore the new evidence for investment in youth and adult literacy. Literacy warrants just one column, which extensively quotes Abadzi’s out of date and discredited 1994 report for the Bank, includes a couple of weak examples and ends with the concluding comment “None of these programmes has been subject to rigorous impact evaluation”. The message is clear, the Bank is not willing to listen to new evidence on the critical importance of youth and adult literacy (as this doe not fit with its pre-determined priorities). This is not surprising. There is now not a single person working in the World Bank in Washington with responsibility for adult literacy, despite the Bank’s supposed commitment to Education for All.

Sixth, the report declares as proven and successful Colombia’s experience of “allowing private sector entry and public-private partnerships”. This is not well substantiated and seems to reflect an ideological preference. Likewise “fostering competition” in Chile is celebrated. The small number of countries that seem to be drawn on for these supposedly positive examples suggests that a fully exhaustive trawl of evidence has not been conducted.

There are of course some positive elements. It is pleasing to see Venezuela’s commitment to “compulsory school laws” being declared as proven and successful. It would be good for education campaigners to push for this more widely as the World Bank historically has been less than enthusiastic about making education “complusory”.

I hope that others can have a look through this report and share their own observations. There does seem to be a significant trend in the Bank, moving attention and investment away from Education For All – despite it being clear that achieving progress on primary schooling is an “unfinished agenda”, and achieving progress on adult literacy or early childhood education is pretty much an “un-started agenda”.