Education strategy review: has the Bank learned its lessons?

16 April 2010

The World Bank launched a review of its education strategy in January with a concept note setting out key challenges and principles for a sector in which its activities have come under sustained criticism.

The strategy will guide the role of the Bank in education for the next ten years, including setting results for which it should be accountable. A draft strategy for comment will be published in June following the first phase of consultations, which will run through May. The final version is scheduled for Board discussion in November. Reviews of the Bank’s past strategies and performance will be published, as well as background papers on issues such as the political economy of education reforms, and education finance.

Among the major challenges facing the sector that the Bank identifies are: globalisation and new technology; the impact of the financial crisis on investment; a need for continued expansion of primary, secondary and tertiary education, while ensuring quality and inclusion; a lack of systematic measurement of student learning at country level; and strategic partnerships. Emerging themes of the strategy include a focus on ensuring that students achieve the knowledge and skills needed for the labour market, and a desire to exploit the Bank’s ‘comparative advantage’ as a global institution. Key among the operating principles set out are a multisectoral and whole-sector approach, and better use of evidence and impact assessments.

a financial institution and not a development agency.

However, critics argue that the concept note fails to properly address the limitations of the existing strategy. Tanvir Muntasim of civil society network Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education, says, “in the overall perspective on education, one is reminded repeatedly that the World Bank is a financial institution and not a development agency. Economic returns are prioritised whereas most development agencies see education as a basic human right, with social and political returns as important as economic ones, if not more so.”

Fast track or slow lane?

The Bank will review its partnerships in the sector, including its role as host and trustee of the Education for All – Fast-Track Initiative (FTI), a platform for collaboration between donors and developing countries (see Update 52, 49). The Bank has faced heavy criticism – including from a recent independent evaluation and a January report by international NGO Oxfam – for applying regulations and conditionality that slow disbursements from the FTI, particularly to conflict-affected countries. Katie Malouf Oxfam says, “Unnecessary World Bank restrictions and red tape have resulted in unacceptable delays in getting money out of the door. For example a $20 million grant for Yemen, agreed to in 2006, has still not been released.” Oxfam’s report, ‘Rescuing Education for All’, published in January, calls for the Bank to give up control of the FTI in favour of autonomous, inclusive governance. In March, the FTI board announced that countries would for the first time be able to choose agencies other than the World Bank to channel the funds.

A forthcoming report by international NGO Results suggests that FTI funding is displacing the Bank’s support for education in the poorest countries, though FTI funding is limited and should only be used as a last resort for short-term gaps in financing.

The Bank’s interpretation of Education for All has also attracted criticism for confining support for basic education to primary schooling. Though the concept note argues for a whole-sector approach, it fails to specify whether this will involve addressing the full Education for All goals, including early childhood education and adult literacy.

In addition, the concept note envisages continued strengthening of multisectoral programmes, which have grown dramatically in recent years. Campaigners, however, are concerned that monitoring and evaluation of educational outcomes from such programmes has been weak.

The Bank proposes a sharper focus on the quality of learning, in the context of significant expansion of education. However, it does not address the debate around the Bank’s promotion of non-professional ‘para-teachers’ with little training as a solution to teacher shortages. Campaigners and teacher unions in countries such as India have condemned the policy for undermining the quality of education.

In general, the Bank claims it will give greater attention to evidence-based policy, but David Archer of NGO ActionAid International says that “its recent track record on this is poor, notably in having pushed for public-private partnerships in education with very limited supporting research.” Yet at an early April conference on private education and development convened by the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank, vice president Lars Thunell unabashedly endorsed private education as a means to increase access.