What’s new? Making money off poor school children again

The latest trick is to transfer tax-payer funded aid aimed at Africa and the Middle East into the pockets of corporations and individuals.

Beajah Public School, in Beajah, Liberia. Image credit Dominic Chavez via World Bank Flickr.

In late August 2018, alarm bells started ringing around the education development world with the discovery of a document that wasn’t meant to see the light of day. The document revealed the business plan for the establishment of yet another international financing agency for education—the Education Outcomes Fund (EOF) for Africa and the Middle East. Its brazen ideological bent was on full display.

Rather than strengthening and expanding the provision of quality, free, universally accessible public education for all in countries where increased public financing for education is desperately needed, the EOF would exclusively fund non-state actors, including for-profit companies. Not only would it be a market creation scheme for private actors, it would also guarantee returns for investors by transferring tax-payer funded aid into the pockets of corporations and individuals.

The news of the possible creation of this agency triggered outraged responses from teachers in potentially affected countries. Education unions in Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon and Palestine condemned the move.

Alarmed to learn that the focus of this fund would be on non-state actors, they rightly described that the EOF would “contribute to the commercialization and commodification of education and legitimize profit making in the provision of education.”

They highlighted that the promotion by the EOF of schooling models including charter schools and fee charging, so called ‘low-cost’ private schools willfully ignored the research which shows that privatization does not improve access to nor improve outcomes in education, but rather deepens inequality and segregation, denying the right of all children to quality education.

The concerns of teachers in these potentially affected countries also attracted the interest of education unions from the UK, USA, Brazil, Spain, Australia, Argentina, Germany and New Zealand. In statements of solidarity, they described as “deplorable” the EOF’s intention to transfer tax-payer funds intended for the well-being of children to private investors who seek to profit from education.

Since that time, the concerns associated with this ideological experiment have not been allayed but rather increased.

In a more recent publication, the EOF appears intent to continue, enthusiastically, in its mission to create markets for private actors concerned that their operations are not “stifl[ed] … with restricted funding.” So much for these prophets of the free market!

You are the company you keep

It has been reported that Ghana is the first government the EOF intends to lobby for the introduction of its scheme.

To that end, on 6th December in Accra, Ghana, one of the two drivers behind the EOF, the Global Steering Group for Impact Investment organized a Dialogue on this “revolutionary impact [investment] movement.” The other driver is the Education Commission. Sharing the stage with the CEO of the EOF was the CEO of Bridge International Academies—the operator of a reckless company found by courts in Uganda and Kenya to be operating illegally.

Is this the type of ‘non-state actor’ the EOF has in mind?

Liberia does not need the further meddling of foreign privatizers

The other country on top of the EOF list is Liberia. In so far as Liberia is concerned, it has been tortured enough with the privatization of education in the form of an experiment announced by the previous administration aimed at outsourcing all of its primary and pre-primary schools to private providers privileging Bridge International Academies.

A year into the experiment, the Liberian government commissioned evaluation found that the program was not cost effective, not sustainable and not without “negative side effects on other schools.” Bridge International Academies was found to have shut out thousands of children from schools they were enrolled in prior to them being taken under their control.

The current administration, under the presidency of George Weah, has frozen this program. It did not extend contracts with the private providers nor did it proceed to increase the number of schools handed over to private operators as per the previous government’s plan.

Liberia does not need the likes of the EOF to continue pushing an ideological agenda promoting privatization.

Liberia’s schools should be reintegrated within its public-school system. Evidence has shown that any student gains associated with the outsourcing of schools to private operators were smaller than reported and, modest as they were, could have also been made in regular schools had they also enjoyed a similar funding advantage as the pilot schools.

Ripping off the poor

The EOF is described as an innovation in education financing, which aims to raise $1 billion in development impact bonds.

These bonds work by employing investment capital to pay for education provision, or education related services, offered by private actors. If so-called ‘outcomes targets’ are met, investors receive a return on their investment. That return, to be provided by tax payer funded aid, may be four times their input.

When did it become okay to spend scarce tax payer funded aid intended for children’s well-being to line the pockets of profiteers? Education must be universally embraced as a human right and a public good, not a market commodity.

The EOF argues that its model’s strength lies in the fact that it will only pay for “outcomes” achieved. However, results-based financing of education creates perverse incentives to invest in narrow, superficial short-term gains, rather than in the holistic development of the child.

Notably, a quest for narrow outcomes and the involvement of profit-making organizations in education can lead to the further marginalization of the most vulnerable groups in society.

Furthermore, outcomes are to be measured by an ‘independent’ evaluation undertaken by related entities or edu-business, raising serious issues about transparency and potential conflicts of interest.

In 2017 United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, chair of the Education Commission and now EOF Advisory Board Chair, rightly said before a UK parliamentary Inquiry:

We cannot rely on either the charitable sector or the private sector providing the guarantee of universal education, because they cannot. What we have to do is ensure there is sufficient public provision and funding of education so that we meet our goals.

Brown went on to say, our Sustainable Development Goal is interpreted by everyone as universal free primary and secondary education, and if we do not meet that by 2030, while having spent money on other things, we will be rightly condemned.” So, what’s changed, Gordon?

Towards this aim, education financing must be sustainable, predictable and principled. There are no shortcuts. It is only through well-funded public education that we will achieve quality education for all, not through attempting to establish new finance mechanisms that undermine the right to education.

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