by Sasha Alyson
Everybody loves a UNICEF program called Kids In Need of Desks. It’s run with MSNBC TV host Lawrence O’Donnell, and the acronym is K.I.N.D., so already we can feel virtuous.
But in this KIND Fund, UNICEF has encapsulated much that is wrong with the aid industry.
1. A desk shortage isn’t the problem.
UNICEF reports a “learning crisis” in the developing world. The Global Partnership for Education says that in the 32 low-income countries for which it has data, “three out of five students cannot read by the end of primary school.”(1)
These schools are failing. But it’s not because they don’t have desks.
These schools are run on the colonial model, which a century ago sought to create an obedient population for the colonial powers. They continue to emphasize rote memorization of the “right” answer, to reward passivity, and discourage critical thinking of any sort.
Moreover, they are run with no real accountability to the population. UNICEF, UNESCO, the UN, and various NGOs have made education their sector, because it brings in the donor dollars. Local officials seek to keep INGOs happy, because good behavior is rewarded with thinly-disguised bribes such as travel, consulting fees, and per-diems for attending a workshop.(2)
For three decades, the UN has pushed school enrollment as its “education” goal, largely ignoring whether children actually learn anything. Poorly trained teachers face a classroom of too many students and so they teach the only way they know: By rote memorization. Now they’re producing yet another generation that knows no other system. UN agencies have started to insert the word “quality” into their goals, but they don’t know how to achieve that, and don’t try very hard. UNICEF spins its wheels, and the rut gets deeper.
2. It’s a top-down, one-size-fits-all.
UNICEF wants to give desks to every school in Malawi. Why? Does every school actually need desks from UNICEF? Do some need other things, much more badly? Are new desks actually at the top of anybody’s list?
It doesn’t matter. UNICEF and Lawrence O’Donnell made that decision for them. For all of them. UNICEF won’t even assess who already has perfectly suitable desks, it will send desks to everybody.(3) This is reminiscent of the Playpumps fiasco of the 2000s. Playpumps were playground merry-go-rounds (roundabouts, in Brit-speak) that pumped water as children spun them around. They were far more expensive than the standard, reliable hand pump, it turned out that making them spin was a lot of work and children didn’t like doing it, and they were hard to maintain, but donors were eager to believe that Western ingenuity would fix a complex problem and donations flowed in. Soon UNICEF, Save the Children, and other NGOs were installing Playpumps in African villages which didn’t want them but were never asked. Many times the Playpump replaced a traditional pump that the village preferred – sometimes a new pump recently installed by another NGO.(4)
3. Giving away desks is a donor-focused solution.
If foreign donors truly want to help education, they should identify local actors that are doing the best so far, support them with unrestricted donations, and get out of the way. But UN agencies need a role for themselves, and donors feel best about giving something specific: Sponsor this child, here’s her picture. Give desks. Pay for textbooks. The priorities are set from afar, by people who have no idea of realities on the ground, based on what produces a warm glow for the donor or merely a good photo op. It’s the right way to please donors; the wrong way to improve education.
4. It exploits children.
In the past thirty years, Western aid to third world education has greatly increased – but children are learning less. Why? Many reasons. For one thing, loosely-monitored money draws the wrong people, and even the best people get distracted. I’ve explained more here: Schools in the global South are getting worse.
UNICEF offers no evidence that these desks will improve education quality. Instead, it shows pictures of girls who dream of becoming doctors, of girls who need a scholarship. If the girls (and boys) used in these pictures were actually benefiting, UNICEF could show evidence by now. To continue using their pictures and stories to raise money for UNICEF, pretending it will help the children even though evidence and analysis indicates the opposite, is exploitative.
Even if these schools aren’t so great, are they actually harmful? Under policies pushed by the U.N., children are forced to attend schools where it is widely known that many of them learn nothing. That’s harmful, in itself. But the harm goes well beyond that, even if it’s not talked about. UNICEF tells us that girls with more schooling are less likely to become unwed mothers. But UNICEF is cherry-picking the data. It is does not tell us about evidence that these girls are also more likely to be trafficked. (In a nutshell: Their expectations having been raised, they go to the city expecting a better job but the jobs aren’t there, and they fall prey to depression, addiction, suicide, and trafficking. You don’t hear much about this because the girl-dreams-of-becoming-a-doctor story brings in money; this one does not.)(5)
5. It is patronizing.
I asked one celebrity, who proudly tweeted about her donation to the KIND Fund, how this would improve education. She replied, “Because without these desks the students are sitting on mud or cement floors.”
Really? Does she know that? UNICEF says that “most” schools in Malawi lack desks, but it wants to give desks to all schools.
Also note the reference to mud floors. Yes, some schools have hard-packed dirt floors. But referring to them as mud seems like deliberate disparagement – conjuring up an image of primitiveness, of living like animals. This is how the slave trade justified itself, two centuries ago.
And why is it so terrible that children sit on the floor? Children often sit on the floor by choice. The school can put down an inexpensive mat if needed. Desks are not needed for good education. They are needed only if you think all education should take place in a setting that looks like an American school.
6. It disenfranchises the local population.
Bad schools evolve when the government feels no accountability to the citizenry because it gets income from other sources, such as aid, or selling natural resources. It can ignore its people. That lack of accountability is a primary reason that schools don’t get better.
Making suitable desks – if and where they are needed – is something a village itself could do. It would be a step toward more accountability.
Imagine a school in which parents helped with such things as this. While doing so, they might talk about whether the school was doing a good job. They’d feel some ownership, they’d feel a right to object and push for change. Yes, it would just be a small step, but that’s where we need to start. Global agencies clamoring to be “transformative” have only made things worse.
7. Giveaways are charity, not development. They are opposites.
In David Graeber’s words: “Charity is a way of maintaining inequality, not undermining it.”(6) Occasionally, charity may be needed for something which the recipients couldn’t do for themselves. Otherwise, it simply creates dependency.
Villages could find a way to take care of this need themselves, if they wanted to. But anything related to education has come to be seen as an NGO job. Why should villagers build desks when, if they wait, a NGO will bring some for free? And that’s the NGOs job, after all!
Frantz Fanon, among many others, has written of how colonized people often internalize the message of inferiority that is communicated from white colonists. Many do not, of course. But UNICEF should not be broadcasting the falsehood that “you can’t even provide simple educational needs for your own children.”
8. It’s a drop in the bucket.
UNICEF wrote recently: “The Ministry of Education estimates that 3.4 million primary school learners do not have desks…. Together with the KIND fund, UNICEF has delivered close to 300,000 desks in the last 10 years.”(7) Do the math. If desks really make a big difference, as UNICEF asserts, then waiting for desks from UNICEF is a lousy strategy for Malawi. And this is just one small country. Others aren’t getting any desks at all. If desks are so crucial for education, why does UNICEF have a desk campaign only in one country, where a celebrity wanted to do it?
The attitude behind such efforts is sometimes expressed as “We can’t do everything, but we must do what we can.” This sounds heroic, but it reflects the white savior assumption that people in Malawi are incapable of doing anything for themselves — that nothing happens unless it is done by Westerners, and is posted on social media.
9. It patronizes the donors, as well as recipients.
More precisely, it manipulates the donors. UNICEF doesn’t provide information for the donor to make an informed decision about whether the K.I.N.D. Fund is a good choice. It shows pictures of schoolgirls who dream of becoming a doctor. Will new desks help them reach that goal? UNICEF doesn’t even pretend to address that question, instead it shows pictures of more girls who dream of becoming doctors. “Leave the hard thinking to us,” is the unspoken message. “Your only job is to feel good about yourself.”(8)
We do feel good about ourselves! say the donors. They accept whatever “right” answer the authority figure provides — just as children will learn to do in colonial-style schools. Social media allows the donors to ensure that they are admired not just by themselves, but also by others. After all, they paid for that good karma.
10. Why not just give them the cash?
In the past fifteen years, a new approach to aid has drawn attention: Cash transfers. Instead of paying for goods and services that the donor thinks people should have, just give them the cash. Let them set their priorities. They can buy or build their own desks if that’s what they most need — for far less than the $75 that UNICEF collects for a two-seater desk. If they don’t need that, they can use the money for something they do need.
Numerous studies have shown that this approach works well. (No, recipients don’t just spend it on beer.) It is less patronizing. It greatly reduces overhead. But it hasn’t caught on widely. Why not? Because aid agencies thrive on that overhead.
UNICEF’s K.I.N.D. Fund is a condescending program, run by the wealthy, supposedly to help the poor but it does the opposite. It weakens their education, nurtures dependency, and wastes a lot of money — but it feels good to the donors. It is a vivid example of karma colonialism.
Notes and Sources
1. GPE Results Report 2021, can be downloaded from GPE website.
2. These perks aren’t talked about much, for obvious reasons, but sometimes word leaks. In Bribes I’ve given several examples, including UNICEF’s Zimbabwe office giving vehicles to a government unit “to facilitate the syllabi review process.”
3. UNICEF website, viewed 19 Jan. 2022.
4. UNICEF, to its credit, commissioned an evaluation of the Playpumps before carrying the idea too far. Then, less to its credit, UNICEF tried to keep the report confidential when it offered up a lot of bad news. It leaked anyway, and is online at Playpumps Report.
5. Carol Black has written a superb essay about mistaken rush to embrace education as a panacea: “Three Cups of Fiction.”
6. David Graeber in Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Others have made similar remarks. Here’s Martin Luther King, Jr.: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
7. UNICEF Press Release, 5 October 2021
8. GiveWell, which analyzes charitable spending, threw in the towel when it tried to evaluate a UNICEF project because UNICEF provided “no transparency.” GiveWell called the project “a subtle, but substantive, donor illusion.”
Top illustration: Text and concept by the author; art by Chittakone.