In Nigeria, Western aid rewards school failures

Western aid has made school quality worse in developing regions. Several recent items about Nigeria offer a vivid example of how this happens.

1. Here are the results of our current Twitter poll, with 5341 votes from around the globe:

Do you know of children who have finished primary school (grade 5), entered secondary school, but cannot read their own name? (Details of country and situation are welcome.)

Yes: 35.5%
No: 45.1%
Not sure: 19.4%

Among those who answer Yes and tell their location, Nigeria is mentioned as much as all other countries combined. (The others include India, Kuwait, South Africa, Syria, Uganda, Pakistan, India, Cameroon, Senegal, Venezuela, and the USA.) We shouldn’t assume this reflects real-life percentages. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with a big Twitter base. Other countries may have equally weak schools without showing up in an English-language Twitter poll.

Nonetheless, it seems indisputable that many Nigerian students aren’t learning. They haven’t merely failed to learn some basics; they’ve also lost the years during which children are ready — downright eager in fact — to learn. They merely need for adults to provide a suitable environment.

2. Western countries, through the Global Partnership for Education, have spent $6 billion “shaping education policy” (that’s their phrase) in the global South. Yet after 18 years, GPE says it has “insufficient data” to know if its programs have any impact on learning.(1) Looking through an independent evaluation of GPE’s work in Nigeria (into which it had poured around $80 million at that point), I found a recurring theme:

“There is a lack of outcome data across all national and state systems…”
“…there is little appetite to disseminate and discuss progress…”
“…stakeholder appetite for monitoring has been low.”(2)

3. None of that flustered GPE, which a few months later announced a new round of grants, related to the pandemic — including another $15 million for Nigeria.(3)

But if the Nigerian schools were failing before the Covid-19, and $80 million didn’t help, what reason was there to think that more money would help produce real learning, under much more difficult circumstances? None that I can see, none that GPE spelled out.

So why did GPE give them more money? Because once they start, aid agencies can’t stop. The money flowing through provides their reason for existence — and also their salaries. They can’t say, “Oops, we’re not sure this did any good.” Donors might go somewhere else next time.


The Nigeria evaluation states that education plans “focus heavily on student enrollment and the construction and upkeep of school facilities, rather than addressing learning issues.”

Why? Wouldn’t you want to focus on learning? Not if you’re influenced by Western funding.

Since the mid-1990s, the U.N. and Western NGOs have told developing countries they should focus on higher enrollment rather than learning. The Millennium Development Goals singled out enrollment as the only education target. In 2015, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced great success, because more children than ever were in school. He, and the U.N., showed no interest in whether they were learning anything.(4)

It’s not surprising, therefore, that countries which get Western aid focus on enrollment and facilities. They’ve been told by the U.N. that this is the key to development; the U.N. gives them money and a pat on the head when they follow instructions.

The governments of these countries bear much responsibility too, of course. In most cases, it’s hard already for their citizens to hold these governments accountable. It becomes harder still when Western aid rewards them for pushing more children into schools, without caring whether students learn anything.(5) As an American citizen and taxpayer, however, I feel my responsibility is to call attention to how the West distorts education goals. We should let Nigerians themselves set their own priorities.

Oil and gas are Nigeria’s leading export. In a classic colonial relationship, Nigerian oil is shipped abroad where oil conglomerates such as Chevron, Shell, and Total refine it, then ship it back to Nigeria as gasoline, because Nigerian refineries are too dysfunctional to handle the country’s needs. This arrangement works fine for Western corporations, as well as for the Nigerian elite. Why would any of them want to create a new generation of Nigerian youth who can read and think, who are eager to learn and to ask questions?

Comments from Twitter

We announced this story on Twitter, where many readers commented:

Emperor, @DeLordEmperor: It’s deliberately structured by the West to not help a country advance. I’ve never been a fan of aid. They are handouts designed to get people to enjoy things they can’t even give to themselves. That’s why the West does it, and our own elites are too dumb see it.

S. S. Xman, @SSXman2: The truth is Nigeria can survive without any aid! Our government has failed us. The politicians are greedy, they’re just after their own interest!

JB, @JibolaEmmanuel2: We are aid-dependent since our political leadership lacks the attributes and orientations to lead. They are petty-minded and inept to implement any ambitious agenda they copy from their developed counterparts.

@niimonigh: Nothing free on this earth actually sets you free

RevChuks Goodluck Ebereonwu, @RevchuksE: Foreign aid in the present context has lost its significance for two reasons. First, the money ends in the pocket of corrupt leaders/politicians. Second, the donor countries attach strings that make nonsense of the donation.

virus, @defvire: Schools are this way cos this type of education is designed to create non-thinkers. As long as they can’t think for themselves the West by proxy controls their minds and all that happens in their countries. It all about control.

Tribal Chief, @Ronalzok: Western aid is not bearing any fruit in Nigeria’s Education system because the grants received by our government and politicians end up in their pockets. The monies don’t get to the schools….
The pictures they show the international organization as proof of well spent funds are all lies, scam and deceit. Efforts should be made to get these grants directly to the schools, Otherwise this current trend will get worse.

Revolution will be live, @alexa_warrior: Western aid arguably always caused more harm than good. It is the ongoing tool of enforcing imperialist notions of what poor Africans need…

Bitter Truth, @thebitt72583411: I think it has more to do with internal problems than aid. First, some cultures in Nigeria don’t really fancy western education while placing more importance on religious education. Second, it seems many teachers in most primary & secondary schools here are unqualified to teach. Third, school enrolments are far higher than the facilities available. Finally, corruption is so prevalent here that money meant for building schools & provision of educational materials is frequently misappropriated.
[Sasha: There’s plenty of blame to go around. As a USA citizen and taxpayer (though living abroad), I feel my obligation is to stop Western aid from making things worse. And then, those of you living in Nigeria will still have plenty of work to do.]

EndSars EndSARSprotest, @JoeAd16: Ask government officials why they never send their children to government owned schools

Gift oham, @Giftoham: To add to students not able to learn, some schools have teachers who can’t read or write, many graduate can’t even manage themselves

Magnus Kernell, @KernellMagnus: The developed world is still preying on African resources and supporting weak,corrupted leadership.As long as this continues, Africa will be a lost cause. Colonialism never ended, it transformed into something far more sinister. Exploitation.

Emma Okoronta, @Emmanue35949532: Poppycock. The failures of public schools in Nigeria are entirely facilitated by the domestic failures of governmental policies and inefficiencies of educational systems at large.
[Sasha: There are many ways and levels to look at the cause of something. On one level, I imagine you’re completely right. But when that government gets money from the West, to continue its policies, then the West is also responsible.]

Adams Mohammed, @adamszequi: “It becomes harder still when Western aid rewards them for pushing more children into schools, without caring whether students learn anything”-…. if this wasn’t the gospel truth!

Ali Abare, @ALIABARE: The rush to get a certificate, a meal ticket for employment into government service, is a major contributing factor leading to the fall in standard of education in Nigeria. Parents pay for their kids to obtain grades. Parents pay for their children to graduate from university. These kids get employed in government agencies where they can lay hands on public funds.

theisraelite77, @Ames777777: I think this is a continental problem we are facing as Africans. In my country, donors from all over the globe will take pictures holding desks, food, sanitary pads, pens etc. To show their so called support for the poor education. Decades still, nothing really improves.
[Sasha: Thanks for commenting, I’d say that sums it up. The photo op, which will please the donor, is what matters. They have no long-term outlook. That doesn’t matter to the donors.]

Mann of manly colors, @uchmaan13: I think Western aid invests in the wrong aspects of education. Invest in the teachers training and relevant teaching aids. Most teachers in rural areas are not well trained in teaching techniques.
[Sasha: Agreed. But they could figure that out, if they truly wanted to. They are content to just give the appearance of trying to help. I’ve written more in another story you may like: Mimicry.]

The Happy Attorney, @Tiagocollin1: I read the article and another attached to it.
I’m really perplexed, I never imagined this, it never crossed my mind.
Now a lot of isolated incidents make a lot of sense to me.
Thank you very much for this.

[Add your own comments at the bottom of this page.]

Notes and Sources

Top photo: Happy sailors from the U.S. hand out books to schoolchildren in Nigeria. But this, like other Western “aid”, benefits only the West. The Navy gets a feel-good photo op, while U.S. publishers get a tax break as they get rid of unwanted books. How the aid industry undermines reading explains how this actually reduces reading and literacy in countries where the dumping takes place.

1. More about GPE’s lack of interest in measuring its impact, in Willful Blindness at the Global Partnership for Education.

2. Prospective evaluation of GPE’s country-level support to education, Nigeria, Final Report, January 2020, by Dr Rachel Outhred and Fergal Turner. Universalia.

3. As with most GPE funding, the money went through an intermediary — UNICEF in this case. Now we start to see how aid funds dissipate. Taxpayers in the USA, U.K., Norway, and other Western countries fill the coffers of their government aid agencies, such as USAID. These national agencies take out their cut and pass on some to GPE, which takes out its cut and passes on what’s left to UNICEF, which takes out its cut and uses the rest to pay its staff, their travel costs, sub-contractors, foreign consultants… and just enough for government officials to ensure that UNICEF continues to get a warm welcome for its education work, even as schools are getting worse.

4. The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) do add the word “quality” when talking about education. But UNICEF and other agencies continue to pay more attention to enrollment, and also to gender equity, because these sound good, and they have no idea how to improve quality.

5. The same evaluation, piecing together available data, concluded that from 2012-2016, “the number of students reading at grade level fell from 25 percent to 10.8 percent in grade two and 19 to 12.2 percent in grade four.” It found a similar decline in math.

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17 thoughts on “In Nigeria, Western aid rewards school failures

    • Well, not sure I can answer that! I think the fact is, most of us operate from a mix of motives. My takeaway is that anyone receiving aid (whether foreign aid, or in other contexts) should remember that those providing it may have motivations beyond what they claim.

  1. That’s very true sir, but the issue behind is channeling the aid to right people to collect the data and distribute what ever support we are getting from western countries. They mostly contact government and what ever that followed the decision making is going to be selfish and bias. The people suffering are different from the ones benefiting… They was a time I called on the attention of some NGO’s on a very sensitive location to come and we will tour together to see the reality of matters but they shunned because am not a government body so all these need to be addressed if your helping you help who is in need of the help but they don’t am always trying to do more research and find people that truly want to help for helping sake. Only then my country will do better 😭

  2. Hello Alyson, I’m currently a coordinator with a start-up NGO in Nigeria and your article is a nice piece and a complementary back up fact towards our field work findings in the country. The NGO tends to look more into the prospective teachers, how to enhance and follow up on their services as it will benefit the learners, teachers and the educational system at large.it’s an interesting and exciting one If you intend to work with us. Most importantly for now, we are looking at getting sponsors and partners, cos the project is massive and cost effective.

    • Thanks for writing. I’m in no position to evaluate, nor to fund, projects, but I wish you success. I’m involved myself education, working with local colleagues to create affordable schools that children enjoy, where they learn not just academics but skills ranging from problem-solving and critical thinking to dance, debate, etc.

    • Hey Victor! Very fine that you work with an NGO, however the mindset of getting aids before we can make things work in our nation is a very awkward one and it has reduced us to mere beggars before the international community. Let us give our best in our individual capacity to change the narrative. It may take time, but it is achievable.
      The grass is greener where you water.

  3. Wow this so educative and a eye opener.the main issue is the politicians and government officials they don’t really want to improve the educational sector reasons be that,they tend to brainwash the citizens during election campaigns,they need the uneducated for their political ambition.the government are only in for their own self-interest this happens mostly in northern Nigeria where poverty is on the increase thanks Sir.

  4. There will always be poor, otherwise, none will be celebrated qs the world’s richest, in terms of both individuals and countries.

    There will always be the illiterate(s), the less educated, this also is to make for the statistics between the educated (most educated) and the least educated.

    That’s how you create an independent and dependent Nations. The world system cannot afford to have a world of equality or one where there’s no lack. If the “guardians” of the earth failed the maintain this imbalance, there’s certainly going to be chaos as nations across the world become at parties with each other (say North – South) balance. This chaos will lead to the collapse of order. There will be no world superpower(s), there will be no Big brother, no one taking instructions and aids…

    Therefore, to ensure this goes on and on and on… the powers that be, at least for now, must shape everyone else’s destiny and education is part of the trick.

    We can’t all have the luxury of being educated or liberated from ignorance. This has to go on. It is how the world is. Someone must be ahead. Someone must come from behind.

    • Always easy to say this from the better side. While your comment is undeniably true, what is also undeniably true is that the gap between the educated and uneducated is too wide to be acceptable. The same can also be said of the gap between the rich and poor, especially in developing countries.

      • Thanks for contributing. I’m from the USA, though I don’t live there now, and the gap between rich and poor there (and in the U.K., and many other wealthy countries) is also huge, and inexcusably so.

  5. All what was said here are true but we still wonder from our short visual documentaries, why the Aid Organisations still give funds to Governors and Representatives of constituencies, even when the so called government officials can not account for the funds they get from their own government allocations and nobody quizzes them over such. Then you’ll wonder why the Aid Organisations still put funds for, polio, malaria, HIV, fresh water, sickle cell, hepatitis, cancer, health centers in rural areas, IDPs, fertilizers, grants, loans, agriculture, electricity, rural accessible roads, eradication of open defecation, better school structures in rural areas, etc. I think it’s high time the Aid Organisations do a sweep in these areas to ascertain if the funds they are channeling to these projects are really reflecting in the people they are actually meant for unless otherwise it’s still a scheme to siphon and embezzle funds with the name of some innocent people who never asked for these aids in the first place and doesn’t even know that such thing exists apart from seeing their posters and banners pasted by the original beneficiaries who are the middle men. It’ll shock you, when you go to some rural areas n you’ll see posters and banners of some notable Aid Organisations and yet u won’t feel their presence their apart from the few cartons of noodles they always throw around and exit, never to surface until another batch of funds arrives from the donors. It’s really a funny scheme out here. We shall soon start running a documentary on all of them, especially in IDP camps and rural areas.

  6. I attended college in one of the remote place in Nigeria, there some student can’t spell their name for real, mostly because they don’t understand English, hausa is the most spoken language so they do well in hausa, now our English teacher had to do most of his explanation with hausa in that way they get what he is teaching Aisha had to quit school because she can’t cope anymore, some came out with 9 F9 after school. What’s am saying is language is a contribution factor to lack of interest in studying.

  7. This right here – Why would any of them want to create a new generation of Nigerian youth who can read and think, who are eager to learn and to ask questions? reflects the reality on ground. Your submission is a fair review of what’s been going on for years.Why should focus be placed on enrollment as against actual and remarkable changes in behavior – which happens to be the main goal of education? Go to public schools, what you’ll find are overcrowded classrooms without any actual learning facilities; children sit on whatever is available and only look forward to the sound of that bell that signals its time to go home. Very few schools take pride in doing the needful. In the end, a parent would only send their ward to where they desire to get the best of services

  8. The point raised on whether “African perspectives matter” caught my attention. If the participation of africans specifically Nigerians in global affairs is highly regarded, i feel the international community would pay more attention to the quality of education and not the quantity.

    Our value on the international stage must not have been much which has influenced their (unicef, gpe, UN and other international organizations) lack of interest to not pay attention to the upgrade of our educational system. Definitely a new approach is required.

  9. Most of the answers here normalize Aid.
    Why isn’t anyone affronted & offended by the idea of Aid?
    Until we see ourselves & our governments as totally responsible for our goals, we will be having the wrong conversations.

    • Thanks for commenting — and for pushing to look at the more fundamental issue. I personally think the West does owe reparations, for plundering and other harm done in the past. But that means giving cash, not sending over advisers with some money, and they decide what to do with it.

  10. i get tired of africa’s problem being blame on the west. there is a saying there is nothing like free gift. everything thing has a price… if africa can remove the chain of the west from their neck then its their problem nobody is forcing them to wear it… they should be smarter and able to take care of their state. come on its over 60yrs after colonial rule… any problem africa has to me now, its their fault and their governments. remeber africa us nit the only continent to be colonize by europeans… there are other countries that have been colonized and are doing fine eg UAE

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