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.)
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:
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.
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’s 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.]
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.]
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.
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.