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., did not know if they were learning anything, and showed no interest in finding out.(4)

It’s not surprising, therefore, that countries which get Western aid choose to 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.(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.

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.

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!

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. There is no long-term outlook.]

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.

As coronavirus spreads, so does the brain drain

by Sasha Alyson

Colonialism has always been about those with power extracting whatever they want from those with less. Only the details change.

Once they wanted gold, spices, and human beings. They took them with guns. They still want certain human beings, but economic power has replaced guns. Two recent stories in the New York Times offer an example.

Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, writes:

Covid-19 is poised to tear through poor, displaced and conflict-affected communities around the world…. The U.S. health system is utterly overwhelmed — yet we have 26 doctors for every 10,000 Americans. In Africa, where 1.3 billion people live and the virus has arrived, countries average fewer than three doctors per 10,000.”(1)

Another story looks at the situation from a different angle:

Eight U.K. Doctors Died From Coronavirus. All Were Immigrants.

LONDON — The eight men moved to Britain from different corners of its former empire, all of them doctors or doctors-to-be…. Now their names have become stacked atop a grim list: the first, and so far only, doctors publicly reported to have died after catching the coronavirus in Britain’s aching National Health Service. For a country ripped apart in recent years by Brexit and the anti-immigrant movement that birthed it, the deaths of the eight doctors — from Egypt, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Sudan — attest to the extraordinary dependence of Britain’s treasured health service on workers from abroad.

It is a story tinged with racism, as white, British doctors have largely dominated the prestigious disciplines while foreign doctors have typically found work in places and practices that are apparently putting them on the dangerous front lines of the coronavirus pandemic…. Britain is not the only country reckoning with its debt to foreign doctors…. In the United States, where immigrants make up more than a quarter of all doctors but often face long waits for green cards, New York and New Jersey have already cleared the way for graduates of overseas medical schools to suit up in the coronavirus response….

By recruiting foreign doctors, Britain saves the roughly $270,000 in taxpayer money that it costs to train doctors locally, a boon to a system that does not spend enough on medical education to staff its own hospitals. That effectively leaves Britain depending on the largess of countries with weaker health care systems to train its own work force. Even so, the doctors are hampered by thousands of dollars in annual visa fees and, on top of that, a $500 surcharge for using the very health service they work for.(2)

The doctors and health workers are often fleeing untenable conditions. It would be inhuman and unrealistic to insist that they should stay in situations with no infrastructure to support their work, while putting their families at risk. But the U.S. and the U.K. are not providing a safe haven for everyone who faces danger at home — only for those whose skills it wants, even as those skills are more desperately needed in the homeland.

Those home countries lose the very people they most need. One study found that skilled professionals emigrate from Africa at almost double the global rate.(3) Western powers should be helping their own youth to develop the skills that are needed, rather than raiding other countries in search of something cheaper.


1. This Won’t End for Anyone Until It Ends for Everyone, by Samantha Power, New York Times, 7 April 2020

2. Eight U.K. Doctors Died From Coronavirus. All Were Immigrants, by Benjamin Mueller, New York Times, 8 April 2020

3. Honest Accounts? The true story of Africa’s billion dollar losses, by Natalie Sharples, Tim Jones, and Catherine Martin. Curtis Research, Health Poverty Action et al., 2014. This extensively-documented report shows that what Africa loses to the West — through the brain drain, tax havens, illegal fishing and logging, and much else — is far greater than what it receives in aid.

Top photo: Doctor and patient in Madagascar by Docteur Ando (Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA-4.0)

[twitter-follow screen_name=’k_colonialism’ show_screen_name=’yes’ show_count=’yes’]

Other stories of interest:

Clueless at the World Bank

by Sasha Alyson

Anyone in the global South who has regular contact with so-called experts from the World Bank and large NGOs has on occasion wondered, “How can these people be so clueless?”

Here’s a revealing example. A World Bank analysis about childhood development in Laos contains repeated references to “Khmun and Hmong.”

The Khmu and Hmong are the two largest ethnic minorities in Laos, each about 10-12% of the population. If you spend much time here, talking to live Lao people, you’ve heard these names.

There are no Khmun people. I Googled this. Nobody ever called this group Khmun. With one exception: another World Bank Report. But eight times these writers refer to the “Khmun,” never once do they get it right.

Examples from a World Bank report which repeatly refers to a "Khmun" ethnic group -- which does not exist.
This isn’t a typo. They get it wrong every time. To get a job at the World Bank, you don’t need to know what you’re writing about, you just need the right connections.

The report was produced by “a partnership between the World Bank, Plan International and Save the Children International” with funding from Dubai Cares. Clearly none of them felt a need for a Lao person to be involved.

Is this just a quibble? It’s like finding a burglar’s fingerprint. It’s not that we mind the smudge on the windowsill. Rather, a crime has been committed, and this is a clue about who did it and how.

The crime is that throughout the global South, education quality has deteriorated over the past quarter-century. That’s the same period in which the World Bank, the U.N., and international NGOs (such as Plan International and Save the Children International) have taken an ever-stronger role in setting education policies.

Even as everyone else knew the schools were getting worse, the U.N. and NGOs continued pushing for more children in school as the only goal, ignoring the question of whether children learned anything. Comfortable in their offices in New York, Paris, and Geneva, they looked at spreadsheets that showed enrollments going up, and assured the world that everything was going great. (Now, at last, they admit that’s not going so well. But only as an excuse to ask for more funding, so they can increase their meddling.)

All their talk about “we work closely with local people” — it’s just talk. This error would never have happened, had a single Lao person been involved in producing the World Bank report.

But they weren’t. This was the West, certain that it knew best, telling the Rest how to fix their problems. But all the while, it was utterly clueless about the countries it was advising.


Lao PDR Early Childhood Education Project: Snapshot Three: Child Development. The World Bank. Undated.

Other stories of interest:

The Gates Foundation vows transparency. So why does it offer a dysfunctional search engine?

by Sasha Alyson

[Note: A year later, some of these problems were fixed, some were not. See update at end.]

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation claims that it “is committed to information sharing and transparency.”(1) How deep is that commitment?

In 2013, the foundation was embarrassed to get a “Very Poor” rating from the Aid Transparency Index. On “Commitment to Aid Transparency,” BMGF got 1.11 of 10 possible points. The foundation made some quick changes, and the next year it had moved up to the lower half of the “Fair” category. It’s been sitting there ever since. The 2018 report shows it 31st out of 45.(2) We might conclude that the foundation is less interested in real transparency, than in avoiding embarrassment.

The foundation continues to claim a commitment to transparency, particularly through a Grants Database which allows anyone to find details of grants it has made. But it appears that the actual commitment to transparency is still about 1.1 out of 10. Here’s what I’ve encountered:

It doesn’t find what you ask for.

Having heard about a Gates grant to Coca-Cola to expand operations in Africa, I looked for details. Here’s what I got. (These screenshots will look best on a large screen. Click arrows on the sides, or dots below, to navigate.)(3)

At the time of that African grant, the Gates foundation had announced “The Coca-Cola Company, TechnoServe and The Gates Foundation Partner to Boost Incomes of 50K Small-Scale Farmers in East Africa.” But on the Gates Foundation page for this grant, Coca-Cola isn’t mentioned.

As for the broken link to Coca-Cola Foundation Indonesia: Both pages for Gates grants to CFFI listed the wrong URL (website address). But the Gates Foundation did have the correct URL in their records: Their press release in 2011 got it right. Bill and Melinda Gates are eager to find tech solutions for all the world’s problems. There are simple ways, both tech- and human-based, to know if your links work. Why not use them?

It buries you in the wrong stuff.

Looking for details of a grant to Tanager, I searched for that name. Here’s what it showed.

I looked at the first ones. They had nothing to do with Tanager. The word never appeared on those pages. There were a total of just 3 “Tanager” entries, not 112.

The Gates database holds perhaps 20,000 small records, and the foundation can’t provide a way to search them. Google searches trillions of pages, some quite large, and does a far better job. Is Bill Gates really doing his best here?(4)

The database suffers from information poverty.

Since 2006, the Foundation has given about $190 million to Bono’s ONE Campaign for purposes explained like this:

  • $38,142,580 in 2009, “to promote health, agriculture, and development”
  • $39,000,000 in 2017, “to support ONE’s policy, advocacy and public awareness-raising work in the fight to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa”
  • $13,000,000 in 2019, “to provide general operating support”

This is money that avoided taxation because it was to be used for the public good, but the Gates foundation isn’t giving us details. Nor does the One Campaign. It is an advocacy organization, which urges more Western aid to the global South. Paula Froelich, writing in the New York Post, tells more: “One raises millions to publicize the good works of others, such as the Gates Foundation. A lot of this is done via taking VIPs and journalists on first-class, all-expenses-paid sightseeing trips to briefly experience African poverty by touring schools and hospitals before settling down to enjoy local music.”(5)

That doesn’t mean One has forgotten about Bill and Melinda Gates. Google reports that about 1200 pages at have a reference to one or both of the Gateses, or their foundation. Of his grants to One, Froelich adds: “Bill Gates has said it was the best money he ever spent.” At last, we’ve got some transparency.

Google screenshot shows "about 1,200" pages on the website which mention Bill or Melinda Gates. The One Campaign has gotten about $190 million from the Gates Foundation.

Gates blocks other ways that data might get out.

Grant data is stored in a database and pages are presumably created as requested. A search engine such as Google cannot automatically find and index such pages. There are simple ways that a website designer can allow them to be indexed, however, and many large sites, such as Amazon, take these steps. They want you to find them. The Gates Foundation doesn’t seem to care.

You cannot request a bulk export.

The World Bank allows you to download a spreadsheet with whatever data matches your search request. It took me about 10 seconds to download the Gini index of inequality, where available, for each country and each year since 1960. Many organizations offer this export function, if they have a large database that they want to make publicly available. The Gates Foundation does not.

Nor can you follow a grant.

In 2018 the foundation gave $6.5 million to the London School of Economics “to build the national and regional capacities to access and utilize global knowledge to improve the health system design and performance in Sub-Saharan African countries.”(6)

Did anything come of this? Realistically, there’s no way to know. When the foundation does list a grantee’s website it gives only the home page. In this case, that was: It will be hard, or impossible, to track it.

Here’s a way they could be more transparent. The foundation could assign a unique ID to each grant and invite, or require, that recipients offer certain things, such as independent evaluations of how it was used, which would also carry this ID. Not every grant needs to be evaluated, but with some intelligent thought about what does, this would greatly improve accountability and provide a valuable pool of “What Works, What Doesn’t Work” research.

Is the Gates Foundation trying to hide information, or is this just general carelessness? Somebody made a conscious decision to provide skimpy information about grants and a uselessly general website URL for the recipient. But there’s also a lot of sloppiness. A reasonable theory is that Bill Gates resents the suggestion that after giving away so much money, he should be held to principles of transparency that were meant for others. But he knows better than to say that. So the Foundation set up an under-funded office, charged it with maintaining appearances, and as long as it doesn’t cause embarrassment, nobody cares. The world is full of “Corporate Social Responsibility” programs which take precisely this approach.

Update: May 2021

Two months after posting this, I found slight changes on the Gates database page, but largely the same problems.

A year later, May 2021, I revisited the database page of the Gates site. Several things are different; some are not.

  • The database has a new URL:
  • If you search for “Tanager” it no longer shows a lot of totally irrelevant listings.
  • When I search for Coca-Cola, it now shows both grants to Coca-Cola Foundation Indonesia, but not other relevant grants, even where, according to Gates press releases, Coca-Cola was a key participant but the money didn’t go to it directly.
  • It allows the user to easily do a data dump of all grants – all 23,382 of them at this writing. This is a good addition, though getting such a big file will overwhelm some users. Allowing people to select by year, keywork, etc., would make the function more useful.
  • It remains uselessly vague about many grants. This year, Panorama Global got $800,000 for “general operating support.” Panorama Global says it is “a platform for social change to solve pressing global problems through Audacious Thinking and Bold Action.” Can they solve this pandemic of vagueness?

Notes and Sources

1. From the foundation’s “Open Access” page. It becomes clear that the foundation is talking about transparency that is expected from grantees, not from itself.

2. The Aid Transparency Index is produced by Publish What You Fund.

3. Screenshots are from 22 Feb. 2020, except for one which is noted as being a few days later.

4. The malfunctions are not a temporary glitch. In May 2018 I searched for “Coca-Cola.” It found the Coca-Cola Foundation Indonesia grant from 2011, but not the one from 2015. In May 2019 it reported 12 results for Tanager, only one of which was correct; now it reports 112 results, of which 3 are correct. Two of these are older, so it seems to have missed them in 2019.

5. “Inside Bono’s boundless hypocrisy,” by Paula Froelich, New York Post, 11 Nov. 2017. The One campaign disputed much of the article, but not what is quoted above. If they want everyone to know details of what they do, they could, of course, stop keeping it secret. Their response is at: One Campaign Responds To Paula Froelich.

6. Gates grant to London School of Economics. Are you surprised they would give money to England to improve health in Africa? Despite talk of “empowerment,” very little Gates money goes to people in the global South. It goes to institutions in the North to do things for people in the South. In 2018, only 1.7% of Gates grants went to recipients in low-income countries, and even this is misleading because some recipients were the local affiliate of a larger business or organization based elsewhere. A study published in the Lancet in 2009 raised similar points. Dr David McCoy et al., found that only about 5% of grants went to low-income and middle-income countries, and descriptions provided by the foundation were sometimes too vague to be of use. It pointedly noted: “In view of its receipt of public subsidies in the form of tax exemptions, there should also be an expectation that the foundation is subject to some public scrutiny.”

Top photo: Adapted for online use from the Aid Transparency Index 2018. The 17-page report notes that when conducting its evaluations, “pieces of information critical to assess project and donor impact are the most difficult to find – if available at all.” The index is published every two years; this is the most recent one.

Related stories

Other stories of interest

The Global Partnership for Education has shown us their vision of the future. Let’s pay attention.

by Sasha Alyson

The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) is one of several major, multinational organizations claiming to improve education for the world’s poorest children, especially girls. After a quarter century, however, the schools subjected to this endless meddling have gotten worse. (More at: Schools Are Getting Worse)

The photo accompanying the latest GPE news release is downright scary:

An announcement from the Global Partnership for Education shows girls marching in lockstep. The boys in back appear less enthusiastic about the lockstep thing.

Scary, because this is their vision: Girls marching in lockstep. They could have looked for a picture of girls reading. Or acting independently. They liked girls in lockstep.

Scary, to realize that the groupthink at GPE is so strong that nobody within the organization said, “Maybe this isn’t the right image for our Education news release.”

Schools for the world’s poorest children, under the influence of the U.N. and agencies like GPE, are joyless places where children learn to memorize the right answer – maybe. If they don’t, at least they learn to accept their fate as nothing more than beans to be counted on in the enrollment statistics, creatures to walk and think in lockstep, following orders sent from another continent.

Just a day before GPE published this picture and story, an outside evaluation of its 5-year, $100-million education program in northern Nigeria became available. Did that money do any good? We dunno. The report states that while “[c]ontributions from several partners in Nigeria have modestly improved education planning in Nigeria,” we don’t know if that planning achieved anything because “stakeholder appetite for monitoring has been low.” Why would “stakeholders” want to be monitored, when the money flows anyway?

The report concluded that “effectively the GPE theory of change is not appropriate for Nigeria…. This means taking a bottom up approach – starting with Nigeria’s specificity, rather than a top-down approach, starting with GPE global theory of change and grant-making and partnership structures.”

That sounds promising: They learned that top-down didn’t work, so next they’ll try bottom-up! But if GPE actually wanted bottom-up, it’s had 18 years to try it. The latest $386 million is being passed along (after taking out whatever salaries and overhead GPE requires) to the same top-down organizations – the World Bank, Unicef, Unesco – that for years have contributed to creating disastrously bad schools in the global South.

They all prefer top-down. That’s how everybody gets their salaries.

None of them want to pass control to the populations of Chad, Eritrea, and the rest. They know full well that people who are running their own lives do not do it in lockstep.

The Global Partnership for Education has shown us their vision of the future. Let’s pay attention.

A one-minute mystery: Sherlock Holmes and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics

by Sasha Alyson

On a visit to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), Sherlock Holmes examined the line chart showing global education levels, region by region.

The chart, reproduced here, shows in each of seven regions how many children, fail to achieve Minimum Proficiency Levels (MPLs) in reading. UIS wanted to show that global education was in crisis, and thus UIS needed more funding to collect more data about it.

“Aha!” Holmes suddenly exclaimed. “Watson, this isn’t a statistics institute. It’s a propaganda department!”

How did he know?

See if you can solve this, then read the full answer here.

[twitter-follow screen_name=’k_colonialism’ show_screen_name=’yes’ show_count=’yes’]

Other stories of interest:

Dividing the World in Two

by Sasha Alyson

Developing, majority, or Global South?

Imagine two lists of countries. One list includes Honduras, Nepal, and Ghana. The other has the United States, France, and Japan. Which list would be most likely to include Sweden?

That’s easy. The more difficult question is: What heading do we put on these two lists? The United Nations calls them Developed and Developing, and it has another category called “Least Developed Countries.” In writing about the aid industry, I frequently need to refer to these various groups, so I’ve explored the issue. I flatly reject the U.N. term “Developed Countries,” but there are no well-established alternatives to the U.N. terminology. Here’s what I’ve found in use.

Third World. This term appeared during the Cold War, when countries allied with NATO were defined as First World; the Soviet Union sphere was Second World; and others – largely former colonies – were the Third World. In actual usage, however, Third World was largely used for poorer, non-European regions. Switzerland was non-aligned, but nobody called it a Third World country. With the end of the Cold War, the term came to be synonymous with what are more often now called developing countries, or the Global South.

Some considered “Third World” too arbitrary, but that charge could be leveled at any system that divides nearly 200 diverse nations into two or three categories. I think it fell from use for the same reason that bell-bottoms did: It just became associated with a past era.

Global South, Global North. These terms are widely used in recent years. The obvious objection is that geography is more complicated than that, but so what? It’s a common feature of language that new terminology acquires a different meaning from its literal meaning. The writers I most admire often use these terms. I’ve done so too.

The West. Again, once you get beyond the literal geographic meaning, this is understood, even if its exact boundaries aren’t always clear. It doesn’t have a good counterpart; William Easterly’s 2006 book was titled The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. But “the Rest” doesn’t work as a stand-alone term.

The majority world. I haven’t been able to track down who first used this, for what was once called the Third World. It’s appealing, because it emphasizes that “the Rest” are actually most of the world, not some leftovers, and that those of us born in the West have a highly skewed view of what life is like for most of this planet. I’ve incorporated it into my writing on occasion. Because it’s new and not widely used, I don’t use it too often because that might draw attention to the term itself, rather than the subject matter. I hope it will catch on.

Developing countries. Every country is developing, some in a more promising direction than others. I’m developing a blog, Jack is developing an ulcer, and bacteria worldwide are developing resistance to antibiotics. The word is practically meaningless. And yet, we all, broadly speaking, understand the phrase “developing countries.” Because the choices are limited, I sometimes use it reluctantly, and will do my best to help develop (there we go again!) alternatives.

The lords and the hordes. I came up with this myself, after a couple of drinks. The idea was to show how each group, at least on some occasions, views the other. I’m not going to use it, if I can get people talking about international aid as “karma colonialism,” that’s enough for me. If you wish to write about the lords and the hordes, go ahead, but please don’t tell anybody where you got it.

I do draw the line at one noxious U.N. term – “developed countries” – with its implication that certain countries have reached a qualitatively different stage, one that all others should and do aspire to. Let’s hope not! The globe does not have the resources to supply those levels of consumption, nor do the atmosphere and seas have the capacity to absorb its exhausts.

Moreover, as the world gallops toward environmental disaster, many fundamental assumptions of Western society, including the push for ever more consumption, urgently need to be challenged. The wealthy countries need to genuinely learn from others – and this is an entirely different thing from saying, “We can all learn from one another” while taking a Thai cooking class. Calling themselves “developed” simply gives these countries a sense of moral superiority, which in turn becomes their permission to meddle in other societies as they wish. Instead of “civilizing” the uncivilized, they will now “develop” the undeveloped. We need to seek better ways to structure human societies, rather than suggesting some countries have it all figured out.

Notes and Sources

Majority world map: Ken Myers, in a map posted on Reddit, originally identified this circular area (now known as a Valeriepieris circle) containing a majority of the world’s population. Our image uses a map created by Strebe under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license, onto which we’ve added the circle. This may be used under a Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

The author: Sasha Alyson has been active in the literacy and education fields in Southeast Asia since 2006. He writes regularly about how development projects frequently undermine the countries they claim to help.

Other stories of interest:

A Nobel Prize for the Effective Altruists. But will it make a difference?

by Sasha Alyson

Congratulations to the newest Nobel laureates. But the developing world should hold the champagne.

For seventy years, wealthier countries have promised to help the rest of the world develop. Whether that’s gone well depends who you ask, but all agree, there have been mistakes along the way.

Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer received the 2019 Nobel Prize in economics for introducing a different approach, using rigorous testing to see what actually improves education, health, and other conditions in the global South. They’ve turned up many surprises. In the 1990s, for example, Kremer found that two popular approaches – printing more textbooks, and providing free school lunches – did not improve learning outcomes in Kenyan schools. Teaching style was what mattered.

This data-based approach, often called effective altruism, is a breath of fresh air compared with others, and the three laureates well deserve their honor. There is talk that the recognition brought by the Nobel Prize will change development work, by putting an emphasis on actual impact. I’ve been doing literacy and education work for fourteen years and I regretfully disagree. Any impact will be minor.

The more optimistic predictions rest on two assumptions: First, that not enough is known about what works and so more data will make a big difference. Second, that the big players – U.N. agencies, government sources such as USAID, and international charities – are primarily motivated by a desire to promote meaningful development. Here’s what the evidence says about these two assumptions: They are both wrong.

  • Since 9/11, USAID has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to print textbooks for Pakistani schoolchildren. Pakistan in 2015 could well be different from Kenya in 1995; more textbooks may be worth a try. But not if USAID isn’t paying attention. But the Institute for War & Peace Reporting found in one case that textbooks on which USAID had spent $90 million were riddled with errors, and were written at such a high level that even the teachers couldn’t understand them. Another researcher found that most Pakistani schoolchildren cannot read, and textbooks were often in a language they did not speak anyway, and thus were pointless. Did USAID’s evaluations find differently? I can find no evidence that USAID evaluated its textbook programs at all.
  • This headline sounds encouraging: “UNESCO study shows effectiveness of mobile phones in promoting reading and literacy in developing countries.” The Unesco press release claims a “revolution in reading” in seven countries. Time magazine and others ran the good-news story. But it was fake news. The study did not even attempt to figure out if mobile phones increase literacy, and a year later, Unesco quietly admitted that “clear evidence is lacking” for such a claim. Why was Unesco so eager make unwarranted assertions? Here’s one guess: Unesco seeks corporate partners to benefit “from a strong image transfer by associating yourself with a reputable international brand and a prestigious UN agency.” Nokia, the cellphone company, funded Unesco to carry out this study and publish the report.
  • Toms Shoes created a much-copied marketing campaign: Buy a pair of Toms shoes, and the company would give a pair to “a child in need.” Toms suggested that this would make once-barefoot children healthier, better schooled, and more independent, and commissioned an independent study to prove this. But the study found that 99.8% of the children who got a free pair of shoes already had shoes, and the free pair did not make them healthier or better schooled. It did, however, make them feel more dependent on external aid. Toms Shoes doesn’t tell customers about this study. It continues giving away free shoes, claiming that recipients will become healthier, better schooled, and more independent.

A lack of evidence was not the issue in these cases. Evidence was unwanted, or data got in the way and so it was ignored, because the agency involved was never data-driven; it was funding-driven. Large institutions routinely prioritize bigger budgets and self-perpetuation ahead of their stated goals. That doesn’t change simply because they’re doing development work. It may help to have more information about what works; some people will put that to good use. But foreign aid primarily seeks to benefit those who are calling the shots. Effective altruism doesn’t change that.


USAID: “Afghanistan: New Textbooks Baffle Teachers.” Feb. 13, 2013. Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

USAID, Second report: Why Can’t Pakistani Children Read? by Nadia Naviwala. July 2019, The Wilson Center.

Unesco press release: “UNESCO study shows effectiveness of mobile phones in promoting reading and literacy in developing countries,” undated.

Unesco reports: Reading in the Mobile Era, 2014, Unesco.

Unesco acknowledges that “clear evidence is lacking of [cell phones’] impact on improving literacy skills,” in Education for All 2000-2015 Achievements and Challenges, 2015, Unesco.

Toms Shoes: There were 2 reports, both can be downloaded from Bruce Wydick USFCA Research.

Top photo: Ugandan youngsters display free backpacks that USAID gave to them. Passing out free goods creates warm feelings and happy photographs… and advertising for USAID, which puts many photos like this online. But Ugandans have for centuries been capable of carrying things for themselves without help from USAID. Why does the agency spend its budget trying to suggest they can no longer do so?

The author: Sasha Alyson has been active in literacy work in Southeast Asia since 2006. He writes about how development projects frequently undermine the countries they claim to help.

Related stories

Other stories of interest