Does the U.N. want rote education in the global South?

by Sasha Alyson
April 2021; updated June 2022

I recently tweeted the following:

1. The richest 1% of the globe owns half the wealth.
2. They want the rest of us to believe this is the best system.
3. The UN wants all children to attend schools where they learn not to ask questions, but only to memorize the “right answer.”

It was an unusually popular tweet, but some readers challenged point #3. After all, the U.N. says it wants “quality” education.

But U.N. words are different from what it causes to happen. Here are the facts:

1. The U.N. has nurtured the assumption that enrollment in school is the same as education. For the Millennium Development Goals (the MDGs; 2000-2015), the U.N. measured its Education Goal strictly in terms of enrollment.

Within a few years many people could see that globally, school enrollment was up but quality was down. The World Bank’s Global Monitoring Report pointed it out in 2007.(1) It states that the two largest challenges include “ensuring that primary completion means completion with adequate learning.” But neither the Bank nor the U.N. followed up on that thought. The Bank claimed “early evidence” that aid-industry efforts were effective. The evidence? Nothing at all about actual learning, it was all about inputs and money: enrollment, repetition rates, budget levels, spending on textbooks, maintenance, donor harmonization, reporting arrangements, and aid efficiency. Everything except the actual impact of all this activity.

In 2015 the U.N. announced great success for the MDGs. Because enrollments had increased in developing regions, it declared that education was improving. This report was essentially an advertising brochure, to win approval for the next plan: 15 years of U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

In short, the U.N. told leaders in developing countries: You’re doing a great job getting more children to enroll in school, and that means better education for them. Keep up the good work. We’re proud of you.(2)

The new SDG targets (recently rebranded as the Global Goals) refer to “quality education.” But they have 169 targets. This offers carte blanche for NGOs and the U.N. to address whichever targets they want to, as a “U.N. mandate,” while ignoring the rest. They do not know how to improve quality. They do know how to push for higher enrollment, spend donor money, compile data, have “partnership” meetings, and publish reports. That’s what they continue to do.

UNICEF’s 2019 Annual Report claimed five “notable [education] successes in 2019.” Four have nothing to do with whether children are learning more. The fifth says, “48 per cent of countries had effective systems to improve learning outcomes, compared with 35 per cent in 2018.” That’s just more talk. UNICEF doesn’t even say whether it believes that learning outcomes did improve, nor offer any evidence that these systems are actually “effective.” It seems likely that many of these “systems” were standardized tests, which can easily stifle efforts at well-rounded education, and often just result in a lot of cheating.

A few years later, it is clear this was all talk. The U.N. agencies now admit that learning levels have stagnated or dropped since 2015, with 70% of 10-year-olds in middle- and lower-income countries unable to read and understand a simple sentence. This is what three decades of U.N. policies have brought us.

2. The evidence strongly indicates that even as enrollments go up under U.N. goals, school quality in developing regions is getting worse. I’d like to back that up with comprehensive data… but I can’t find comprehensive data about it. The people running the show – that includes the U.N. agencies, other NGOs, and each country’s education officials – aren’t collecting data that would allow us to see broad trends in school quality. Why not? If education was improving on their watch, wouldn’t they want us to know? I’ve presented strong evidence of a worsening trend in this story.

Furthermore, what limited data we have is usually about reading scores, sometimes about math. These are the focus in most schools, because failure in reading or math is so glaring. But that’s only a small portion of the dimensions in which we want children to develop. We also want them to enjoy reading, as opposed to merely having the capability to do it; to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills; to be able to envision goals and work toward them; to develop interpersonal skills; to have opportunities to explore something (playing guitar, dance, writing, …) that fascinates them; and much more. Where schools and teachers are pressured to improve reading and math scores, but the infrastructure and resources and approach are all wrong, those two subjects consume more and more time, and others get crowded out

3. The U.N. does not tell schools to use rote methods, but that is the impact of U.N. actions. The U.N. talks about “child-centered education.” Then it pushes to require all children, especially girls, to attend school, in countries where few people have any concept of what education could be other than a teacher and a blackboard, telling children what to memorize for the test. The inevitable result is that learning gets forgotten; those in charge are busy figuring out where to put 22 more desks. Learning actually declines, because to the extent they’ve accepted the U.N.’s message, many people have come to believe that as long as children trudge off to school every day, the education box can be checked off. The U.N. and other aid agencies continue to feed this belief.

“More in School, but Not Learning,” as a New York Times story put it,(3) was the predictable result of the U.N.’s policy. It is equally predictable that adding the word “quality” to the 169 U.N. targets isn’t going to fix this.

4. The U.N. refuses to ask the essential questions. In the past few years, U.N. agencies and others have repeatedly warned of a “crisis” in education.(4) They’re the ones who, for more than a quarter-century, have increasingly shaped these school systems. Yet they take it as a given that improvements will happen only if they figure out what to do, and take charge. They don’t address the question, “Is education quality declining?” because that would lead to the awkward question, Why? And they refuse to address the big question: Is the U.N.’s top-down, one-size-fits-all approach, focused on expanding a colonial-era style of schooling that was set up to benefit the colonial powers, entirely the wrong way to improve education?

I think the answer is obvious: Yes, it’s the wrong approach. Others may disagree. But the question must be asked?

If you think education means that children enjoy their childhood as they challenge their brains and bodies and prepare for adulthood, then there is simply no evidence that the U.N.’s “we know best” approach is anything but a complete failure. Again and again, to prove “success,” the U.N. and global agencies pull out enrollment numbers, gender ratios, training workshop attendance figures, textbook budgets, new-construction budgets, and teacher-certification numbers – all the things that don’t matter, unless they actually lead to the result we want.

I could end the story here had I written that the UN “pushes” for children to attend rote-based schools. But I said that it “wants” them to do so, and that word merits a closer look. Want is a tricky word. I want to finish off that extra-large bag of potato chips. On the other hand, I know it’s not good for me, so I don’t want to. Or, in any case, I want to not want to.

In this case, crunch, crunch. The bag is empty. Did I want to eat them? My instincts were crying out for the salt, the fat, the crunch. Yes, Frito-Lay knew how to manipulate my instincts, but at the same time, while my intellect urged restraint, I did want to eat them.

By the same token, the U.N. says all the right things about quality education. But just as my instincts want the salt, the fat, and the crunch, the United Nations is driven by powerful forces which want education in developing countries to remain weak. Here are three of those forces:

Donor interests. U.N. activities are largely funded by Western money. The donors either like the status quo, or wish to shape it to their benefit. A generation from now they do not want their own children to compete on a level playing field with well-educated Pakistanis and Ugandans who are seeking jobs, starting businesses, and controlling their own governments.
Staff self-interest. U.N. staff members are not trying to work themselves out of a well-paying job. Even someone who will retire next month, with a nice pension, is surrounded by friends and colleagues who depend on U.N. jobs continuing indefinitely. That creates powerful peer pressure to go through the right motions, but never fix the underlying problems.
Institutional self-interest. The instincts of every large institution push for self-preservation. That’s why whistle-blowers at big institutions – whether the U.N., or the Catholic Church — face fierce resistance.(5) Institutions are driven to grow, to broaden their fiefdoms. The U.N. had 8 development goals and 21 targets for 2000-2015. For 2015-2030, that grew to 17 goals and 169 targets. The U.N. does not want children in the former colonies to develop a habit of asking awkward questions and thinking for themselves. It does not want them to develop the initiative and self-confidence to become adults who one day say, “You’ve worn out your welcome. Go home.”

Notes and Sources

Top photo: Students in India taking an exam. Throughout much of the world, richer and poorer countries alike, education has come to mean teaching for the test. © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA.

  1. World Bank Global Monitoring Report 2007
  2. Not only is enrollment the wrong way to measure learning, it doesn’t even tell us much about attendance. Many reports suggest that enrollment figures are inflated, because that offers an easy way to look successful. In other cases, the numbers are correct. Children do enroll. But they rarely attend.
  3. “More in School, but Not Learning,” by Eduardo Porter, The New York Times, 12 May 2015.
  4. A UNICEF report in January 2020, before school closings caused by the pandemic, announced a “learning crisis” and stated: “An estimated 53% of children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read proficiently by age 10. Even so, solid progress on getting children into school has been made. The near universalization of primary schooling is one of the great global achievements of the past 50 years.” If they’re not learning, why is this a great achievement? Well, because the U.N. needs to claim an achievement, and that’s the best it can do. The focus of this report is to plead for more money so that UNICEF can address the crisis. And in 2022, UNICEF raised this estimate from 53% to 57%.
  5. Rasna Warah, herself a U.N. whistleblower, documents this in her book Unsilenced. Also see: “Dodging Accountability at the United Nations,” by the Editorial Board, The New York Times, 22 Aug., 2016.

2 thoughts on “Does the U.N. want rote education in the global South?

  1. ‘Rote education’ is a major problem in Nepal also. Quality education cannot be achieved unless the ‘Rote education’ is rooted out. Do UNESCO, World Bank Education, and other donor agencies have any guideline to improve quality of education?

    • These agencies have plenty of guidelines, reports, not to mention workshops and new projects. The point is, while they want to project an image of promoting quality education, (1) they don’t know how to; (2) they have a track record of producing the opposite impact; (3) it’s not in their actual interests for Nepal to have a population that asks difficult questions, feels able to run its own affairs without UN assistance, and so on.

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