Gender parity: Who’s pointing fingers?

[This is a revised version of the original story; an explanation appears at the end.]

by Sasha Alyson

U.N. agencies and international NGOs have made “girls’ education” a mantra. They lose no opportunity to tell us this must be a top priority, especially for developing countries:

► The United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative “strives to promote girls’ education and gender equality through policy advocacy and support to Governments and other development actors.” It has no Boys’ Education Initiative.

► UNICEF states that “Despite evidence demonstrating how central girls’ education is to development, gender disparities in education persist.”

► World Vision, a leading global charity, points a finger: “Nine of the top 10 most difficult nations for girls to be educated are in sub-Saharan Africa.”

► The most recent annual report from Save the Children tells about six projects and initiatives they’ve undertaken to benefit girls; none for boys.

► Another charity, Room to Read, describes itself as “a leading nonprofit for children’s literacy and girls’ education across Asia and Africa.”

► The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) felt compelled to develop a “new interactive data tool” called Left Behind – Girls’ Education in Africa.

► “Millions Of Girls Are Out Of School Globally,” announces Plan International. Your donation will help them fix that.

But… where are the inequalities greatest? By one key measure, that would be Northern America, Europe, and Oceania (where almost three-quarters of the population lives in Australia or New Zealand). And actually, it’s boys who are most disadvantaged. Sub-Saharan Africa comes closest of any region to having gender parity.(1)


These giant agencies can’t all be lying, can they?

No, that would be risky. Instead, they mislead. When they actually present data rather than vague insinuations, the aid industry is talking about school enrollment. Boys are more likely to be enrolled in school than girls.(2)

But there’s no point enrolling in school if you don’t learn anything. To measure learning, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics calculates the percentage of children who reach “Minimum Proficiency Levels.” On that, boys are far behind girls in the Western world.

In the chart at the top of this story, the longest line (biggest gender gap) for this indicator is Northern America and Europe. The shortest line is sub-Saharan Africa.

This, as explained below, is also an imperfect measure. But at least it’s about learning. If combined with other indicators about learning, we might have a useful overall picture of how much children are learning. But the U.N. and aid agencies keep the focus on enrollment.

What’s that about? The people running the show have many reasons keep the focus on getting girls into school, rather than on whether children are learning.

First, they’ve spent a quarter-century training donors in a Pavlovian groupthink: Girls are short-changed. Girls’ education is the key to development. And Africans won’t do it unless we make them. You’ve got to give us money to fix it! Calling for “girls’ education” brings in the dollars; it would be suicidal to change it.

Second, the aid business is largely run by women, and it’s safe to assume that virtually every one of them has faced gender discrimination. But that doesn’t justify what we have now: A monoculture in which anyone who suggested that perhaps boys should not be disadvantaged would be thrown out of the club.

Third, to address inequities in learning would mean criticizing the Western countries. But bullies don’t go after people bigger than themselves. Grandstand about how terrible African countries are to their girls; show your virtue by talking about girls’ education, and donors will reward you with money, praise, and awards. The West pays most of your salaries. Don’t annoy them.

Fourth, they cannot allow the world to focus on how education quality has plummeted in the quarter-century during which the aid industry was setting priorities. It will be fairly easy to keep making enrollment numbers increase, as long as you accept dicey numbers. Quality is much harder. I would argue that it is impossible for global agencies to really improve education quality, because the more they insert themselves into the process, and thus reduce local control and accountability, the more the whole system gets distracted by chasing the money, and trying to produce metrics that please the donors.

Finally, “We support girls’ education!” provides the aid industry with a moral justification for its endless meddling in the affairs of other countries. Africans may have it figured out, but Africans don’t get much voice in the matter. The aid industry gets money, stature, and influence from the West; that’s who it seeks to impress.


Let’s not lose sight of the big picture, however. By one measure, gender parity is better in sub-Saharan Africa than in the West. Unfortunately, that often means girls and boys alike learn little or nothing. That’s another issue, and a never-ending stream of new projects from the aid industry is a big part of the problem. Several stories on this site look at how foreign aid has made education worse.

Correction and update

In its original version, this story showed the following map at the top of the page:

The map was accurately drawn from data published by UNESCO. But it is misleading to compare countries on the basis of this data alone, and I was mistaken to suggest doing so. The easiest way to understand this is with an example.

Suppose five schools each claim to be the best.

School A: Our schools have the highest percentage of students who excel on the standardized reading and math tests.

School B: Yes, because you give extra resources to the best students, and ignore the weakest. We try to help ALL students. We have the highest percentage who achieve the minimum proficiency levels.

School C: You both measure only reading and math. We encourage students to develop their talents in arts and music, to enjoy sports, to stay fit, to learn problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, to cooperate with others, to not give up when things go wrong, to take initiative. Measure all those things, and we’re the best.

School D: Schools must prepare children to find a good job. Our graduates have the highest average incomes.

School E: Yes, and half of them are corporate lawyers who hate their jobs. Follow-up interviews show that our graduates are the happiest in their adult lives.

We can objectively say one mountain is tallest, but there’s no objective way to say which school is best, or worst, or which country has the highest or lowest gender parity. It all depends on what you choose to compare, and a good comparison should combine a number of criteria. There are further problems with this data and with the gender-parity index, which I’ve explained in The Rabbit Hole of UNESCO Statistics. (Spoiler alert: UNESCO has far less good data than it would like us to believe. Did you notice that Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania don’t appear in the above graph? There’s a story there.)

This does not affect the main point of the story, which is that Western countries have no business using “girls’ education” as a moralizing excuse for pushing their policies and priorities onto the rest of the world. These policies have made education worse by creating school systems that are bad for most children, and particularly for boys. Boys are already disadvantaged in Western school systems. Those countries should fix that problem at home, rather than trying to export it.

Notes and Sources

1. Data for the chart is drawn from More Than One-Half of Children and Adolescents Are Not Learning Worldwide, UNESCO , and UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Fact Sheet No. 46, September 2017 (UIS/FS/2017/ED/46). UNESCO gives four datapoints for each region; I took the average by which each datapoint exceeded gender parity. (Details are at Gender-Parity Chart – Source Data.)

2. The aid industry endlessly jumbles four terms as if they were the same: Access to education; enrollment; attendance; and education. They are all very different. Living close to a school where teachers show up only half the time and children learn nothing is not true “access to education.” Enrollment data, which is easiest to count and produces the biggest numbers, is often presented as if it represents attendance, but attendance in some countries is only 50-80% of enrollment. To make matters worse, enrollment numbers from remote schools are regularly found to be outright lies. Finally, you can be educated without attending school; you can attend school without being educated. Fogging the facts is always a smart strategy if the facts make you look bad. The tobacco and soft-drink industries have known this for decades.

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