Masters of Deceit

by Sasha Alyson

Girls’ education has become big business among international charities, and a major source of revenue.

But it’s different from business in one way. If you’re selling food, medicine, or cars, many countries place limits on how much you can deceive consumers. If you’re selling girls’ education, the sky’s the limit. Here are three claims made by leading aid organizations.

Girls are 3X more likely to be out of school.” Save the Children

Save the Children asks for your donation so they can fix this problem. But the number is flat-out wrong. Boys and girls are out of school at roughly equal rates, worldwide. (According to U.N. data, 1-2% more boys are out of school.)

This is quite a blooper for the charity which bills itself as “the world’s leading expert on childhood.” For the other misleading claims, I can at least figure out where the numbers came from. Here, I cannot imagine. Yet the statement has been posted for at least 9 months.

For girls in some parts of the world, education opportunities can be especially limited. Only 66 per cent of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education.” –Unicef

You might assume that in the other 34% of countries, girls are less likely to be enrolled. No, in most of them, it’s boys who are less likely.(1)

In a similar vein, as evidence of the limited opportunities for girls, Unicef says that “132 million girls are out of school.” It doesn’t mention that roughly the same number of boys are out of school.

One additional school year can increase a woman’s earnings by 10% to 20%.”Global Partnership for Education

This factoid has circled the globe quite a few times. Whenever a source is given, it always derives from a 2002 World Bank report titled “Returns to Investment in Education.”(2) CARE, Unicef, World Vision and many others repeat the claim, usually with no source. I suspect they don’t know or care where the numbers come from, they just copy one another.

The World Bank report is nearly 20 years old, but that’s the least of our problems here. First, as the title says, it’s about returns to investment, not wage increases. And it didn’t use fresh data; it examined previous studies, drawing on data going back to the 1960s; the median year was 1986. Many of the individuals whose childhood education was studied are now retired. And they lived in all parts of the world, from the U.S. and Norway to Kenya and Indonesia. And the authors acknowledge that the data wasn’t a good sampling of the populations. It relied heavily on large employer surveys, so urban dwellers and workers in large companies are over-represented. Entrepreneurs, who often drop out of school and start a successful business, are under-represented.

But even good data from, for example, Kenya in 1986, would tell us nothing about the impact of attending school in Kenya today. School quality has changed enormously, arguably for the worse. Back then, far fewer children went to school; and they probably attended because there was a benefit. Today their government, following advice from the U.N., requires them to attend regardless of whether they learn anything. A graduation certificate meant something to employers in 1986. Today, nearly everybody has a school certificate. It may be a source of pride, but it doesn’t mean they’re employable.

I asked a co-author of the 2002 World Bank report if the GPE claim seemed like a reasonable interpretation of his findings. He didn’t answer the question; he merely suggested that “[t]here could have been a regrouping of the data to make a claim. I don’t know. Or a subset of countries?” It sounds to me like he didn’t consider it a legitimate claim but – he was still at the World Bank – didn’t want to offend colleagues in the aid industry. And so they continue to parrot whatever sounds good. This is groupthink in action.

One final question: If school brings such clear benefits, why can’t all these agencies find honest evidence of that?

Enrollment is the wrong priority. Disastrously wrong.

I’ve discussed enrollment numbers here because that’s what the aid industry chooses to focus on. Yet even after making the rules, they’ve set out to deceive the world. And if we look at anything else, the picture gets even worse.

The U.N. and big NGOs treat schooling and education as if they were the same thing, then they pull a bait-and-switch and give us enrollment instead. Let’s look at the enormous gap between enrollment, versus what children actually need if they are to thrive.

1. Enrollment data is junk. Usually when we see reports of how many children are in school, we’re seeing enrollment figures. These are the easiest to collect, and also the easiest to fabricate.(3) Even when numbers are not pulled from thin air, they are inaccurate. Incredibly, students who attend religious schools, in which they learn both academic subjects as well as religion, are listed as “not in school.” At the opposite extreme, UNESCO explains that “if a child is recorded as having enrolled in a school but never actually attends… he or she still typically is captured as having participated.”(4) Look at any enrollment number and you can be pretty sure it’s misleading, but you won’t know in which direction.

2. Enrollment isn’t attendance. In developing regions, reports typically show that attendance averages about 70-90% of enrollment. Even that may be inflated. One careful school observer in Pakistan found that “[t]he register shows 34 students in grades three, four, and five, but we see only 18. Of 10 students officially enrolled in 5th grade, only two are present.”(5)

3. Sitting in a schoolroom doesn’t mean you’re learning. Maybe you already knew that. Unicef even highlights it: “Schooling does not always lead to learning. Worldwide, there are more non-learners in school than out of school.” Unicef then proceeds to describe all the children that it intends to haul into these non-performing schools: poor children, ethnic minorities, rural children, and so on, as if this will fix the problem.

4. There’s more to life than reading and math. Schools worldwide focus on preparing children to pass the test, and the tests measure academic subjects, particularly reading and math. Yet this reflects only a small part of the skills children need to develop, if they are to thrive as members of a family, a community, and a society. We want them to stay physically fit and learn to enjoy sports and active pursuits; to develop their talents in the arts and music; to appreciate reading in its own right and not just to cram for a test. We want them to develop the ability to cooperate with others, to persevere when faced with an obstacle, to creatively solve problems, to communicate their ideas, to listen to others. These abilities aren’t learned by sitting in a classroom, memorizing what the teacher says will be on the test. Yet as schools, governments, and aid agencies worry about test scores, and how many teenagers still cannot read, they demand more time for school busywork and homework, rather than addressing the deeper problems.


A close look at enrollment numbers shows a clear trend: In most of the world, boys are more likely to be out of school. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is girls.

Immediately, the U.N. and big NGOs will point to this as a pressing reason why they need more funding, to increase their efforts in Africa. Before swallowing that worm, let’s look more closely.

Enrollment – I hope we agree – is the wrong thing to push. Yet for a quarter century that has been the aid industry’s focus… and it’s been disastrous. Yet it remains the focus. Unicef talks of a “global learning crisis” – but its solution is to push more children into the schools where they don’t learn anything. It’s like watching a drunk. In his lucid moments, he realizes that hitting the bottle again is a bad idea. But he can’t stop himself. The U.N. and aid industry have trained the world that getting children – especially girls – into school will solve the world’s deepest problems. It keeps the money rolling in. They’re not going to stop.

Since 2002, the Global Partnership for Education has gone through some $6 billion, trying to influence school policies in the global South, particularly Africa. GPE can tell us how many textbooks it has distributed, how many teachers trained, and how many partner countries have “sector plans” that meet “quality standards. Has all of this had any positive impact on education quality? On that, after eighteen years, GPE says “Insufficient data.”(6) Nor does the U.N., after a quarter-century of shaping policies in the global South, have actual data about whether education quality has improved. Clearly, they would rather not know.

In short: They have willfully deceived us about education for girls; and regarding overall education quality, they don’t know if they’ve made a difference and don’t want to know. Do we really want these people steering education policy, for another quarter century?


Now, what about all those falsehoods and deceits? Surely many people knew that Save the Children’s claim that “girls are 3x more likely be out of school” was wrong. Did they care? And the other claims — didn’t anyone look at them carefully?

Perhaps not. These claims are mostly seen by people who want to believe them. It’s much like Donald Trump and his supporters. They overlook his lies, incompetence, and self-dealing behavior because he says things they like to hear. The aid industry, too, gets a free pass from people who its like sound-bites, and find it more pleasant not to look too closely.

Notes and Sources

I tried to contact three organizations quoted above, asking the source of their information. Save the Children and Unicef, 10 days later, have not responded. The Global Partnership for Education pulls another deceit. Its website says: “If your question is not answered here, please email us at…” I wrote to that address, spelling out the questions I’ve raised here, and immediately got back an automated reply telling me to look at the page I had just come from. Here is the aid industry in a nutshell: Great with promises and appearances. As for substance? It doesn’t really care.

1. There are many ways to compare gender parity. Do you compare enrollment figures, or attendance, or completion? If no current data is available, how far back do you look before deciding that available numbers for a country are too old? I asked Unicef for details of this claim; ten days later they have not responded. I looked at primary school completion rates, for which data from 2013 or later is available, in the dataset from the Unesco Institute for Statistics, which maintains this information for U.N. agencies. This shows 47 countries with gender parity (between 97 and 103 girls per 100 boys), 16 countries where girls are significantly less likely to be in school, and 23 where boys are less likely. Using a more recent cut-off year does not significantly change the results. Whatever the actual number, Unicef leads us to believe that in 34% of countries, girls have fewer education opportunities. That is deceitful.

2. “Returns to Investment in Education,” by George Psacharopoulos and Harry Anthony Patrinos, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 2881, 2002. Whenever I’ve found a source is given for the “10-20% wage increases” claim, it always traces back to this report, though sometimes not directly.

3. Of fabricating enrollment: The Economist, 1 Aug. 2015, reports: “A national survey in Pakistan recently found that over 8,000 state schools did not actually exist.” Surely inventing enrollment numbers would be child’s play.

4. Both points about enrollment definitions are from “Estimation of the numbers and rates of out-of-school children and adolescents using administrative and household survey data,” by Kristi Fair. 2016. UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

5. Why Can’t Pakistani Children Read: The Inside Story of Education Reform Efforts Gone Wrong, by Nadia Naviwala. Wilson Center, Washington, 2019. Navawala also found that only 1 of the 18 students could read, although “The classroom has an LCD TV and a laptop for a distance learning program done by a celebrated ‘edtech’ or education technology social enterprise. The program was set up in these schools thanks to over $750,000 from a donor-funded education innovation fund.”

6. Results Report 2019, Global Partnership for Education, “Results at a Glance” chart on page 8.

Related stories

Leave a Reply