Mimicry: How to make schools look good, even as they get worse

by Sasha Alyson

One species of butterfly has evolved to look like a dried leaf. That can save its life, if a hungry bird is nearby. Mimicry also explains why disastrously bad schools can survive, and even thrive.

Look at virtually any report of aid industry involvement in education and you’ll find a striking emphasis on all the wrong numbers. Here’s a typical example, from Angola’s 2018 Child Friendly Schools (CFS) project, supported by Unicef:

“[CFS]… provided trainings in 10 selected schools on school leadership, child-centered teaching and strengthening of school committees. A total of 28 national trainers, 247 teachers and 109 school committee members participated in these trainings. The overall total of 13,299 children, who attend these schools, will ultimately benefit from the new knowledge and skills of their teachers.”(1)

In fact, no one actually knows if thousands of children will benefit from this, or if no child at all will benefit. The only sure thing is that nobody will try to find out. They’ve already announced 13,299 future beneficiaries, now they can seek funding for the next project.

Because it is effective in the right circumstances, teacher training is also popular for another purpose: to rake in donor money. Lant Pritchett, in The Rebirth of Education, tells of an event in Indonesia:

A three-day training was announced. It started with an evening session, then one day of training, then everybody went home after a single session the next morning. They got three days of per-diem payments plus reimbursement for two hotel nights. The reimbursement was another profit center, because the hotel gave them a receipt for more than they paid, with the hotel and teachers splitting the difference. Some teachers signed in for two or three colleagues, who collected their payments but never showed up.(2)

This wasn’t a teacher-training workshop. It was a money-printing workshop, disguised as teacher training because donors won’t fund an obvious money-printing workshop.

Pritchett explains the appeal: “Organizations need legitimacy. When organizations have a difficult time establishing legitimacy, they may resort to simply looking like other, successful organizations.” You copy the superficial form, and casual observers assume that you’ve also copied what’s important.

The aid industry encourages this. It tries to export a system of public schooling which doesn’t work well even in the countries where it evolved, into settings that have none of the infrastructure to support it. According to the World Bank, the number of qualified teachers in Niger is precisely zero. So why do the World Bank, the U.N., and the government insist that all children should attend school?(3)

A classroom of 30 children, all the same age despite greatly varying interests and abilities, all facing the teacher, regularly tested on how much they have memorized…. this is not the system Kenyans, for example, would have chosen for themselves. In fact, Jomo Kenyatta describes what did evolve there prior to British colonization:

“Education begins at the time of birth and ends with death…. There is no special school building…. The homestead is the school…. [Soon after infancy,] the parents take an almost equal responsibility, and a system of co-education is introduced in the form of children’s games.”(4)

Britain imposed colonial forms of schooling because it needed submissive clerks, foot soldiers, and subjects for its empire. It did not work for the people of Kenya then, and it still does not.

Mimicry happens at all levels of schooling. At a U.N.-sponsored conference, a vice-president of the African Development Bank commented that: “The allure of something called a university, but which is not near an institution of higher learning, is taking over in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Many graduates have no skills, and no jobs. A U.N. official suggested a tragi-comic solution: Require civil servants to have a university degree. Then nobody could complain that a university degree didn’t get them a job.(5)

Mimicry can arise in many situations. But it becomes far worse in countries where foreign aid rewards the government for counting all the wrong things.

Notes and Sources

1. Angola: Formative Evalation Report, GESAWORLD S.A., February 2018. Consultancy Services for the Formative Evaluation of Unicef Angola Country Programme, (2015-2019). UNICEF. (Clicking the above link will cause the report to download directly.)

2. The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain’t Learning, by Lant Pritchett. Brookings Institution Press, Baltimore, 2013. Pritchett uses the term isomorphic mimicry for this.

3. Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times: “The World Bank found that only 0.3 percent of teachers in Mozambique have the minimum knowledge needed to teach, along with 0.1 percent of teachers in Madagascar. In Niger, it’s just plain 0 percent.” I doubt that either Kristof or the World Bank has checked the credentials of every single teacher in Niger, and they would not make this type of sweeping claim of complete incompetence about wealthier countries. The question right here, however, is: Why does Kristof, along with the others, want to push children into schools filled with teachers they think are no good?

4. Facing Mount Kenya, by Jomo Kenyatta, 1938. His “System of Education” (Chapter 5) starts on page 95 of the 1965 Vintage Books edition.

5. “Dilapidated universities must be fixed, say officials,” by Wachira Kigotho, University World News, 14 November 2014.

Top photo: Butterfly mimicry by Vinayaraj (Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA-4.0)

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