Schools in the global South are getting worse. We need to ask why.

UNESCO Report, Fact Sheet No. 46, headline: "More Than One-Half of Children and Adolescents Are Not Learning Worldwide"

by Sasha Alyson
First posted 19 Feb. 2020
Most recent update: 17 Jan. 2022

UNICEF in 2020 announced a “global learning crisis.”(1) UNESCO has also sounded the alarm: “More than one-half of children and adolescents are not learning worldwide.”(2)

Yet a mere five years earlier, the U.N. claimed unprecedented success for its Millennium Development Goals, which included Education, because more children than ever before were in school. Advocates such as Bill Gates used this as clear evidence that development aid was working.(3) So what happened?

The quick answer is that in 2015, the U.N. needed to show great success for its original development goals (2000-2015) because it was seeking approval for another fifteen years of U.N.-led development policy. The U.N. “Education” goal measured only school enrollment, not whether children learned anything. There were loud voices protesting that school quality was getting worse, but the U.N. ignored them.(4)

Those protests were right. While the U.N. promoted enrollment, overwhelming evidence shows a frightening drop in the quality of schools.(5)

  • Kenya, 2008: “The proportion of semi-literate or illiterate women after 6 years of schooling has worsened in recent years: In 2003, 24 percent were in this situation, compared with 39 percent in 2008.” (Food for Education report, U.S. Department of Agriculture)
  • Nigeria, 2010: Education quality “from the primary up to the tertiary levels has significantly fallen. The products of primary schools are unable to write their own names.” (Canadian Social Science)
  • Thailand, 2012: “Although the proportion of children attending school has grown over the past decade, the quality of their education has deteriorated.” (The Economist)
  • Madagascar, 2013: Three assessments were done for grade 5 students, in 1998, 2005, and 2012. For French, scores fell from 42.6 to 31.4 to 26.8. In math, they fell from 59.1 to 51.3 to 40.0. (World Bank)
  • India, 2014: “More Children Are Going to School in India, but They’re Learning Less.” (Time magazine)
  • Globally, 2015, of the UN development goals: “If the challenge was to provide a minimum standard of education for all, what looks like an enormous improvement too often amounted to a stunning failure.” (New York Times)
  • Globally, 2017: “The Education for All initiative greatly increased enrolments but gave rise in some countries to a generation of schooled illiterates.” (World Bank education specialist)
  • Globally, 2021: UNESCO reports: “Almost half of all 20- to 24-year-olds who had completed lower secondary school in 18 low- and lower-middle-income countries could not read a simple sentence.”
  • Globally, 2021: In 32 lower-income countries where the Global Partnership for Education works, “three out of every five students cannot read by the end of primary school.”

These reports reveal only a piece of the crisis. They focus on literacy, and sometimes math, as the standard measures of education quality. Yet even in these subjects, which receive the greatest effort, actual learning plummeted. What about history, geography, health, and science? No one reports how many high school graduates are unable find any country except their own on a world map, and perhaps not even that.

An even bigger concern is that children also need to develop critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills. They need to work well with others, and also take initiative and act independently when appropriate. They should learn to manage their emotions, and their time. Let’s give them space to enjoy the arts and physical activity, too. Will children learn those things by sitting in a rote-based classroom, bored to death, as the teacher tells them what to remember for the test, then assigns two hours of homework as a false solution to the problem that they learn nothing in school?(6)

Finally, let’s stop ignoring another thing: In the 144 countries where UNICEF works, every report I’ve seen depicts mind-deadening, rote public schooling.(7) This is the precise opposite of what children need if they are to thrive. For many children, it is psychological torture. Others tolerate it, and learn a bit, but could positively flourish in a setting that encouraged activity, curiosity, passion, experimentation, peer-help, and much else. Even as it fails to develop their abilities, rote schooling makes hundreds of millions of children miserable, with no benefit at all to them. Enrollment numbers ignore this. The joys of childhood become collateral damage in the U.N.’s focus on filling the schools.

U.N. agencies and international NGOs are finally admitting the dismal state of public schooling in the countries where they pushed their policies for thirty years. But they carefully avoid any genuine discussion of why these schools have gotten worse.

There’s a good reason for that. When it announces a “global learning crisis,” the U.N. can call urgently for money to combat the problem, as if this were another unpredictable earthquake or flood. But once we address the question of why schools have gotten worse, the evidence points right back to the U.N. and the aid industry as the major cause of this decline.(8)

There’s not space here to fully examine all the dynamics of how aid money and policies have hurt; other stories on this site, listed below, do that. Here are two highlights.

Donor priority. U.N. agencies and INGOs are funded by donors, and their top priority is to satisfy those donors. It’s easy to build schools and push children into them. It’s not so easy to ensure that students learn something. Local officials can see that this isn’t working, but the aid industry offers personal enticements – ranging from phones to consulting fees to “fact-finding” travel – to follow priorities set from abroad. (see Bribes)

Churn. Donors also want something new. The constant churn of new, short-lived programs leaves no time for local teachers and officials, who understand of local conditions, to try out their own ideas. The aid industry has its own ideas, and the money to push through its priorities. In 2019, announcing the “crisis”, UNICEF also put forward its Education Strategy for 2019-2030.(1) Scattered throughout these 64 pages are 57 “priorities” which UNICEF intends to push, including more data collection, more UNICEF education staff, and more tech-based classroom innovations.

School quality in the South is being controlled from afar. No doubt those calling the shots do want better lives for the world’s poorest children, but at the same time, they do not want their own children to compete on a level field against a generation of Vietnamese who are equally smart and work twice as hard. These mixed motivations arrive under the name of “aid,” but the big decisions and priorities are made by the former colonizers, with disastrous consequences for what are, in effect, still the colonies. It remains a colonial relationship, with a veneer of good karma.

Sources and Notes

1. Every Child Learns: UNICEF Education Strategy 2019–2030, UNICEF, 2019

2. More Than One-Half of Children and Adolescents Are Not Learning Worldwide, UNESCO, 2017. Like much that comes out of UNESCO, this headline warps the data to fit the message they want to send. UNESCO concluded that too many children were failing to meeting “minimum proficiency levels” in reading and math, so it categorized them as “not learning.” These are two different things. UNESCO also assumed that every child not in school fell into the “not learning” category. In fact, some are working, often in a family business. They are learning a job skill, plus life skills such as initiative, problem-solving, working with others, and resilience, which are destroyed in the mind-deadening atmosphere of many schools. And many learn to read. In its 2021 GEM Report, UNESCO says of countries with data: “3 in 10 of all young adults who have not been to school — and as many as 1 in 2 in Indonesia and Myanmar — could read.”

3. In a special issue of Time magazine (15 January 2018) titled “The Optimists,” Gates presents a litany of good news, such as: “More than 90% of all children in the world attend primary school.” But it’s not good news if they are miserable, learn nothing, and could have learned much more outside of school. Gates dropped out of Harvard, started Microsoft, and became a billionaire, so why does he assume that for everyone else, more years of schooling is equivalent to more education and is always a good thing?

4. The 2007 World Bank Global Monitoring Report called attention to the issue of poor school quality, and recommended internationally benchmarked tests to measure what students had learned at the end of primary school so that trends would be visible. It didn’t happen; the U.N. did not adjust its misguided goal. “More in School, But Not Learning Enough,” by Mattias Creffier, Inter Press Service News Agency, 11 May, 2007.

5. Sources for school quality reports:
Kenya, 2008: “FY 2016 Food Assistance Proposal Guidance and Request for Applications,” McGovern Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, 2015, USDA.
Nigeria, 2010: “Major Causes of Declining Quality of Education in Nigeria from Administrative Perspective,” by E. Arong and M.A. Ogbadu, Canadian Social Science, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2010. To download, click here: Declining Education Quality in Nigeria.
Thailand, 2012: “Education in Thailand: Let them eat tablets.The Economist, 16 June 2012
Madagascar, 2013: World Bank Emergency Project Paper, Report No: 75051-MG. 1 March, 2013. To download, click here: World Bank Madagascar Report 2013
India, 2014: “More Children Are Going to School in India, but They’re Learning Less.Time magazine, 8 July 2014
Globally, of the UN development goals, 2015: “More in School, but Not Learning.” Eduardo Porter, The New York Times, 15 May 2015
Globally, 2017: “Turning a molehill into a mountain? How reading curricula are failing the poor worldwide,” Helen Abadzi, Prospects journal, 27 March, 2017
Globally, 2021: GPE Results Report 2021: Final results report on GPE’s 2016-2020 strategy, Washington, Brussels, Paris, 2021, and UNESCO GEM Report: Non-state actors in education.

6. To be clear, the U.N. and aid industry never call for rote-based schooling. Just the opposite. The “child-centered classroom” is one of their mantras. But in diverse countries around the world, in circumstances entirely different from what is familiar to top U.N. officials, the U.N.’s one-size-fits-all policies made this happen. Ill-prepared school systems had no other way to deal with the increasing enrollment numbers. Further, it was easily predictable, and was often reported as it took place. If good-hearted Joe guzzles half a bottle of gin, then speeds through town while singing a song about safe driving and kills three pedestrians, he’s still a criminal.

7. Here’s an example by a graduate of Teachers College at Columbia University, who has worked extensively in Asia and Africa: “My work takes me to very different countries each time — Ghana, Nigeria, India, Malawi. These countries are very different in terms of the language spoken, food, culture everything. In the many years that I have been traveling, I have noticed a few common things. Visiting classrooms, we often see a teacher standing in front of the class and asking the children to repeat after him/her. Children dutifully repeating after the teacher, as some look outside the window curiously looking at the visitors… but the repeating doesn’t stop. Very few textbooks and children sharing the few tattered textbooks they have. I usually carry some simple text with me just to see if they can read some simple materials. Many times they are unable to. This unfortunately has become a very disturbing trend in most developing countries. Children are in school, I can often hear loud chants of children repeating after their teachers, yet when I ask them to read big bold simple texts they are unable to do so.” “Back to Basics: Tackling Low-Levels of Learning in Chichewa ,” by Radhika Iyengar, October 27, 2014. The original URL is now a dead link, but the story is still visible on the Internet Archive here: Back to Basics.

8. Often money causes the problem by attracting the wrong people. An Economist story (8 June 2017) about failing schools in India reported that public schoolteachers often earn more than ten times the median local salary, yet “half of fifth-grade pupils (ten-year-olds) cannot read a story designed for second-graders.”

Top photo: Classroom schools in Pakistan by SuSanA Secretariat (Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA-4.0)

The author: Sasha Alyson has been active in literacy and education work in Laos since 2006. He posts regularly about how aid undermines the countries it claims to help.