Do African Perspectives Matter?

Who should evaluate the Global Partnership for Education?

by Sasha Alyson
19 July 2020

The Global Fund for Education isn’t famous; it operates behind the scenes to influence education policy in some 70 “partner” countries. It’s the largest agency in the world to focus exclusively on funding – and shaping – education policy in the global South.

Some quick background. GPE, originally called the Fast Track Initiative, was launched in 2002 by various U.N. agencies. Its goal was to achieve quality “Education for All” by 2010, at which the plan was for FTI to disband. As the deadline drew near, that goal was nowhere in sight. FTI extended the deadline to 2015.

Progress remained slow, but FTI had learned a happy lesson: Donors didn’t care if FTI improved education. They didn’t care if it wasn’t “fast.” Nobody had to admit failure in 2015 and then lose their job. Funding from sources like USAID and the E.U. would flow in regardless of whether FTI actually benefited children. Connections were all that really mattered.

But some people might get snarky if the agency plodded along forever under the name “Fast Track Initiative,” so FTI was rebranded as the Global Partnership for Education.

Alice Albright, daughter of Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, was brought in as CEO. Julia Gilliard, former Australian prime minister and friend of Hillary Clinton, chaired the Board of Directors. When the Clintons re-entered the White House as everyone expected, GPE would be well served by these connections.

Alas, the 2016 election brought a surprise. They should have made Ivanka Trump the board chair. GPE has grown anyway, though more slowly than the leadership surely hoped. What has it accomplished? GPE’s 2020 “Results Report” gives two pages of highlights, with crisp numbers:(1)

• Grants achieved 107% of their target for textbook distribution
• Grants achieved 81% of their target for classroom construction
100% of grant applications identified variable part targets
75 advocacy events were undertaken
78 technical products were produced

But none of these numbers tell us about the quality of education. Were children in GPE’s “partner” countries learning more, as a result of these grants, textbooks, and products? We’ll let the report speak for itself.

The little green hyphen means insufficient data. After eighteen years, GPE cannot say whether it has made any difference in whether children are learning.(2)

And when GPE actually does produce a number (#3, above), it’s pure fluff. If GPE doesn’t know whether children learned more, then it’s meaningless to say that it “supported” them. All it knows is that it shuffled some money around and hoped for the best.

Here’s another goal with a little green hyphen instead of data:

Not only does GPE not know if it’s doing any good, it appears a lot of its “partner” countries likewise don’t know if their children are learning anything. In fact, GPE doesn’t even know how many countries are, or are not, able to assess this. And why should any of them go to so much trouble? GPE can get donor funds without knowing if it’s helping children learn. So can its partner countries. There’s one lesson everybody did learn: Don’t kill the goose while it’s laying golden eggs.

After decades of stories about corrupt and wasteful aid projects, donor countries increasingly require an independent evaluation of whatever they fund. That could be a positive step but, as they say, God is in the details. GPE’s latest evaluation was released in 2020.

Before you read on, ask yourself this question: Suppose you needed to evaluate a global organization which did most of its work in Africa, some in Asia, a bit in Latin America and eastern Europe. What would your evaluation team look like?

GPE’s evaluation was handled by MDF Training & Consultancy in the Netherlands. No surprise there. Aid money is famous for boomeranging back into the country it came from. The Netherlands is one of GPE’s top donors.

And MDF does understand about diversity. Here is MDF’s home page:

Then I looked up the seven people who conducted the GPE evaluation. Six were in the Netherlands, one in England. All appear to be white. They went to school in Western Europe. They have good jobs. Stable governments. (OK, I’m being generous about the U.K.) Sincere as they may be, I don’t believe they can fully understand the realities of life in the countries where GPE operates. And if schools stagnate for another quarter century, it won’t be their families that pay the price.

They found some positive things to say about GPE (it does a good job on meetings and planning), some obvious things (the governments to which it gave money, always liked getting that money), some not-so-good things (implementation was weak). They don’t mention that after 18 years, GPE doesn’t know whether its money and programs have had any impact on learning.

They do, on the other hand, describe a “Circle of Coherence model, which distinguishes four dimensions of interaction that need to balance for a partnership to function optimally.”

Had the evaluation team been made up of people from the countries affected, might it have skipped the Circle of Coherence, and instead asked why GPE did not know if it was actually improving education?

No guarantees. Africans are surely just as capable as the Dutch of writing bland, non-threatening reports, eager to be hired again for the next job.(3) But then we should address that problem, rather than have GPE evaluated by people who do not have the background to understand the context, and who have no skin in the game. Quite the opposite, in fact. Dutch researchers will do quite well if, 20 years from now, they can still get paid for applying the Circle of Coherence model to whatever aid agency in 2040 is trying to impose its theories on the rest of the world.

Furthermore, aid funds are supposed to benefit developing regions. Shouldn’t there be an effort to spend the money there? Local consultants and firms would have gained experience and contacts. Harder questions could have been asked.

This is not a global partnership. Those with power are deciding what is best for the others, and judging themselves on how well they make the others follow the Western model. The developing countries are “partners” in name only. They are seen as bundles of neediness without which the aid industry couldn’t exist.

I invited both GPE and MDF, as well as the team members for whom I could find email addresses, to comment; none did so. If forced to reply, they might say, “There are no firms in Africa with the ability to do this.” I doubt that, but if they think it’s true, this is why. MDF’s website says it has 35 years of experience, adding that “[we] engage and develop the capacity of locally involved players.” Really? I’d say there’s insufficient data to believe that.


1. The three reports covered in this story are: The Global Partnership for Education’s Results Report 2020, and Results Report 2019; and Independent Summative Evaluation of the Global Partnership for Education 2020, by MDF Training & Consultancy, May 2020.

2. In 2019, GPE said this hyphen meant “insufficient data.” I wrote a sharply critical story about the fact that after 18 years, GPE didn’t seem to know or care if it was having any actual impact. In 2020, they redefined the hyphen to mean “Reporting next year.” Did my story, and perhaps consequent feedback, trigger this change? There’s no way to know, but I cannot find that anyone else has called attention to the issue – and that, in itself, is quite an indictment of how little the aid industry tries to monitor itself.

3. To be truly objective, an evaluation should be done by an agency that isn’t influenced by wanting to get the next job. In the real world, that doesn’t often happen. A leading cause of the 2008 economic crisis was that rating agencies gave absurdly high ratings to junk bonds, because otherwise they wouldn’t be hired to rate the next junk that came along.