Willful Blindness at the Global Partnership for Education

by Sasha Alyson
First published 27 March, 2020
Updated 15 January, 2022

The Global Partnership for Education works closely with the World Bank and United Nations, with funding from USAID, Australia AID, and many others, to shape school policy in developing countries. GPE says all the right things. These screenshots came from its home page. (Click dots below, or arrows on left and right, to see three images.)(1)

GPE says its work is “based on data and evidence.” Sounds good! But it’s simply not true.

Let’s look. Over the years, so much “aid money” has gone into well-connected pockets, with no evidence that it benefited anyone except the owners of those pockets, that funders increasingly require outside evaluations. Here are key conclusions from some of those evaluations.(2)

TOGO, GPE member since 2009, Report:

The evaluation found good news. “Stakeholders in Togo have strengthened their capacity for education sector planning.” But did children learn more?

There is insufficient data to assess progress on learning outcomes for the full period under review (2010-2019). Where reliable data is available (2010-2014), Togo’s performance with regard to learning is weaker than that for similar countries.

CAMBODIA, GPE member since 2006. Report:

The education ministry “continued to strengthen sector planning capacity with the support of development partners.” (Translation: Officials were happy to talk, as long as they kept getting aid money.) What’s come of it?

There is insufficient data to compare changes in learning outcomes over time. Cambodian children scored low in reading, writing and mathematics in general, especially when compared to global averages.

After 20 years, the Global Partnership for Education can’t tell us if it’s made schools better, or worse, or just put money into a lot of well-connected pockets. But it did like this picture of girls marching in lockstep, which it used to announce a recent grant. What are its real goals?

MALAWI, GPE member since 2009. Report:

This writer was a diplomat… or maybe a jokester: “The primary conclusion from observation and analysis of GPE in Malawi so far is that progress is not necessarily linear….” Then:

“There is insufficient evidence to support a claim that material and strategic investments made by GPE have significantly contributed to the attainment of the objective of ensuring inclusive and quality education for all in Malawi.”

NEPAL, GPE member since 2009, Report:

“Nepal has made great strides in gender equity in education.” Did the newly-schooled girls actually benefit from this?

Learning – Weak. Learning levels, as assessed by national learning assessments (NASA) have remained stagnant through the review period.”

KENYA, GPE partner since 2005 (keep that year in mind as you read), Report:

“At the time of this report it is too early to judge (given the early stages of implementation) and there is insufficient data to be able to consider whether GPE has indirectly contributed to any meaningful change in learning outcomes.”

ETHIOPIA, GPE member since 2004. Report:

“[T]o date over US$280 million has been disbursed in grants to the country.” What’s come of it?

“There is insufficient data to be able to consider whether GPE has indirectly contributed to any meaningful change in learning outcomes and equity.”

RWANDA, GPE member since 2008. Report:

School enrollments increased, and “GPE’s contribution to improved planning… highlights the ongoing relevance and value of the GPE model….” However:

“There is insufficient data to compare changes in learning outcomes across time.”

SENEGAL, GPE member since 2006. Report:

“GPE helped improve education sector planning processes and capacities although significant concerns remain around the achievability of these plans.” As for actual results:

Overall system-level efficiency remains poor and either stagnated or deteriorated over time…. Available data on learning outcomes is inconclusive on whether learning has improved for the period under review.”

They’re happy to plan. They’ve been doing it for 20 years, and earning fat salaries from it. GPE says it has “mobilized” $11 billion. But they don’t want to know if it has done any good.

Let’s look again at the GPE website. Earlier, it talks about “quality education.” But all it measures are things like enrollment, gender equity, and high-quality planning. If students learn nothing, none of that matters.

GPE has been around since 2002. If it truly wanted data-based evidence of its impact, it would have some by now. Clearly it prefers to churn the money as everyone drafts more plans.

While looking into all this, I came across a document titled: Concept Note: Monitoring and Evaluation Strategy for a Mutual Accountability Based on Results, April 2010, issued by GPE when it was called Education For All – Fast Track Initiative.(3) This curiously muddled document explained that because everything was so complex, “a rigorous quantitative evaluation of the full impact of the FTI is not possible.”(4)

The solution? It proposed more emphasis on “advocacy, fundraising, and leadership activities,” instead of just results. In other words, let’s stop losing sleep about whether children get anything from this, what matters is that everyone feels good about us and keeps funding us. Smart idea! GPE named pop star Rihanna as its Global Ambassador.

Photo op for pop star Rihanna and Julia Gillard, former prime minister of Australia.
Rihanna in Malawi: GPE announced on its blog that “GPE Global Ambassador Rihanna called world leaders… on Twitter to prioritize education financing and GPE’s replenishment.” Did this twittering do any good for children? GPE doesn’t know. It doesn’t want to know. But it was a nice photo op for GPE Board Chair Julia Gillard (right), former prime minister of Australia.

GPE has been around for 20 years. It started with big plans. Plans are still the only thing it has. Children may have not have learned anything, but GPE did: As long as you make the donors happy, and grab some photo ops, you can forget about the children.

Update, January 2022:

I have not found further country evaluations since those quoted above, but the GPE “Results Report 2021″(5) continues to repeat the standard line: We have made great progress on school enrollment, but “challenges” remain when it comes to learning. Specifically: “Three out of five students cannot read by the end of primary school across the 32 partner countries with data available.” GPE uses this to ask for another $5 billion in funding. I’d call this proof that the present system is a disaster.

Desperate to offer some sign of progress, GPE tells us: “Learning outcomes improved in 70 percent of the 27 partner countries with data….” This sounds encouraging. But somebody studied the book How to Lie with Statistics. This is 70% of 27 partner countries with data. GPE has 76 partner countries. Only 19 (25%) of them reported better learning outcomes. The rest stagnated, got worse, or didn’t report data. And which countries do you think would be most likely to report data: Those with good news, or with bad news? The full picture appears to be quite bad but GPE’s eyes are squinched shut. GPE knows how many donor pledges came through, how many countries had good plans. But after 20 years, it has “insufficient data” to know if all that helped children learn.

Notes and sources:

1. Screenshots are from Global Partnership for Education home page, 14 March 2020. Girls marching in lockstep is from an announcement that it emailed, 26 Feb. 2020.

2. These evaluations are conducted by agencies which make a living from such work. Remember the financial crisis of 2008? A major cause was that complex financial products were evaluated by ratings agencies. But who would ask Moody’s or S&P to rate a new derivative if the agency had a reputation for being critical? Moody’s gave investment-grade ratings to both Enron and Lehman Brothers’ – just days before they went bankrupt. Likewise, the agencies that prepared these GPE evaluations had a strong incentive to find something nice to say. It wasn’t always easy. If you wish to dig deeper, a full selection is on GPE evaluation reports. These are from 2019-2021. I could not find more recent country evaluations for the early 2022 update of this page.

3. The Global Partnership for Education was known as the Education For All – Fast Track Initiative from 2002 until 2012, when it changed its name, explaining that: “We are no longer an initiative; we are a partnership with a long-term future.” It may also have been trying to preserve its funding connections, while getting getting rid of a name which had acquired a lousy reputation. Helen Abadzi, a long-time reading expert at the World Bank, wrote that “The Education for All initiative greatly increased enrolments but gave rise in some countries to a generation of schooled illiterates.” (Abadzi, “Turning a molehill into a mountain?”)

4. GPE’s 2010 paper is no longer posted on its website, but Google stored a copy. You can download it by clicking here: Concept Note: Monitoring and Evaluation Strategy for a Mutual Accountability Based on Results. Those who wish to learn more may look at the Mid-Term Evaluation of the EFA Fast Track Initiative, February 2010, which largely concludes that EFA-FTI didn’t perform very well, but could be fixed.

5. The GPE Results Report 2021 can be downloaded from this page: GPE Results 2021.

Photo: Rihanna in Malawi by Evan Rogers, from the GPE website. Used for purposes of comment and criticism under Fair Use provisions of copyright law.