Willful Blindness at the Global Partnership for Education

They love to talk. They’re happy to write plans. But after 18 years, they don’t know if they actually got anything done. They don’t want to know.

by Sasha Alyson

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 are 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, Nov. 2019 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. August 2019 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 18 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. Oct. 2019 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, Jan. 2020 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), Dec. 2018 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. Dec. 2018 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. April 2019 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. August 2019 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 18 years, and earning fat salaries from it. They don’t want to know if it does 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 18 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.

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? Competing to get business, the agencies cheerfully awarded AAA ratings to junk. For example, 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.

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 (are you nuts?) 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.

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.

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