In his seminal 1972 book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney wrote: “Colonial schooling was education for subordination, exploitation, the creation of mental confusion, and the development of underdevelopment.” Unfortunately, this statement aptly describes the nature of education provided in many developing countries to date, as modern educational policies are heavily shaped by the United Nations (UN), which shares many traits with old-style colonialism. Just as was the case during the colonial era, the people of the Global South do not control and benefit from education policies imposed on them by West-controlled ‘international’ educational agencies.
It is common knowledge that, with regard to education, more powerful countries are running the show. For example, UNICEF, the primary UN agency that advocates inclusive and equitable quality education, operates primarily in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Yet, in its 75 years of existence, every single UNICEF director has been a white American. The newest director Catherine Russell, who took office in February 2022, was a long-time aide to President Biden. Her selection was rubber-stamped at the UN. This is not surprising considering that the UN itself is dominated by the five permanent, veto-wielding members of its Security Council: The US, China, Russia, the UK, and France. Africa, Latin America and South Asia are frozen out. As a result, the power to craft and determine education policies is exercised from afar. UNICEF is headquartered in New York. Of the 74 agencies, funds, and programs under the UN umbrella, 67 are based in the Global North, though it has only a quarter of the globe’s population.
Worst still, another grand irony is that private companies operating in the Global North are allowed to influence education policies that primarily affect countries in the Global South. For instance, UNESCO took money from Nokia, the mobile phone company, and then published a report urging schools in the South to “avoid blunt prohibitions of mobile devices.” Perhaps that was good advice, perhaps not, but UN’s advice should not be influenced by Big Tech funding.
Secondly, UN agencies seek control over what were once seen as internal affairs. To achieve effective control, modern methods of persuasion are just as effective as brute force; they are also cheaper. In this regard, the default assumption that professionals from wealthier countries, who speak with confidence, will have the answers has created a “bystander effect,” in which people in the Global South don’t try to fix problems if an international non-governmental organization (INGO) claims it has the answers. This acquiescence to a questionable assumption is rewarded by thinly disguised bribes, in the form of per diem payments, consulting fees, travel allowances, mobile phones, even vehicles are given “to help you do your job.” A steady stream of new programmes arrives, with enough money attached to get buy-in from decision-makers, who can then ensure that countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia prioritize these objectives, rather than trying to find locally grounded solutions.
Thirdly, the colonizer benefits, while the colonies are harmed. Africa is comparable to the West in terms of population. But the median age in the West is about 41 years, while it is 19.7 in Africa. That’s an enormous wave of young Africans coming of age. They could transform the continent. However, western multinational corporations in every sector from soft drinks to social media must expand their markets to get the growth that capitalism demands, and that means pushing into the Global South. Where would they be if this new generation said, “Go home, we want to develop our own markets,” and had the ability to do just that?
Ability, in this sense, comprises a wide variety of skills, including literacy and numeracy skills, at which schools are visibly failing. More crucially, it includes life skills that aren’t even in the school curriculum. These life skills, which include perseverance, analytical thinking, creativity, taking initiative, and working cooperatively, were once acquired in the home and through life experience, but ever-expanding schools, built around rote memorization and test scores, crowd out the opportunities for other forms of learning.
Children have a valuable, innate ability to learn by figuring things out. That is smothered by rote memorization. The loss is incalculable – to the child, and also to any society which faces challenges and needs people who can figure out answers, rather than expecting the solution to come from others. Instead, rote-based schooling is the most colonial lesson of all: The person with power knows the answers; your job is to accept those answers without engaging your own thinking.
Of course, UN agencies such as UNICEF do not encourage rote memorization. Quite the opposite: They talk of “child-centred” schools. What matters, however, is what happens as a result of their policies. For three decades, the primary goal of the UN has been to get more children into schools. Recently the word “quality” is sprinkled in, but that doesn’t make it happen. Classrooms fill up, and teachers use the only method they know: Telling the students what to remember for the test, which has disastrous effects on the children.
“The products of primary schools are unable to write their own names,” reported a 2010 study of “The Declining Quality of Education in Nigeria.” And since then? A later analysis found that from 2012 to 2016, where data was available, the number of second graders reading at grade level in Nigeria dropped from 25% to 10.8. I’ve used Nigeria in this example because of the availability of data on Nigeria; there’s no reason to believe it is notably better or worse than most developing countries.
“The Education for All initiative greatly increased enrolments but gave rise in some countries to a generation of schooled illiterates,” concluded a World Bank reading expert in 2017.
Interestingly, however, after more than a year of Covid-related school closings, the findings of a study conducted by an independent not-for-profit organization, Uwezo Uganda, show that seventh-graders in Uganda had acquired better literacy skills when they were out of school than when the schools had been open. Numeracy was up, too. In addition, many had learned useful new skills, such as gardening and cooking. In other words, children were performing better with the help of parents and relatives than they did at school. Is it possible that schoolchildren in the Global South are learning less at school than their older siblings did? Could schools be having a negative impact? Data is so sparse, and often too sketchy to make any conclusions. But we need to look more closely.
Most importantly, talk of benefiting the colonies is strictly for show. Despite all its talk, improving the quality of education isn’t even high on the UN priority list. Institutional growth – in short, money – gets the top spot. Here’s one example.
In 2010, MSNBC news host Lawrence O’Donnell created the KIND Fund (Kids In Need of Desks), which soon affiliated with UNICEF. Every December, he urges his viewers to donate $75, so UNICEF can give a two-child desk to a school in Malawi. Does it improve education? A desk shortage is a symptom, not the cause, of failing schools. UNICEF doesn’t even claim that this will result in more learning, but after the KIND Fund brought in $20 million, UNICEF gave O’Donnell its “Children’s Champion Award.”
Wilful blindness applies to the entire sector. An agency that truly wanted to improve education would evaluate whether its activities and programmes are yielding the expected results. UNICEF and the UN do not engage in such stocktaking. The Global Partnership for Education (GPE), a UN offshoot that funnels billions of dollars to UNICEF and others in the sector, offers data about lots of issues in its 2021 report. For example: “71% of donors increased or maintained their support.” Were children learning more or less as a result of this? On that question, after 19 years of operation, GPE said it had “insufficient data.”
Are global agencies actually conspiring to lower the quality of education in the Global South? We don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain all this. It is a simple evolutionary process.
When they decided in 1990 to focus on education, these agencies set a goal of getting more children into schools that were remnants of the colonial era. At that time, schools had to achieve basic levels of education because otherwise children wouldn’t attend. As the goal shifted to enrolment, the dynamics changed. High student enrolment was rewarded, making the numbers grow. Education quality was forgotten, and it withered.
Children and parents know this isn’t working. Teachers –those who paid attention – know better. But their opinions don’t matter. What mattered most was that the system works for Western corporations that don’t want skilled locally grown competition as they grow their markets, and for INGOs that need populations they can continue to depict as “needy.” It does not work well for any nation seeking to find and develop on its own path.