It was 2011, and Robert Prouty, then head of the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Education, stood before representatives from 52 donor nations in Copenhagen. The goal: to raise $2.5 billion for the next three years of the partnership’s work, aimed at ensuring every child receives a primary education.
Heading into Copenhagen, the partnership and its forerunner, the Education for All Fast Track Initiative, had fallen short, despite spending roughly $2 billion over nearly a decade. It was hardly on track to meet its original goal of universal primary education by 2015. More importantly, even when children in developing countries were getting to school, after four years fewer than half were learning how to read.
Rather than addressing its record, however, the partnership’s chief unveiled a new, more ambitious set of promises.
With the support of donor nations, he pledged, the partnership would cut in half the number of third-graders who could not read in 20 countries within five years. It would reduce the number of children out of school by 25 million and raise primary school graduation by 7.5 percent. It would train 600,000 new teachers, and distribute 50 million textbooks. It would nearly double the partnership’s presence in conflict-ridden states by 2013.
The promises would underpin the credibility the Global Partnership for Education, or GPE, part of a broader omnibus campaign to mark the new millennium with an unprecedented commitment from the industrialized world to end the ills of underdevelopment—in health, poverty and education.
The Global Partnership, a trust fund of the World Bank, backed its ambitious goals of 2011 with a pledge to hold itself accountable, by reporting annually on progress meeting the targets listed country by country.
That has not happened. The partnership has issued many reports. But they do not address, much less measure, progress in meeting the promises as laid out in 2011.
“[T]he growth in quantity hasn’t been met by equal growth in quality,” conceded Yvonne Stassen, a member of the partnership’s board and deputy director of Social Development at the Dutch Foreign Ministry. The Netherlands is the second-biggest funder of Global Partnership after the Great Britain. “We have been overoptimistic on the goals,” Stassen said.
“Nobody talks about them anymore,” said a senior employee, who asked not to be identified because the employee was not authorized to speak to the media. “There was a feeling that they couldn’t meet the goals, or that it was not a priority.”
On Wednesday, the Global Partnership will again seek the support of the world community, with the goal of raising $3.5 billion at a major replenishment conference in Brussels. In an Op-Ed in Monday’s Washington Post, Jeffrey Sachs called on wealthy nations to support the Global Partnership as “the main world advocacy group for children who won’t learn to read, write and count unless the world steps forward to help.”
But a 100Reporters investigation of the partnership’s record has found that enrollment gains have not translated into improvements in learning outcomes or even elementary school graduation.
- The Global Partnership showed early success in reducing the number of children out of school in poor countries, but enrollment has largely stagnated since 2008. Between 2008 and 2010, children out of school in sub-Saharan Africa actually increased by 2 million.
- After four years in school, fewer than half the students in Global Partnership countries have learned how to read, write or do math, according to an independent monitoring report issued earlier this year.
- Among adolescents, the number of children not attending school has remained virtually unchanged since 2007.
- After initial gains, the share of primary school dropouts has stagnated at about 25 percent.
In addition, the partnership has disregarded its own research on the importance of uniform standards in building global literacy and on interventions that work in teaching children in poor countries to read. It appears to have abandoned the recommendation of an earlier replenishment report, that it impose a single uniform standard for success: the share of children who complete elementary school with reading and math skills. Instead, the partnership allows each country to set its targets in national Education Sector Plans, which vary widely. Some do not even include measurable goals for student achievement.
In an email, Prouty said that following the Copenhagen meeting, the partnership created a Monitoring and Evaluation unit to ensure transparency in disbursements and report on results, and has produced annual reports on its projects. Literacy was difficult to measure with any uniformity, because countries define literacy in a variety of ways, he wrote.
Alice Albright, the current director of the partnership, declined an interview request, although Charles Tapp, the communications chief, defended the Global Partnership’s record. In an email, Tapp wrote that primary school completion had risen from 58 percent in 2000 to 75 percent in 2011, adding, “Such progress in the poorest countries in the world can hardly be characterized as a failure.”
Current and former employees, consultants and others close to the Global Partnership describe a “see no evil” culture that discourages tough questions about the partnership’s policies and actions, and a long-standing disregard for internal checks on power. Emails from senior staff show a preoccupation with fundraising, and pressure not to insist on hard and fast educational standards.
The partnership’s predecessor, the Education for All Fast Track Initiative, came into being in Dakar, Senegal in 2000, as part of a larger commitment to eight Millennium Development Goals aimed at ending the scourge of poverty and underdevelopment by 2015. The centerpiece of these efforts is the global funds that serve as vehicles for corralling development assistance from wealthy countries in a single source for maximum effect and efficiency.
Kevin Watkins, executive director of the British Overseas Development Institute and former member of the Global Partnership for Education’s board of directors, believed the model held great promise, and advocated for its creation. “What we had in mind was something like the global health funds – mechanisms that would pool resources, facilitate the development of new public-private partnerships, and deliver results on the ground,” said Watkins, formerly the lead author of UNESCO’S Education for All Global Monitoring Report.
In health, that effort has largely been seen as successful.
The Global Alliance for Vaccine and Immunization, for example, contributed to immunizing 46 million children. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria identified and treated 9.7 million new cases of TB over the last five years, and is providing anti-retroviral drugs to 4.2 million people infected with HIV.
But in education, Watkins said, “The results were derisory, especially in the poorest countries. And the GPE has struggled to carve out a distinctive identity and clear sense of purpose.”
Since 2002, the partnership has received some $3.7 billion, ostensibly to promote education in the world’s poorest countries. Its secretariat in Washington has grown from under 10 employees to more than 70. It enjoys the support of 20 countries and the European Union, and counts Great Britain’s Department for International Development as its largest contributor, with a commitment of $857 million. The U.S. Agency for International Development has contributed $43 million.
The Global Partnership for Education has recently won praise for awarding grants more swiftly and reducing red tape. A U.K. government report said the changes “make it easier for fragile countries to access support” and praised the partnership for having “increased the number of fragile states it funds.”
Current and former employees, however, say that the quickened disbursements have come at a cost. The fund no longer provides direct “technical assistance” to states on their plans for improving education, instead giving states wide latitude and advising them to hire consultants to help design and execute their national education plans.
That approach virtually ignores the Global Partnership’s own research into what works.
In 2010, the Global Partnership undertook several major studies of its record. One study candidly reported poor learning outcomes in the countries where the partnership was active.
For example, in Mali and Niger, more than 83 percent of second graders and 63 percent of fourth graders could not read a single word. Only 2.2 percent of students in Mali and almost none in Niger could read at 45 words per minute, the minimum speed needed for comprehension. In Gambia, 54 percent of second-graders could not read a single word by the end of second grade; In Liberia, 35 percent.
“This deficiency compromises the large enrollment increases brought about worldwide through donor coordination and the Education for All Fast Track Initiative (EFA FTI),” the report said. In response, the partnership set benchmarks for partner countries for reading fluency goals for grade two and for elementary school graduation.
More importantly, the EFA examined pilot interventions, those that worked and those that didn’t. For example, a pilot intervention the Hewlett Foundation sponsored in Mali and Niger, called Systematic Method for Reading Success, showed significant reading gains in pilot schools in just four months. It involved 30 minutes a day of extra reading instruction built around two booklets that emphasized phonics.
The results were impressive. In Mali, 42 percent of first-graders correctly read 50 percent of the words on a word list, compared to two percent of students in the national schools. In Niger, 22 percent of the nine- to 15-year old students learned to read fluently after a year in the program.
The EFA report seemed a striking demonstration of the Global Partnership’s potential for bringing professionalism and expertise to build literacy in the poorest corners of the planet. A second report called the partnership to shift its focus from access to learning outcomes.
What was required, the reports suggested, were measurable standards and the adoption of proven techniques to get children reading quickly. And that would take leadership.
But the partnership appeared to disregard its own findings, moving away from insisting on tough performance standards as the price for assistance, in favor of rallying political support for the cause. Luis Crouch, lead specialist on education until 2013, steered the partnership away from defining reading proficiency as the ability to correctly read 45-60 words per minute—which educational research suggests is near the minimum speed necessary by second grade for good comprehension. The rate rises in higher grades.
Rather, Crouch wrote in a document seen by 100Reporters, the Global Partnership should focus on building a social movement for universal education under the Global Partnership’s banner. “Even if the science is clear and you can establish some [correct words per minute] goal, I think it is politically unwise and will minimize action,” Crouch wrote.
“This is not about science,” he added. “It is about generating social momentum.”
Crouch did not respond to a request for comment.
The shift away from hard and fast criteria for literacy opened the way for countries to set more subjective, and often lower, goals for learning in a variety of areas.
Mozambique, which has received $160 million through the Global Partnership since 2007, does not pledge any learning outcomes in its education plan. Though Mozambique has doubled the number of children in elementary and secondary school, it packs more than 60 children in a classroom with one teacher—roughly double the number of students in a public school classroom in the U.S. Only half the children in Mozambique complete primary school.
Liberia’s education plan allows for the introduction of literacy and math tests “during the lifetime of the sector plan”, but sets no benchmarks.
Tapp, of the Global Partnership, defended the dismantling of central technical support teams. He said that that technical expertise moved to “country support teams,” whom he described as “international education experts with many years of experience working in all regions of the world.”
Insiders, however, say that administrators, not educators, dominate the country support teams. “There is no one who knows anything about learning,” said one former employee. “They do have experience administering programs. That’s what they wanted–administration.”
The Global Partnership has contributed to reducing the number of children out of school to 57 million in 2011 from 102 million in 1999. The gains were steady until about 2008, then flattened out before rising slightly between 2010 and 2011.
Heather Simpson, senior director of education at Save the Children, faulted education development experts for seeking to boost school attendance by focusing on the children who were easiest to reach, and overlooking those in remote areas or in fragile and conflict-ridden states. In addition, there appears to have been little understanding that building schools alone was not enough to boost educational achievement.
Of 180 million children in the countries where the Global Partnership supports education, only 80 million students reach grade 4 able to read, write and do math, according to the partnership’s own reports.
A series of annual reports the partnership is releasing, while labeled “Results for Learning,” focus on fiscal stewardship, not academic achievement. The 2013 report, for example, is about “Facing the Challenges of Data, Financing and Fragility.”
Pictures of Success
Current and former employees say that in the absence of statistics that demonstrate academic progress in teaching children in developing countries to read and do math, they are pressured to find anecdotes of particularly bright or successful children.
Asked recently for its progress reports on student learning, Alexandra Humme, a spokeswoman for the Partnership, provided a “Pledge Monitoring Report,” along with the Global Partnership’s showcase paper for the replenishment conference, called “250 Million Reasons to Invest in Education.” The title refers to the number of children who still cannot read after four years in school.
In terms of results, the paper notes that countries receiving aid from the Global Partnership increased domestic spending on education as a share of Gross Domestic Product by an average of 10 percent. The number of children who completed primary school grew 12 percent faster on average after a country joined the partnership, the paper said. It projects that primary school completion in those countries will rise to 78 percent in 2014 from 74 percent.
But the paper says nothing about the learning outcomes achieved in the countries where it has operated. Looking to the future, it reports that 90 percent of the Education Sector Plans approved incorporate student achievement in the proposal. It points specifically to Ethiopia, saying the country’s plan “set ambitious targets to boost quality and ensure relevant learning for all children and youth.”
But Ethiopia’s plan seeks only very modest gains on national exams in core subjects. It projected raising the share of fourth graders who would correctly answer half the test questions in core subjects, to 23 percent by 2013 from 20 percent in 2008. Among eighth graders, Ethiopia’s goal was for just 13.5 percent of students, up from 10.2 percent, to answer half the questions correctly.
The actual performance of Ethiopian students surpassed the goals, but still left 71 percent of fourth graders, and 82 percent of eighth graders, unable to answer half the questions right on achievement exams.
In an interview in April, one former employee recalled asking Tapp, chief of communications for the partnership, how the partnership would address the absence of impressive learning gains.
The ex-employee quoted Tapp as responding, “It’s okay. We’ll put videos up of children learning to read.”
“We had these Potemkin Village stories,” said the former employee. “We all looked for these charming stories. And as the months passed, I realized that no one was asking the right questions.”
Tapp rejected the characterization. “There are many measures to show the success of GPE, as discussed above and in various GPE publications, so this suggestion is without foundation,” he wrote in an email. “We have also sought to provide case studies of country-level process improvements in countries after they have joined the partnership.”
Earlier this month, the GPE posted a video of two 10-year-old Ethiopian children, Aberash Tsegaye and Yosef Yebas, who “have big dreams” at the Hidassie school in Addis Ababa. Aberash hopes to become a doctor when she grows up; Yosef, an engineer.
“I like coming to school to learn, study and read different books,” said Aberash.
The most recent reading assessment of primary school students in Ethiopia found that even in Addis Ababa, which has the highest scores in the country, more than 80 percent of students could not read proficiently, and one in four second-graders showed zero reading comprehension.
The picture was far worse away from the capital. “In Sidama (72.8 percent), Tigray (56.9 percent) and Benishangul-Gumuz, more than half of the regions’ children in Grade 2 did not understand a story at all,” according to a recent assessment by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Though the Global Partnership has promised to focus on the most marginalized children in its next phase, Hidassie, the school featured in the video, is a private school, built with Global Partnership funds for 1,600 students. The average class size is 55 students.
In Malawi, the government embraced “Education for All,” opening classrooms to all children. The result, said Simpson at Save the Children, was classrooms with 300 students to one teacher.
“There were no learning materials at school and the kids weren’t learning anything,” said Simpson. “The teachers didn’t know how to teach the basics. We can’t just assume teachers know magically how to teach and parents magically know how to support kids’ learning at home.”
Results of reading tests show that 96 percent of students in Malawi are reading zero words per minute by the time they enter second grade. The country’s Education Sector Plan, its blueprint for educational advancement using Global Partnership funds, does not contain a single goal for learning results.
“Nobody wants to admit that these kids aren’t learning,” said an education specialist that works with the partnership.
Value for Money
Contributing nations like the U.K. periodically assess the effectiveness of multi-lateral agencies like the Global Partnership for Education. These reviews are supposed to present an unvarnished account of “value for money,” so that policymakers can determine whether to continue supporting the aid programs.
Because of the emphasis on independence, Michael McDowell, a former communications chief of the Global Partnership, said he was shocked to hear at a staff meeting in January 2011 that Phil Rose, head of the Education and Skills Team at the British Department for International Development, had successfully lobbied an internal panel in his agency to raise the Global Partnership’s rating in its independent review.
Rose had been a forceful advocate for increasing the U.K.’s contribution, making it the single largest donor to the partnership. McDowell quoted a senior employee, on assignment to the Global Partnership from the British development agency, saying at a staff meeting that the partnership owed a great debt to Rose: He had persuaded the evaluators to designate the partnership “good value for money,”—their second-highest rating—rather than “adequate value for money”—the second-lowest.
“These reviews are supposed to be independent and protected from interference,” McDowell said in an interview.
McDowell subsequently sent emails to the British development agency, alerting officials there to possible interference in the evaluation process, and asking for an inquiry. Following initial confirmation that his letter was received, McDowell said he heard nothing further from British development officials.
Asked about McDowell’s charges, officials at DfID, the British development agency, at first said they had never heard of the accusations. After being sent McDowell’s original email exchange with the agency, however, the agency sent McDowell a letter saying that it had looked into the claims but found no evidence of interference in the evaluation process.
McDowell said his boss at the partnership “didn’t want to hear any critical comments from me about DfID upping the scores,” because the partnership “was heavily dependent on the U.K. money, which was biggest of all. But I was a U.K. citizen and I had a responsibility on this issue to my own government.”
McDowell, a former reporter for the BBC, was forced out of his position at the Global Partnership, and successfully challenged his dismissal. A World Bank tribunal largely vindicated his claims, awarding him six months salary and legal costs.
As leaders of the Global Partnership approach donors once again this week, enthusiasm among once-generous contributors in Europe is waning. Poor learning outcomes may be partly to blame. The Netherlands was once the second largest donor to the Global Partnership, contributing $649 million over the years. But that will not continue, said Stassen, of the Foreign Ministry.
“A lot of donors’ interest in education is changing,” she said. The Dutch are curbing aid to basic education, channeling support instead toward vocational and professional training. “We are not the only ones,” Stassen added.
“We were hoping that other donors would fill the gaps,” Stassen said. “The trend, however, is that others are also considering cutting back.”
To make up for the losses, the partnership is seeking new support, notably from Qatar and other oil-rich nations of the Middle East.
It is also launching a high-profile public relations campaign to promote education as a multiplier of social benefits: a way of reducing poverty, saving children’s lives, lowering the risk of war and raising crop yields. Each of these benefits, however, depends not on children attending school, but on what they are able to learn once they get there.