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“Impoverishing the poor: the deficiencies of the World Bank’s learning poverty goal”, by Dennis Sinyolo.

On 17 October, the World Bank announced a new global target for education aimed at reducing ‘learning poverty’ - the percentage of children who are unable to read by the age of 10 – in half by 2030. The World Bank’s initiative is a step in the wrong direction, and risks impoverishing the same children it aims to extricate from poverty.

The World Bank’s education policy advice has been fraught with errors

This new learning goal must be understood within the context of the World Bank’s policy advice over the years. The scars inflicted on many African education systems as a result of the World Bank’s policy advice are yet to heal decades after the Bank abandoned those policies after realising its mistakes. For example, the World Bank’s claim that teacher training and class size had no impact on student learning encouraged or even forced many African and other countries to abandon teacher training and recruit untrained personnel; a policy with devastating consequences on the education systems of affected countries. Many of these countries are still struggling to meet the demand for qualified teachers and to improve quality, equity and inclusion. Structural adjustment policies and budget caps imposed by international financial institutions have made it difficult for many developing countries to train, recruit and retain qualified teachers.

Undermining the full development of the child

There is no doubt that reading is important, but quality education goes far beyond the ability to read. Quality education contributes to the full development of individuals, enabling them to develop a wide range of skills, competences and capabilities in order to flourish and achieve their full potential. It prepares young people for both life and decent work. Focusing only on reading narrows education by leaving out a wide range of subjects and higher order skills, competences, capabilities and values such as problem-solving, creativity, adaptability, tolerance and global citizenship. Focusing on reading and incentivising it at the exclusion of a broad and in-depth curriculum may encourage countries and schools to narrow their education systems and teachers to ‘teach to the test’. This will have detrimental effects on the life-chances afforded to children in low and middle-income countries and undermine these countries’ capacity to develop.

A quote attributed to Albert Einstein serves as a warning to those who want to focus on narrow measurable learning outcomes such as reading by stating that ‘Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.’

Fuelling competition

Focusing on early grade reading assessment and international high stakes testing fuels competition between countries, schools and teachers instead of cooperation and collaboration. Focusing on competition rather than collaboration is what I call ‘the Olympic approach’. At the Olympic games, each athlete and each country tries to be at the top of the medal table, while those who are at the bottom are considered inferior. The Olympic games produce winners and losers. That’s not how our education systems ought to function. Our education systems should be about winners and winners! Every child, every student everywhere, should be supported to flourish and to achieve their maximum potential.

Leaving many behind

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development commits to ‘leaving no-one behind’. The World Bank’s learning poverty goal, if allowed to go ahead, would leave many children and youth behind. SDG 4 commits countries to ensure universal early childhood education, free primary and secondary education of at least 12 years and tertiary education for those who need it, but the ‘learning poverty’ indicator looks just at policy interventions in primary education, leaving out other levels of education. Furthermore, the learning poverty indicator looks at country averages and does not attempt to shine a light on who is not reading.

One vs the many

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including SDG 4 on Quality Education, were developed and agreed through a rigorous and inclusive consultation and negotiation process involving UN member states, UN agencies and related institutions (the Bank itself being one of them) and other key education stakeholders, including civil society and education unions. The 2030 Education Agenda is, therefore, the collective position of the global education community, and no single agency or partner, including the World Bank, should undermine this broad agenda by cherry-picking a tiny part of the bigger whole. The development and education 2030 agenda must be treated and implemented as a whole, as all the goals and targets are interconnected and interdependent. 

What is even more concerning is the World Bank’s propensity to come up with new policies and instruments without consultation. While it is encouraging to see the World Bank show more interest in improving teacher quality, teaching and learning, it is disheartening to note that the Bank develops its teacher policies and instruments without consulting with teachers and their unions. The Bank’s SABER (Systems Approach for Better Education Results) programme, the Human Capital Index and, recently, Teach (a teacher observation tool for use in low- and lower-middle income countries) are examples of education and teacher related initiatives that were developed with no or very little consultation with teachers and their unions.

A participatory approach to policy development is an important pillar of democracy. Through the Education 2030 Framework for Action, governments and the education community committed to ensure the full participation of teachers and their unions in the development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of education policy. A participatory approach to education policy making  ensures relevance and support, which are critical to successful education reforms. Who can be better placed to advise on the relevance and content of education policy and reform than teachers and their representative organisations? Teachers live the reality of the school and the classroom every day and are found in every corner of the country, including the remotest and most disadvantaged communities.  They possess the knowledge, skills, competences and capabilities, not only to contribute to contextually relevant education and teacher policies, but also to their successful implementation. Evidence from the OECD (Organisation for  Economic Cooperation and Development)’s research shows that successful education systems have trusted, respected and empowered teachers and strong education unions.

The Bank should stick to its primary mandate – financing education

The first thought that comes into your mind when you see the word ‘Bank’ is money, not education or teacher policy. Therefore, the World Bank should stick to its primary mandate of financing education. The Bank should respect countries’ sovereignty and mandate to strengthen their education systems in line with the internationally agreed commitment by governments to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all’ (SDG 4). The Bank should mobilise and provide sufficient funding to complement the domestic resources of low- and middle- income countries that are struggling to achieve SDG 4 and create the best education opportunities for their youthful populations. The learning poverty goal is a step in the wrong direction and distracts from achieving the globally agreed sustainable development goal on quality education.


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Dennis Sinyolo

Dennis Sinyolo is the Senior Coordinator of the Education, Employment and Research Unit at Education International.

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