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Credits: Global Partnership for Education
Credits: Global Partnership for Education

Education’s Promise as a Universal Human Right (1/2)

published 24 April 2017 updated 24 April 2017

In 2018, the World Bank will release its first World Development Report to focus exclusively on education, Realizing the Promise of Education for Development (working title). The 2018 WDR Concept Note is available on the World Bank website, and the Report co-directors have been conducting focus-group type consultations seeking feedback from the international education development community. The 2018 WDR will shape the global narrative on and policy toward education. Therefore, it is crucial to critically examine the discourse and intent of the 2018 Concept Note, and track its evolution through various consultations. This is first of two brief analyses on the 2018 WDR Concept Note focused on human rights and gender equality.

The 2018 WDR Concept Note states that “the learning agenda is fundamentally an equity agenda, and promoting learning is essential to fulfilling the universal human right to education in a meaningful way” (p. 11). Yet, the Concept Note provides a narrow definition of human rights, as in the right to education (access), and pays less attention to rights within education and rights through education.

Educational rights and education’s promise for poverty reduction and gender equality are conceived and measured primarily in terms of skills development and returns on investment. For example, the 2018 WDR Concept Note discusses “education’s promise” to close “social gaps linked to gender, disability, and other forms of exclusion” in terms of “the human capital accumulated through schooling and the resulting increase in productivity” and suggests that “people with stronger skills are better able to take advantage of new technologies and new work opportunities” (p. 5-6). The Concept Note envisions education for skills training and employment in response to market demands, which is of itself problematic especially in countries with high unemployment and informal employment rates.

The World Bank’s commitment to what it calls the learning agenda is not in service of fulfilling universal human rights if its focus is on addressing market demands, rather than human needs. Yet, one of the four themes of the Concept Note is on measuring learning for this purpose – “A serious commitment to learning means systematically measuring learning and using that metric to guide investments and policies” (p. 2). The WDR Concept Note highlights the global learning crisis – or the lack of learning happening in schools despite near universal primary education in many countries and points to PASEC and PISA, among other, test scores to illustrate this. [1] The Concept Note proposes new learning metrics in response to “the learning crisis” and its causes. Measuring whether goals are being reached is important. However, with literacy being measured based on a student’s ability “to read a single word in a short text”, the type of critical literacy necessary for an emancipatory struggle for social transformation is missing, or is at least not being measured.

Further, the primary causes for the learning crisis are considered to be bad teachers, poor school governance and infrastructure, and ill-prepared students and their parents. Teacher incompetence and lack of school accountability have become easy and predictable targets for neoliberal education reformers the world over. Given the Banks support of privatization it’s not surprising that teachers and government wastage are being singled out as contributors to the crisis. However, the World Bank fails to acknowledge broader contextual issues such as poverty, lack of food and transportation, poor education infrastructure, overburdened teachers in overcrowded classrooms, and other sociopolitical and socioeconomic factors might influence parental decision-making about schooling as well as student learning within schools. In fact, many of the World Bank policies support fee-based schooling and privatization attempts, thereby essentially undermining free, public education as a human right.

The narrow approach to metrics and measurement emphasizes market demands over human needs and fails to consider the interconnectedness in which schools, as social institution, exist and interact with other social and economic institutions to reduce or reproduce inequality. Simply, with more of the same limited approach to development as a purely economic end in support of a patriarchal capitalist economy, education will continue to fall short of its promise as a universal human right capable of realizing shared prosperity and the end of global poverty, especially for those most marginalized by existing political, economic and social systems.

The second analysis will explore the conceptualization of gender equality in the 2018 WDR Concept Note.

[1] World Bank. 2016. World Development Report 2018: realizing the promise of education for development - concept note. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.