Exposed: Collusion and Cover-Up — A World Bank and Bridge International Academies Scandal
Exposed: Collusion and Cover-Up — A World Bank and Bridge International Academies Scandal

Exposed: Collusion and Cover-Up — A World Bank and Bridge International Academies Scandal

published 21 March 2024 updated 11 April 2024

After increasing public pressure, a critical internal report, and an ongoing investigation by congressional leaders in the United States, the World Bank Group has acknowledged it "did not follow protocol" and "children were hurt," by its involvement with Bridge International Academies.

The stunning admission by World Bank president, Ajay Banga, came in response to serious allegations of child sexual abuse and violations of health, labor, and safety measures in Bridge schools, which were detailed in a report by the World Bank's Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), following a complaint submitted on behalf of parents and teachers.

In response to the CAO's revelations, Education International (EI) called for immediate, independent investigations to hold all responsible parties accountable for their actions and for compensation for the victims.

“It is imperative that those responsible, including Bridge International Academies and its financial supporters, are held accountable, contributing to the necessary compensation for abused children and exploited workers. We urge the World Bank to establish a fund to redress harm suffered by any survivors of child sexual abuse during the period of its support for Bridge schools,” stated David Edwards, EI’s General Secretary. "Profit-driven operators like BIA have no place in education. They hinder our collective mission to ensure every child’s right to free, quality education,” he added.

The case stems stems from a 2018 filing against the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank group, about Bridge schools operating in Kenya. With an investment of US$ 13.5 million between 2014 and 2022, the IFC’s backing enabled Bridge’s expansion across Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria, and India, encompassing thousands of students.

The recently published CAO's investigation accuses the IFC of "deficient" environmental and social due diligence, failing to identify or assess child sex abuse risks. The report recommends both project-specific actions for remediation for survivors and institutional-level improvements to prevent future occurrences.

The CAO's findings also reveal attempts by the IFC and Bridge to actively obstruct the investigation. This cover up strategy, exposed by a series of investigative reports by the Intercept, included plans to discredit the CAO's lead investigator and publish a fake report to counter potential negative publicity.

According to a letter from United States Congress woman Maxine Waters to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury: "rather than do everything in its power to ensure that Bridge provided direct compensation to the sexual abuse survivors and their families, it has been reported that IFC staff and Bridge executives conspired to delay reporting of the abuse, as they feared that such reporting, according to Bridge executives, would “spook investors” as the company was attempting to raise capital."

The ‘academy in a box’ experiment

The story of Bridge International Academies began in 2009 in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, with a group of investors with the ambition to create the world´s largest for-profit primary education chain.

At the heart of its ‘academy in a box’ model was a controversial practice: employing untrained personnel as a cost-cutting mechanism. This approach, heavily reliant on a scripted curriculum delivered through tablets, soon raised red flags about the education quality, accessibility, and affordability for children from low-income families in Africa and Asia.

A study by Education International and the Kenyan National Union of Teachers revealed serious deficiencies in the Bridge model in Kenya, notably its dependence on unqualified staff and a rigid, non-local curriculum, which compromised the accessibility and quality of education for the most marginalised. Similarly, concerns were raised about schools in Uganda, where a governmental directive shut down of BIA schools in October 2016 for not respecting national standard and for “poor hygiene and sanitation [which] put the life and safety of the school children in danger.”

Despite these concerns, Bridge schools received significant investments from prominent figures and organisations such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Pearson Ltd., the U.K. Department for Development.

Education International and its member organisations persistently called out Bridge and its operations and reached out to the World Bank and major Bridge supporters. EI urged donors to reconsider their financial support in light of BIA’s practices , highlighting among other things, the neglect and disregard for national educational and legal standards, the employment of unqualified staff, and the charging of fees that undermine the right to quality education for all children.

Education International President, Susan Hopgood, underscored EI's longstanding commitment to opposing profit-driven educational models that exploit vulnerable communities and undercut the right to free, quality public education for all. “The Brigde model undermines the professional standards and qualifications of teachers, which are fundamental to quality education. This case serves as a call to action to strengthen the foundations of public education systems, ensuring that every child, irrespective of socio-economic background, has access to free quality education delivered by trained and qualified teachers. It requires all governments, intergovernmental organisations, and International Financial Institutions to commit to invest in teachers and fully fund public education."

For further insights into Bridge International Academies operations in Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, and Nigeria, please see: What do we really know about Bridge International Academies? a summary of research findings (Riep, C., 2019). Additionally, Education International’s correspondence to the World Bank, urging the organisation to stop their sponsorship of Bridge International Academies, can be found here.