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Opening the Schoolhouse: Undoing the World Bank's Damage
By Robert Weissman
Focus on the Corporation
April 23, 2008

For 30 years, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank have
remade much of the developing world according to a market fundamentalist
ideology.

The results -- measured by lost wealth, stunted social indicators,
depletion of natural resources and trashing of the environment, rising
inequality and concentration of income, damage to indigenous
communities, or many other standards -- have been catastrophic.

Can the ongoing harm be undone?

Yes.

Consider one very small example, with not-so-trivial consequences: the
case of school fees in Kenya.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the IMF and particularly the World Bank told
developing countries to adopt user fees for education. The institutions
have enormous power to impose conditions on developing countries eager
to get loans, especially heavily indebted countries that need new loans
to pay off old debts and keep their economies functioning.

Why should families be charged for sending children to school? The idea
was school fees can help pay for the cost of schools, especially as the
Bank and Fund demand government spending cutbacks.

In practice, and predictably, school fees proved a disaster.

Mary Njoroge has recently retired after 31 years in the Kenyan
educational system. Her final post was Director of Basic Education in
the Ministry of Education.

Njoroge says that, "even as the fees were introduced, poverty levels
were rising in most of the country, and the parents were not able to pay
the fees. That led to many, many children dropping out of school -- just
because of the inability of parents to pay the fee."

In Kenya, Njoroge says, school fees were a very important revenue
source. They became an inadequate substitute for lost federal revenue --
and the existence of school fees became a rationale for further federal
spending cuts.

"It was from the fees that the schools could buy books, buy chalk, buy
exercise books and any readers that they were going to use," Njoroge
says. "Fees also paid for the running of the school, the overhead of the
school. That money was very important. The schools were not going to be
able to run without it."

Not surprisingly, the poorest families were hit the worst by this
policy, and girls worst of all. There were no exemptions for the poor,
though exemptions have proven an utter failure in other places.

For poor families. says Njoroge, "Initially, the choice was if children
have to go to school, which children would go? And boys were the ones
sent to school in the very poor communities and girls were left at home.
Eventually, even that became difficult and for the very poor communities
both boys and girls dropped out of the school system. Only those who
were able to afford the school fees were left to continue."

By the start of the 2000s, spurred by outside pressure, the World Bank
came to recognize that school fees were a failure. But Kenya and other
countries had come to rely on fees, and it wasn't obvious how to do away
with them.

Then, something transformative happened.

In the 2002 presidential elections, Mwai Kibaki ran on a platform that
highlighted a commitment to eliminate user fees for education. This
promise helped Kibaki get elected. And then he delivered on the promise.

"When the new government came in and announced that in the new year
[2003] children could attend school without paying fees," says Njoroge,
"we witnessed an additional 1 million new children in our schools, over
and above the 5.9 million who had already been in the school system." An
additional million came soon thereafter.

User fees had locked the schoolhouse doors to a quarter of Kenyan
children. Abolishing fees opened the doors.

Njoroge says that improved tax collection and better systems for
financial accountability paid for most of the additional costs -- both
the lost school fees money, and the money needed to teach so many more
kids. The excitement around the initiative also attracted donor funding.

This surge of new students into classrooms created significant
transitional problems, says Njoroge, but now teachers have been trained
how to handle bigger classes, and how to teach multi-grade classrooms.

Eliminating school fees has been a grand success. "When the fees were
lifted, says Njoroge, "we immediately saw the kids at school. It led to
investment of resources by the government into the education system. It
led to developing new strategies to finance the education program in a
transparent and accountable manner, which also has attracted
international donors." And the Kenyan example has inspired many other
countries to follow suit, including more than a dozen nations in Africa.

Everything is not perfect. Fees are still in place for secondary schools.

And the system needs to hire more teachers. Which brings the story back
to the IMF and World Bank.

Teaching the additional 2 million kids in primary school requires at
least 40,000 new teachers, Njoroge says, and Kenya has about 60,000
trained teachers who are unemployed.

But Njoroge says that Kenya cannot hire new teachers, because agreements
with the IMF restrict its ability to increase budgetary outlays for
teachers.

But just as user fee policy was changed even though it once seemed
un-reformable, so too shall IMF policies that directly and indirectly
block countries from undertaking desperately needed investments in
healthcare and education soon come to an end.


Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational
Monitor, <
http://www.multinationalmonitor.org> and director of Essential
Action <
http://www.essentialaction.org>.

(c) Robert Weissman

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