The World Bank's Intervention in Sub-Saharan Africa's Education Sector with Emphasis on Ethiopia's Context. Approach, Strengths, and Limitations

Essay, 2016
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Reflection and Criticisms on the World Bank's Approach in Relation to Cases from Ethiopia





Nowadays regional and national policies are intervened with and influenced by global policy actors. In this era of globalization, education policy is no longer an exclusive matter of the nation state, and it becomes a concern for an international agenda. According to Heyneman (2003), with an increased concern of international agencies such as the World Bank, national education policies, in one way or another, are inevitably framed by global actors. As to Molla (2013), more than any time before, international agencies and donors make use of diverse mechanisms to manipulate policy directions in aid beneficiary countries. Sub-Saharan Africa countries are resource dependent on external agencies through aid, grants or loan; and this fact often enforces them to follow the policy decision from donors.

In this essay, an attempt is made to discuss the World Bank's approach, strength and limitations with regard to education sector policy intervention in Sub-Saharan Africa focusing on contexts from Ethiopia. In view of this, the paper briefly juxtaposes Ethiopia’s political, economy and socio-cultural context with that of the World Bank's ideology and orientation. Based on this, reflection and criticisms have also been forwarded. Finally, conclusion and implication is drawn.

The essay argues that international policy actors, mainly World Bank tend to impose policy recommendations and reform programs to Sub-Saharan Africa regardless of the context of the particular nation states. Moreover, the paper intends to stress that although the World Bank asserts pursuing a comparative orientation in its policy studies and intervention, its practices in low-income countries witnessed that the Bank often infused ideologies which might have worked well in other part of the world. More specifically, I argue that controversial neo-liberal policy prescriptions were enforced in Ethiopia's national education sector without having aligned with the country-specific situations.


The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, also widely known as the World Bank, has been formed by sovereign states after World War II. The IBRD was initially intended to offer financial support to the economic reconstruction of the war affected European nations (Bray, 2014; Harrigan & Mosley, 2002). Due to various stage of political, institutional and ideological dynamisms, the Bank has since now undegone through several strategic changes.

The World Bank has become a chief actor in the worldwide governance of public policy, and managed to be the leading international financier of development to governments. It is also regarded as a major source of policy directions. As described well by Marshall (2008) as cited in Mundy and Verger ( 2015), the World Bank is viewed as holding "almost monopoly on the the business of development". In short, it can be infered that the World Bank is an influential global actor in the development sector.

On the other hand, the Bank emerged as an advocate for the neo-liberal agenda in the form of reforms like structural adjustment policies which aimed at market liberalization, privatization etc (Mundy & Verger, 2015; World Bank, 1990). In view of this, the aid practice of donors in developing countries has been changed from giving grants to strengthening government programs through policy advice and reforms (Harrigan & Mosley, 2002). Following this, the approach of the World Bank has also witnessed a change in its role, and the Bank has been intervening developing countries in their policy agenda. Hence, the Bank makes use of its resources and legitimacy power to impose its regulative influence on developing countries.


The World Bank had resisted lending to education sector prior to 1960. Education had not been emphasized as a major agenda in the Bank’s program that time due to the reason that education assumed to have no direct link to economic efficiency (Jones, 2007). As to Heyneman (2003), the demand for grants to education sector escalated when the membership of more nations had grown-up. It was only then that a Section of Education was formed within the Bank. Continued its interest on lending for education sector, the 1980s witnessed a typical policy agenda by the Bank focusing on basic education as part of mitigating the debt crisis in low-income countries. Furthermore, Chabbott (2003) as depicted in Mundy and Verger (2015), in 1990, the education sector staff of the Bank have politically mobilized and taken part with officials at UNESCO and UNICEF in the World Conference on Education. This was the time that the Bank had gained an outsider's attention and legitimacy regarding its role in Education. This may imply that the Bank has become a global actor of education through course of actions without a predefined mandate.

Having benefited substantially from its institutional dynamics and geo-political shifts among the powerful member governments, the Bank has managed becoming the leading financier for education over time. To substantiate this, the World Bank report as cited in Molla (2013) discloses that the World Bank committed almost US$42 billion for education in twenty years time through 1990 to 2010. More recently, as to the World Bank (2013) report depicted in Bray (2014), the Bank claimed to have managed a portfolio of about US$9 billion for educational expenditure as of the year 2013. Among others, low-income countries are the major beneficiaries. This may, therefore, be taken as an indication that education has taken a significant portion of the Bank's lending assortment, and the Bank remains to be the main financial source for developing countries in general and Sub-Saharan Africa in particular.

On top of this, as Wendy (1999) paraphrased in Sifuna (2000), the shift of global politics influenced the multilateral institutions such as UNESCO, which are accountable to sovereign member states. Unlike other UN agencies, the World Bank has much benefited from the US which hold the largest number of voting shares in the Bank's operation. This raised the World Bank not only being the largest lending actor of education, but also to become a powerful supervisory body. As Wade (2002), the Bank's operation has been by and large influenced by the policy preferences of the US, which holds the power of veto. In short due to its power, the World Bank’s involvement in national education policy has grown-up considerably through time.


Education determines the development of a nation, and the sector is often a target where globalization has its effect. Education in Sub-Saharan Africa is exposed to ideologies and financial aid from global donors, mainly the World Bank. Accordingly, the World Bank's intervention on education has brought about both merit and limitations. This section of the essay discusses both the strength and weaknesses of the World Bank's approach in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In its strong side, the World Bank instills best practices and experiences from successful achievement of similar projects in developed nations so that it would give a lesson. The World Bank continued to be supporter of the educational strategies in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its persuasion power extends to other multi-lateral and bilateral donors in education as well (Sifuna, 2000). Therefore, the Bank enabled the coordination of other donors to direct their effort and resources in a consolidated manner towards helping the low-income countries. Moreover, it promotes accountability and improved governance in education through project monitoring and setting regulations. In this regard, Yizengaw (2005), in his study in Ethiopia, describes regulations of operations, and requirements for budget utilization make the government accountable.

The other strength of the World Bank is that it has well-qualified and experienced experts capable of carrying out quality research in education. Goldman (2005) states that the World Bank is the largest development research center with a team of consultants and ample budget. The research output of the Bank is widely circulated in the form of policy statements, reports, strategies and so on. In this regard, Bray ( 2014: 31) disclosed "...the World Bank presents many analytical studies of education,both in its policy documents...and in research on particular themes...". The same author futher mentioned that "In line with its mandate, the majority of these studies focus on less developed countries."

Thus, this implies that the World Bank has given much attention to developing countries in technical advisory and provision of analytical reports.

On the other hand, World Bank's orientation and approach in its intervention in the education sector of Sub-Saharan Africa also has limitations that could impose negative influences to country’s development. Here below, the essay disscusses some of the limitations.

As a special agency of the UN, the World Bank is supposed to take unbiased position. However, it is often blamed that the education policy recommendations by the Bank have been serving for the interest of neo-liberal ideologists. To substantiate this, Molla (2013) in his study about the World Bank's operation, mentioned that the World Bank makes use of its research outputs as a tool while exercising its authority of agenda setting through what it deceptively refers 'technical assistance', 'benchmarking'. With this pretext, the Bank infused its policy prescription. Moreover, Mundy and Verger (2015) mentioned that the Bank's consultants operate in a context of western dominance norms, the policy decisions are entirely characterized by the principles designed for developed countries. It is with such condition that the Bank influences global agenda setting, and thereby imposes national policies for poor nations.

Despite undertaking national level studies and reports in Sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank has often recommended a one-fit-all educational policy direction to the majority of independent nation states. To elaborate this, Sifuna (2000) clearly puts that "...across the continent [Africa], the Bank's reforms have failed to recognize political realities." This may indicate that the Bank seems to be relied on means of policy directions only to promote its neo-liberal policy discourse despite the fact that strong criticisms are being forwarded on the negative consequences of direct policy impositions.

One can see from the World Bank's view and its policy prescriptions that it advocates privatization, and free market even in education sector, which is somewhat with different view from most governments in Africa. In Ethiopia case, the World Bank is extremely enforcing the government to implement privatization of the sectors although the government attempts to resist the pressure. Due to the loan requirements and pressure, the government has started privatization in education sector which was initially opposed to the interest of the government. Here it is worthwhile mentioning what Heyneman (2003, p. 351) bluntly disclosed as " To obtain loans [from World Bank], countries have agreed to raise education fees, which has exacerbated divisions between rich and poor." This practice left empowering only a few section of societies in a certain part of the country, but widen disparity among different provinces and social groups. This has challenged the view of education as a public good, and thereby created a room for social injustice. On top of this, UNESCO (2015) stresses that privatization could only benefit part of the social group, but it brings about adverse outcomes on the majority. As a result, marginalized groups will fail to share the benefit, and exposed to the undesired result of privatization. UNESCO (2015) publication, in its view for rethinking education as a global common good, clearly pointed out that:

... uncontrolled fees demanded by private providers could undermine universal access to education. ...this could have a negative impact on the enjoyment of the right to a good quality education and on the realization of equal educational opportunities. (p.73-74)

To this effect, taking into account the extremely low household income of the majority of the society in the Ethiopia, the low enrollment rate of schooling and high dropout; this rather worsen the situation by creating inequalities in opportunity, and violates the right to quality education. It can, therefore, be argued that privatization of education in Ethiopia could not have a benefit; It may be said that the World Bank is imposing it without the real need of the country.

The other limitation of the practice of the World Bank is that it manipulates individual consultants in its research undertaking. This is a situation that faces many African experts both policy makers and the academia. In relation to this, Habte (1999) said the Bank makes use of its financial power to influence them so that the experts would be unable to carry out a research from the African perspective. According to Sifuna (2000), the World Bank is notorious in influencing to maintain its opinion in the so called 'analytical papers'. As the author clearly puts "...the influence would therefore put them in temptations of being bought by donor organizations". For this reason, they usually replicate what the donor would like to hear. The consultants hired by the World Bank usually propagate donors' jargons to make their reports acceptable. Hence, one can see that these perspectives are usually not as per the development demand of Sub-Sahara Africa nations.

The other limitation of the World Bank's approach is the irrelevancy and lack of priority of the funding(loan). In most cases, there is a mismatch of the resource needs of the country, and what the World Bank supplied. To Put this bluntly, Sifuna (2000) pointed out that there has been the supply of resources to African universities. The same author described the situation by giving example as "...above all the provision of fleets of vehicles including brand new mercedes benzes to vice-chancellors". It is puzzling how the supply of such resources was meant to help out these impoverished nations having limited basic learning facilities such as textbooks. From this viewpoint, one can argue that the so called evidence-based reform of the Bank would serve only infusion of unintended ideology; not acting on priorities in most scenarios.

On the other hand, commercial considerations have become an issue in lending approach. Linking loan and business becomes a trend. The involvement of multinational companies is growing in certain countries through the agreement in provision of loan to governments (Habte, 1999). This may indicate that there is a concern behind the World Bank's development assistance to the low-income nations; may be the promotion of global business of its powerful capitalist member states, and political loyalty.

While mentioning the issue in Ethiopia, Yizengaw (2005),who was once a Deputy Minister of Education in Ethiopia, states that although donors such as the World Bank have been offering budgetary support, they are skeptic to align it to the country’s requirements This imples that the World Bank and other donors focus on their ideology rather than the contry's needs. While mentioning the influence, Yizengaw (2005) and World Bank (1990), most of the projects by the World Bank end up being irrelevant or not feasible that many educational policy initiatives of the government in Ethiopia have been criticized, and indirectly influenced by the research missions of donors. According to Yizengaw, although the major influences relate to the way policies are suggested via suggested specific requirements, donors also played a role in the development of education policies. This implies that the intervention of the donors such as World Bank is not only limited to policy recommendation, rather it involves setting priorities, actions and even implementation details.

Reflection and Criticisms on the World Bank's Approach in Relation to Cases from Ethiopia

On the basis of the previous[i] studies, reports consulted above, and also from my experience and observation in education sector in development and reform programs, my reflections have been forwarded as follows:

- The neo-liberal political economy ideology of the World Bank opposed to Ethiopia's government political philosophy. There is a clear difference between World Bank's ideology and the Government of Ethiopia's development polices including Education. The country's strategic plan, also known as 'Growth and Transformation Plan(GTP)' is partly adopted from the developmental state political economy model from East Asian countries. I do contend that with this differing view of the current Ethiopia's government, the policy recommendations and reforms by the World Bank have not yet been systematically articulated or integrated in the way that it would benefit the context in the country.
- Ethiopia's national and provinces' strategy including education policy at all level advocates promoting cultural and religious values of ethnic groups ;however, in its work the Bank emphasizes education sector initiatives having economic implications only. Such factors as cultural values, norms, languages of the society are often not considered albeit these are equally essential inputs of development. Hence, once can argue that the World Bank's approaches in the region don't take into consideration other aspects as units of analysis. It only attempts to compare the formal political, geographic and economic context across-region(countries).
- The constitution of Ethiopia establishes a federal system of governance with “independent” states (provinces), which are established based on ethnic based decentralization. In this system of decentralization, the states(provinces) have been granted autonomy to implement their own sector policies including education. Taking the whole country as a unit of analysis may not be feasible in a certain context, especially in a country where there are different systems due to intra-national differences in political, demographic, economic and socio-cultural factors. To this end, this essay argues that the practices and recommendations by the World Bank also need to consider a micro level(Sub-national) analysis within a country like Ethiopia taking in to account the various systems in place.
- The policy and support from donors often attempt to address and benefit only segment of the society in getting access for education in the formal school setting, which rather neglected millions of citizens behind who are out-of-school due to the massive dropout rate for constraints such as less economic situation, conflict, tradition so on. For example, as to UNESCO (2011) statistics, in Ethiopia and Mozambique, only less than 60% of those who enter the formal school will complete primary education, and less than 40% will continue to the last grade of primary education due to cost of education and other factors.
- It is not uncommon to see that the World Bank's analytical reports or research studies represent the overall condition in the region or the country. Nevertheless, in some cases the report missed or deliberately neglected the reality in the ground. Particularly, the reports seem not representative of the majority of grass root level rural society. To this effect, it is difficult to say that the consultants stayed honest to the mechanics of researching and analysis that guide to the reality. Often times, controversial results of the World Bank technical paper is common, and the Government of Ethiopia is always suspicious of the policy prescriptions. Even in the case where some policies are admitted by the government due to political imposition or as a loan requirements from donors, there is lack of commitment in the implementation.


This paper has attempted to discuss the World Bank's approach in light of its policy intervention in the education sector of Sub-Saharan Africa with a particular focus on contexts from Ethiopia. It showed the strength and limitation of the approach, orientation and activities of the World Bank in the region. Moreover, the paper provided reflections on cases why considerable number of donor's strategies are ended up being questionable to generate the desired outcomes in the region despite the substantial investment.

The Bank's loan, policy direction and technical assistance often assumed to be carried out to enhance national programs such as education which otherwise the low-income countries could not afford. The material, technical and professional support from the World Bank is benefiting the Sub-Saharan countries in their attempt to promote their education. As claimed by the World Bank, the practical comparative orientation is believed to address contextual differences, however, taking entirely the whole country as a unit of analysis would not help much, rather limit the comparison by neglecting sub-national levels.

On the other hand, in the essay, I argued that although global policy actors, mainly World Bank tend to profoundly rely on knowledge-based policy intervention that might have worked well in other part of the world, the practice of directly infusing these policies to Sub-Saharan Africa nations with different context would not guarantee success. Moreover, the way that donors influence education policies through lending and related conditions is inadequate. It can also be concluded that there is unfit nature of the policy to the reality in the ground that governments are imposed to implement projects without their demand or preference. The World Bank's policy statements are often echoing the same regardless of what their research findings show.


Policy directions considerably influenced by global issues in the world including ideology and operational doctrine of donors. If properly designed and implemented, these policy and reform interventions could be helpful and beneficial. However, they usually lack clear set of direction; and also unable to recognize and address local contexts and priorities. As a result, the programs are often fragile when it comes to implementation and continuity. Thus, the trend of generating so many of policies, strategies and reform now and then would not help the education sector in Africa. There has to be a proper mechanism to ensure the demand of the countries rather than prioritizing reforms for the sake of transplanting neo-liberal political and economic ideology.

To this end, it is advisable that the approaches of the World Bank should be in a way that substantially consider the country's national and sub-national socio-economic background, traditions, values, cultural aspects, and associated context. Besides, the policy interventions and reform programs have to be in line with the existing demands. Whilst there are significant dissimilarities between the low-income Sub-Saharan Africa, and other industrialized regions of the world, those educational policies and strategies which have worked well in the developed nations might not serve the needs in Africa. Hence, the low-income countries in Africa require the identification of their own unique strength, opportunities and challenges accompanied with workable policies, strategies. To sum up, the situation calls for undertaking a proper and systematic comparative approach of both the macro and micro-level analysis taking more aspects and dimensions as a unit of analysis.


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[i] Ethiopia is a country in Sub-Saharan (Eastern Africa) with the system of Federation which is composed of Nine States (Provinces): Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromia, Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz, Southern Nation (SNNPR), Gambella and Harari States; and two Chartered Cities - Addis Ababa and Dire-Dawa. ( Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs-Ethiopia.-

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The World Bank's Intervention in Sub-Saharan Africa's Education Sector with Emphasis on Ethiopia's Context. Approach, Strengths, and Limitations
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Sintayehu Beyene Tiruneh (Author), 2016, The World Bank's Intervention in Sub-Saharan Africa's Education Sector with Emphasis on Ethiopia's Context. Approach, Strengths, and Limitations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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