#WDR2018 Reality Check #1: A Guide to Reading the Rhetoric

The 2018 World Development Report marks an important milestone—for the first time in 40 years the World Bank’s dominant research publication is dedicated to education.

In the context of declining bilateral aid to education, this thematic focus draws much-needed attention to the learning crisis. The Report moreover reflects some significant shifts in the organization’s discourse. When in the past the World Bank has envisaged the benefits of education fairly heavily around human capital development, this Report frames education instead around the capability approach. It therefore views education through a broader lens, in terms of not merely economic benefits, but contributions to freedom, agency, and the capacity to make choices for one’s own well-being. This is a welcome departure for the World Bank. The World Development Report moreover takes a refreshingly cautious approach to educational technology, in contrast to the widespread and somewhat unproblematic embrace of ICT for education as a panacea of sorts. In contrast to many other organizations, the World Bank notes that educational technology does not always align with student learning.

In many respects, therefore, the World Development Report makes a positive contribution to development narratives concerning education. However, this publication should be read with an understanding of the Bank’s institutional history and its past work in education and other social sectors. Scholars from the fields of international relations and development studies have critiqued the World Bank for frequent disjunctures between what it says and what it does, often framed as “organized hypocrisy”—when an organization states one thing in its rhetoric and policies, while doing something else in practice. This critique of course is not unique to the World Bank; several international organizations (the UN, the WTO, as examples), have been cited for similar behaviour. Researchers have shown how such disjunctures are reflected in the World Bank’s work on anticorruption, on environmental sustainability, and in education.

I suggest reading the World Development Report with an eye out for such disjunctures. For example, in the Report’s discussion of learning assessments, there is mention of the need for participatory, local design and argues that contextually-driven assessments “developed with the collaboration of various stakeholders are more likely to be considered valid and relevant at local levels” (p.97). However, the World Bank has long been critiqued for driving educational policy priorities within its recipient countries with only limited local participation. In light of this, it would be important to question if local voices—including not merely governments, but also civil society, teachers, teachers’ unions, parents, and students—are being taken seriously through observing the Bank’s on-the-ground practices.  

The World Development Report also takes a very diplomatic approach to private schooling, which seems to reflect a cautious position on private engagement, noting the “many risks. Private schools may skim off the higher-income students who are easiest and most profitable to teach, leaving only the more disadvantaged students in the public system” (p.177). This position, however, contrasts with much of the Bank’s other rhetoric on private sector participation in education, and also some of its recent activities. For example, its SABER (Systems Approach for Better Education Results) initiative includes a process for engaging the private sector, quite explicitly promoting increased private participation in education. As well, the Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation, and its support to low-cost private school chains, is in clear contrast to the World Development Report’s caution that governments “should never contract out the responsibility for ensuring that all children and youth have the opportunity to learn” (p.178).

The World Development Report moreover includes some disjunctures within its own discourse, or what some have described as “doublespeak.” For example, it appears to take seriously the fact that millions of children lack access to education, especially those who are marginalized—minorities, refugees, students with disabilities. Yet the authors concurrently argue that access should not be the focus of the international community’s efforts on education: “Attention must now shift to ensuring learning for all” (p.64). Another disjuncture is clear in the Report’s discourse on large-scale global assessments, stating in one instance that “measurement of learning is not shorthand for international testing such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)” (p.92, italics in original). Yet the Report also touts the value of PISA, and the benefits of the “PISA shock” where several countries participating in the test have initiated targeted reforms following the release of test scores (p.94). Such disjunctures make the positions presented in the Report vague and somewhat meaningless, leaving the reader wondering to what degree the Bank’s rhetoric could inform the organization’s actions, and in what ways.

To reiterate, there are some very positive elements to this World Development Report, not least of which is its focus on education, attracting attention to and increasing awareness of the learning crisis. My question is: Are the claims made in the report reflective of what’s happening in practice? It would be important to understand if the positions and evidence pronounced in the World Development Report have a bearing on what happens in World Bank operations, or if we witness any divide between what the organization says and what it does.

#WDR2018 Reality Check is a blog series organized by Education International.  The series brings together the voices of education experts and activists – researchers, teachers, unionists and civil society actors - from across the world in response to the 2018 World Development Report, Learning to Realize Education’s Promise. The series will form the basis of a publication in advance of the WB Spring Meetings 2018. If you would like to contribute to the series, please get in touch with Jennifer at jennifer.ulrick@ei-ie.org. All views expressed are those of the authors alone and do not represent the views of Education International.

Check out the previous post in the series by Jennifer Ulrick: #WDR2018 Reality Check #0: Education experts and activists respond to the World Development Report


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Francine Menashy

Francine Menashy is Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She researches aid to education and non-state sector engagement, including the policies of international organisations, companies and philanthropies. She has studied and published on such themes as public-private partnerships, financing of private schooling, and aid to conflict affected and fragile states.

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