Foreign Aid In Education: More Challenging Than Expected


Foreign aid in education is gaining increased attention over the past decades although, despite the increasing influence of donor’s aid, the real issues within many classrooms are overlooked by policymakers. Education remains a critical tool for combating poverty. A literate population is crucial for economic success, with Kofi Annan, seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, referring to educational aid as being “… quite simply, peace-building by another name. It is the most effective form of defence spending there is.” Despite having, at face value, good intentions, the international community remains illogical, irrelevant and often an overall waste of time.

International aid is no easy task. Education aid itself quickly runs into issues implementing policies that work within indigenous communities. Furthermore, the lack of evidence in what works in the first place remains one of its greatest issues, according to Abby Riddell, senior lecturer at Harvard Institute for International Development. Education, unlike health or economics, is more abstract. Improvements in mortality rates are easy to perceive and chart, while observing increased learning is vague, near impossible to measure accurately, and gaining trustworthy results takes years, if not decades. To shift public opinion, ensure funding and gain results within a short time-frame, most aid agencies have focused on achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by providing school supplies, improving literacy rates and increasing school attendance. All of which looks excellent on paper, yet neglects the people, often failing to leave a lasting impact upon the community.

The MDGs’ aims of achieving universal primary education though being an important milestone has distorted methods of aid. The majority of programs fail to provide long-lasting solutions, merely being band-aids over significantly larger issues. Donor countries continue to channel resources into programs that ignore the larger issue, as the majority rush to meet the MDGs’ deadlines. Many school curriculums remain outdated. Kazim Bacchus, Professor of Education at the University of Alberta states that many developing nations maintain curriculums originally set up by their old colonial governments, often teaching skills not transferable to their everyday lives. The World Bank reports that financial aid has had little influence on learning achievement for female children in Cambodia, despite statistics showing huge leaps in school attendance. Supporting classroom construction, granting female scholarships and providing school materials are indeed good programs; however, these policies have heightened inequality, creating pockets of excellence surrounded by disadvantaged communities. Even when tuition is free, poor teacher training has resulted in families paying for tutoring to ensure academic success.

During an interview with The Post, Nobel prize winner in economics Angus Deaton stated that foreign aid destroys the relationship between the government and its people: “My critique of aid has been more to do with countries where they get an enormous amount of aid relative to everything else that goes on in that country… For instance, most governments depend on their people for taxes in order to run themselves and provide services to their people. Governments that get all their money from aid don’t have that at all, and I think of that as very corrosive.” Deaton points out that the developing world has drastically reduced poverty on their own in recent decades – almost none has been due to aid. The disconnect between the government’s education system and its people is only worsened with aid funding out of date institutions.

Mark Epstein, writing for Stanford Social Innovation Review, remarked that in most developing nations, even when tuition is free, dropout rates remain high, regardless of additional expenses. The investment of putting children through education is not resulting in greater opportunities elsewhere. Epstein argues, “… what students in impoverished regions need are not more academic skills, but rather life skills that enable them to improve their financial prospects and well-being. These include financial literacy and entrepreneurial skills; health maintenance and management skills; and administrative capabilities, such as teamwork, problem-solving, and project management.” With many curriculums based upon Western models, it is no surprise that those living in rural Nigeria rarely benefit learning about Greek mythology or tectonic processes. Furthermore, high-performers rarely have the opportunities to continue their education; options for higher levels of schooling remain few in number.

In response to growing concerns to the state of education, alternative programs are attempting to strengthen the relationship between schools and the community by providing increased information towards parents and establishing student monitoring programs in hopes of developing a culture open to life-long learning. Epstein proposes that these new curriculums should focus not on academic learning but provide the tools for the next generation to make a positive impact on their community. Deaton’s proposal to reduce the role of aid within governments will directly influence school curriculums by giving the government accountability to issues within the system. Governments currently do not need to worry about the people’s opinion; their very existence is built on foreign funds, so some economies have up to half the state’s budget relying on international donations. Deaton, in an interview with Forbes, argued that “One thing that we can do is to agitate for our own governments to stop doing those things that make it harder for poor countries to stop being poor. Reducing aid is one, but so is limiting the arms trade, improving rich-country trade and subsidy policies, providing technical advice that is not tied to aid.”

Alternative methods are gaining attention. Already some secondary schools are giving increased emphasis on entrepreneurship and health, yet many agencies perceive test scores as signs for community development. It is clear that students mastering the academic curriculum may not be the best means of alleviating poverty. The MDGs, though good, in theory, are not targeting the education system. It is necessary to restructure outdated curriculums to improving the effectiveness of education. The methods necessary to force education to restructure are reducing direct aid to governments, heightening their accountability and making governments rely more on the taxpayer. What is clear is that focusing on numbers is not directly improving people’s lives; there is a considerable gap between what aid does and what it could potentially achieve. The methods currently in place maintain the status quo. It is necessary to coerce governments into forcing structural changes to combat existing issues within their systems either through reduced funding, direct intervention, or promoting alternative strategies more aligned with the people’s needs.

Jonno McPike

Student at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Focusing on education policy and its role within foreign aid.
Jonno McPike

About Jonno McPike

Student at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Focusing on education policy and its role within foreign aid.