Despite a long-standing public commitment to free education, Liberia recently made the controversial announcement that it is seeking to outsource its entire primary school system to a private provider.
Education Minister of Liberia, George Werner, is planning an unprecedented public-private partnership (PPP) with US company Bridge International Academies (BIA). On the table is a five year contract worth 65 million to manage the country’s pre-primary and primary education system. If the partnership is pursued public funding will pay for BIA’s services and parents will have to fund 5 -7 $ per term per child, excluding meals. This cost was found to be closer to 12$ to 20$ per child, entirely unaffordable for most poor households in Kenya and Uganda where BIA currently operates 400 nursery and primary schools.
Bridge Academies delivers a highly structured, technologically driven model of education in which teachers deliver lessons from scripts on tablets. BIA asserts its approach offers students access to quality education they would otherwise not have, self-reporting significant gains in reading and maths attainment among their pupils. A one year pilot programme will be introduced in 70 Liberian schools come September 2016 before the half decade deal is struck. The pilot, not funded by the Liberian government, will be evaluated by an independent study after which the partnership may be discontinued.
Bridge International Academies is ambitious, seeking to reach 10 million children in the coming decade. Powerful backers support their efforts including Bill Gates, the UKs Department for International Development (DfID), Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and the World Bank, which wired the company 10 million dollars. This support was starkly criticized by civil society organisations across Kenya and Uganda, who have since cautioned Liberia not to sell what should be a public good. Likewise, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, characterised the decision to relinquish responsibility of public education to a commercially driven organisation as a “gross violation of the right to education” which undermines Liberia’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to free education.
The World Bank has endorsed and invested in low-fee private education providers like BIA with the view that these businesses may leverage greater support for teachers, learning materials, as well as implement technology innovatively in classrooms. Private education providers have mushroomed on the back of struggling states, yet there remains no independent evaluation which supports outsourcing education is of interest to pupils. On the contrary, fee-based education is found to price out the poorest or requires families to choose which of their children may attend, largely at the expense of daughters.
A PPP on this scale would be a bold experiment in any country but especially challenging in a state recovering from 14 years of brutal civil war and a devastating Ebola outbreak. Liberia’s trained workforce and physical infrastructure have been severely affected, leaving its education system struggling. UNESCO estimates 500,000 students are not in school and one fifth of those in classrooms do not complete primary school. The country’s literacy rate is currently just over 60%.
Is a top-down, highly structured and imported approach the answer? How will the world’s largest education innovation company ensure that the Liberian curriculum is delivered in a culturally sensitive and enriching manner to nearly 40% of the population? How will it guarantee all children have access? What else will private-led governance of this kind issue in? And, assuming the partnership is picked up, what happens in five years time? The impact of this PPP in Liberia is likely to reverberate to other states similarly struggling to deliver public services. At the dawn of the SDGs, are we seeing a shift back towards the privatisation of education?
Image credit: Neil Brandvold with US Aid
All Africa “Liberia: Education Minister Negotiates Public Private Partnership Deal” (29th January, 2016)
InDepthNews UN Insider “Liberia Outsourcing Public Education to a US Company” (6th April, 2016)
Vox World “Liberia is outsourcing primary schools to a startup backed by Mark Zuckerburg” (8th April, 2016)
ESCR-Net – International Network for Economic, Social & Cultural Rights “Members in Kenya and Uganda call on World Bank to end support for privatization of education” (13th May, 2015)
Bretton Woods Project “The Elephant in the classroom: the World Bank and private education providers” (6th July, 2015)
Al Jazeera Stream “Outsourcing Liberia’s education system” (13th April, 2016)
TED Talks: Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie "The Danger of a Single Story" (July, 2009)