In a statement to the Ugandan parliament last week, Hon. Janet Museveni, Ugandan Minister for Education and Sports, explained that the ministry will close 63 private primary and nursery schools at the end of the term due to problems with licensing, safety and sanitation. The schools are operated by one of the world’s largest private, for-profit education companies.
As this blog reported in April, Bridge International Academies is funded by the World Bank; American venture capitalists, New Enterprise Associates and Lean Capital; and philanthropists including the Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Pierre Omidyar. Bridge is associated with the publishing and testing giant, Pearson. It has also been supported by the United Kingdom Department for International Development. Justine Greening, a Conservative Party member of the British Parliament who headed up the Department for International Development before being appointed earlier this year as British Secretary of State for Education, has been influential in promoting Bridge Academies.
According to its website, Bridge International Academies has expanded rapidly in Africa. It opened its first school in Nairobi, Kenya in 2010 and operated 130 schools in Kenya by 2013. In 2014 it prepared to expand into Uganda and Nigeria—operating seven academies in Uganda by February, 2015. Bridge currently operates 63 schools in Uganda. Now it is expanding into Liberia and India.
The Global Campaign for Education and a number of international education and human rights organizations released a statement at the end of last week supporting Ms. Museveni’s decision to close all Bridge International Academies in Uganda. Respecting Ms. Museveni’s decision to close the schools based on immediate problems with licensing and hygiene, these international advocates for public education as a human right examine much deeper problems in the schools: “Bridge International Academies is a for-profit commercial chain of low-cost private schools backed by investors such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Pierre Omidyar (eBay), as well as the World Bank, and the U.S. and British Governments. It aims at providing education to 10 million pupils by 2025 and already runs over 450 schools in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and soon Liberia and India. The company has been particularly criticised for using a non-transparent system of entirely scripted and standardised curriculum mostly designed in the USA, delivered by untrained teachers reading the script from a tablet, while selling this scheme as ‘world-class education’ to poor people in developing countries in a bid to seek profits. The decision to close BIA schools (in Uganda) follows several statements from United Nations (UN) human rights bodies as well as a report from a UK parliamentary watchdog that criticised BIA, suggesting that the development of these schools may lead to human rights breaches.”
The Global Campaign for Education’s press release quotes Frederick Mwesigye, Executive Director of the Forum for Education NGOS in Uganda: “The Ugandan education system suffers from many shortcomings. However, it does not mean that any investors can come in and make profit out of the situation by delivering low-quality education while disregarding national authorities and standards.”
Bridge International Academies released its own statement responding to the Ugandan government’s plan to close its schools. In the statement Bridge declares that it will continue to operate through the semester, as Ms. Museveni has said the Ugandan government will permit. During that period the company plans to, “work with the relevant educational authorities to uphold our commitment to our parents and communities to provide a world-class education to their children.” Clearly the company hopes to be able work out its problems with Ugandan regulatory agencies.
In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes the response of the global marketplace to natural catastrophes and any kind of widespread failure of government services in the developing world: “I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (p. 6)
Klein argues that rapid expansion of privatization worldwide, like the emergence of Bridge International Academies—supported by the World Bank, the U.S. and British governments, and venture philanthropists like Gates and Zuckerberg—is a form of colonialism that perfectly exemplifies neoliberal ideology: “(T)he ideology is a shape-shifter, forever changing its name and switching identities. (Milton) Friedman called himself a ‘liberal,’ but his U.S. followers, who associated liberals with high taxes and hippies, tended to identify as ‘conservatives,’ ‘classical economists,’ ‘free marketers,’ and, later, as believers in ‘Reaganomics’ or ‘laissez-faire.’ In most of the world, their orthodoxy is known as ‘neoliberalism,’ but it is often called ‘free trade’ or simply ‘globalization’…. All these incarnations share a commitment to the policy trinity—the elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations, and skeletal social spending….” ( pp. 14-15)