Privatizing Education in Liberia: Mega-Philanthropy and 21st Century Colonialism

I recently did some research on a subject I knew little about, social entrepreneurship.  I went to the library and checked out David Bornstein’s book, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.  After all, a blurb on the cover from a NY Times review says it is “A bible in the field.”  Social entrepreneurship is often non-profit and is best known in a global sense—the Grameen Bank and all those NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are registered with the United Nations.  Bornstein explains that social entrepreneurs bring characteristics of business and competition into the way “the ‘noncommercial’ or ‘social’ business of society is structured. Around the world, this work has been dominated by centralized decision making and top-down, usually governmental, institutions. It has been managed a little like a planned economy.”(p. 276)

But, continues Bornstein, governments are often not ideal: “As in business, advancing new ideas and creating new models to attack problems require an entrepreneur’s single-minded vision and fierce determination, and lots of energy and time.  It is the kind of work that flourishes to the extent that society successfully harnesses and nurtures the wide-ranging talents of millions of citizens… One of the essential differences between a planned and a market economy is the role of competition.”(p. 276)  As Bornstein defines it, social entrepreneurship imports the values of business into what he calls the social sector.

Social innovation  and social entrepreneurship in the developing world is very often underwritten by the philanthropy of tech entrepreneurs from the United States — the billionaires who have made fortunes at Microsoft and Facebook and their giant philanthropies.  Sometimes the approach is not-for-profit, but sometimes, favoring competition, the mega-philanthropists underwrite for-profit businesses that contract to undertake services traditionally operated by government, with the idea that business is far more efficient.

Two weeks ago, this blog described the World Bank-endorsed takeover of the public schools in the African nation of Liberia by a for-profit, American company.  Here are the facts as reported by Main & Guardian Africa reporter, Christine Mungai: “In January, Liberia’s minister of education made a far-reaching announcement, which nevertheless has largely flown under the radar—until now, when a top UN official has come out strongly in opposition to it.  Liberian education Minister George Werner announced that the entire pre-primary education system would be outsourced to Bridge International Academies to manage.  The deal will see the government of Liberia pay over $64 million over a five-year period; public funding for education will support services subcontracted to the private, for-profit, US-based company. Under the public-private arrangement, the company will design curriculum materials from April to September 2017, while phase two will have the company roll out mass implementation over 5 years….”  Mungai adds: “It would possibly be the largest, and most ambitious privatisation attempt in Africa’s recent history, and the move has elicited mixed reactions, for good reason.”  The project is defended by its proponents because it will begin with a 50-school, one-year pilot.

Stanford University has a whole department devoted to the idea of social innovation and entrepreneurship, a department with a publication, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, which describes itself as informing and inspiring “millions of social change leaders from around the world and from all sectors of society—nonprofits, business, and government…  SSIR is published by the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.”  The publication’s mission statement?  “To advance, educate, and inspire the field of social innovation by seeking out, cultivating, and disseminating the best in research- and practice-based knowledge.”

The Stanford Social Innovation Review recently published a piece by Kevin Starr, director of the Mulago Foundation and the Rainer Arnhold Fellows Program, in defense of Liberia’s outsourcing of its public education system to Bridge International Academies.  Starr reports that the Mulago Foundation was one of the original investors in Bridge International Academies and is among its largest investors, and he defends the foundation’s investment.

Starr’s argument is so internally consistent and so carefully grounded in the frame of social innovation that it is almost convincing, but then one needs to consider the assumptions.  “Bridge is an African education company that runs schools in settings of poverty—mostly in Kenya, mostly in slums… Established in 2008 in Nairobi, Bridge is now the largest private provider of education in Africa.  They open up in a new community every three days and will reach 110,000 kids this year… The Liberian government and Bridge entered into discussions that led to a public-private partnership agreement for the 50-school pilot, which will be funded entirely by private philanthropy… This is not ‘privatization’ of education. These are government schools with government teachers and government oversight.  Bridge supplies the curriculum…  and management systems.  This is about helping the public system deliver.  Moreover, Bridge has readily agreed never to open a private school in Liberia.”  We see that Bridge International Academies is a large education company that runs schools in several African nations—a private company with which the Liberian government has decided to contract.  Technically, as Starr insists, this is a public venture: the government is paying a corporation to operate its schools.  And Bridge Academies is, as Starr describes it, an African company—whose investors are Americans.  The pilot is being launched by American philanthropy.

And, according to Starr, Bridge International Academies’ operation is to be judged by its business efficiency as measured by cost savings, with performance on standardized tests the sole yardstick of school performance.  Buildings, according to Starr, will be cheap; teachers will deliver “state-of-the-art, closely guided lessons and activities” from scripts on tablets; teachers will teach for 8 hours each day; and “management systems will be extremely sophisticated, especially with regard to teacher behavior.”  We learned recently that one reason the Bridge Academies’ model is affordable for Liberia is that class size is anticipated to be 40-50 students, although in some instances teachers may work with classes as large as 70 students.  Teachers are to be trained in five week sessions and will not be expected to have college degrees.

Starr addresses those who have criticized the American philanthropists who are underwriting this experiment in African education: “A number of critics have pointed out that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have invested privately in Bridge, as though there is something sinister afoot. Um, that’s called impact investing, and its generally considered a very good thing.  In the impact-investing world, Bridge is the poster child for high-impact enterprises that have gone big (there aren’t very many).  It’s worth noting, though, that with more than 200,000 kid-years of high-quality education so far, Bridge has yet to make a profit.  No matter how well it goes, the work in Liberia is not going to put them over the top.”

The collaboration between the Liberian government and Bridge Academies  is also being framed as a sort of Shock Doctrine response to a Liberian national catastrophe.  You may remember that Naomi Klein defined the shock doctrine: “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.’” (The Shock Doctrine, p. 6)  The Voice of America just published a defense of the Liberian-Bridge Academies venture as the solution to a collapsed education system in Nigeria: “About 1.5 million children are enrolled in primary school in Liberia but the government said only 20 percent of the children complete 12th grade.  Years of civil war have also taken their toll on the nation’s education system.  In 2013, nearly 25,000 students failed the University of Liberia entrance exams.”  Liberian education minister George Werner is quoted defending the plan he has put into motion: “This is a small experiment for a big problem and we have to try it.  We’ve tried many things and they are not working… (O)ur children can no longer wait.  Let’s try this; it’s a pilot.  If it works, which I believe it will, fine.” Werner is said to approve the fifty-school, first year pilot because, “What is being tried in Liberia is a partnership with the best, vetted private providers to deliver management systems that can improve accountability and governance.”

So… they (the nameless doers of good behind this project) are not immoral profit-seekers, even though their school is for profit. And they and their company get to define high quality education for children living in poverty in Africa, even if classes of between 40 and 70 children whose teachers are delivering scripted, rote lessons from a tablet would not be suitable for their own children in California or Seattle.  We might want to examine philanthropy by wealthy tech entrepreneurs in the United States as perhaps a new form of colonialism—the 21st century variety.  The standard being promoted is to hire private providers with business skills—“management systems, accountability, governance.”  But if, at the end of the one-year pilot, Liberia expands the experiment nation-wide, the nation will have sacrificed the development of a cadre of well-educated teaching professionals who know how to work with children.