What’s the problem with International Aid for Education? By Pauline Dixon


Reliance on International Aid for education in developing countries often leads to corruption and mismanagement that undermines the very purpose for which the aid was given.  But it does not have to be this way.  Dr Pauline Dixon, Reader in International Development and Education at Newcastle University, argues for a market-orientated model that would better serve those who need it most.

Giving aid is a recent phenomenon inspired by the Marshall Plan of 1948 and Lord Keynes’s General Theory (1936). Europe was being rebuild after World War II with aid money, so could the giving of aid also work for developing countries? Why not stimulate investment and growth in Africa and Asia by doing the same?

Well, according to some economists such as Jeffry Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Colombia University, ending extreme poverty and achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will only occur if Official Development Assistance (ODA) increases significantly. ‘One big push’ of money, one more big injection of aid from rich countries will end poverty forever.

According to Sachs developed nations need to commit 0.7 per cent of Gross National Product (GNP) to development assistance, to end poverty once and for all. Not many countries commit this much, there are just a handful including Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark and the Netherlands. The USA although lagging behind at around 0.19 per cent is the largest donor in monetary terms at around £18 billion per year followed by Japan, France and Germany who give almost half that amount.

In 2010 the DAC countries provided $129 billion in aid with bilateral ODA to Africa at $ 29.3 billion of which $26.5 billion went to sub-Saharan Africa.

But does ‘systematic’ or ‘bilateral’ aid, (that is the giving of aid to governments through government to government aid or institutions such as the World Bank) make a difference to the poor?

Not according to the critics of international aid such as William Easterly, George Ayittey and Dambisa Moyo. They highlight the theft, corruption, waste and dependency that aid initiates. ‘Aid is not benign – it’s malignant. No longer part of the potential solution, it’s part of the problem’ says Moyo. Those that benefit from aid the most are the wealthy political elite. The World Bank concurs that corruption undermines Africa’s development with leaders, government officials, ministers and public servants lining their pockets with money destined for the poor.

If this is the case then pouring in more aid makes little sense.

Trillions of dollars of aid has been poured into Africa over the last half-century with seemingly very little effect. Looking at the statistics the majority of African countries are as poor as they were forty years ago – life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is only 52; half of the population are living on less than $1.25 a day and GDP growth is only 1.7% annually.

The giving of international aid has been plagued with large-scale embezzlement and a lack of transparency and monitoring. Countries receiving large amounts of aid are often some of the most corrupt states in the world according to the Corruption Perceptions Index. Somalia, Chad, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire are all in the bottom 40 out of 178 countries.

Aid can make very little difference in countries where there are major barriers to development and the environment is dominated by mismanaged, corrupt institutions created and perpetuated by elites. The lack of the rule of law and property rights along with inadequate governance all add to the inability for aid to engender sustained growth and a route out of poverty.

So what’s the situation with education? Is aid making a difference there?

Basic education receives large amounts of aid from the DAC countries. In 2010 the USA gave $856 million, the UK $268.23 million, France $208.35 million and Germany $181.54 million. According to UNESCO total aid, per year, to ‘basic’ education amounts to around $4.7 billion. However, that’s not enough to meet the Education for All target for 2015 and the MDG number 2. Therefore the suggestion is an increase to US$16 billion per year.

Aid for basic education typically targets government schools. Government schools have inherent problems when serving the poor. Research has shown that in some states in India teacher absenteeism in government schools can be as high as 42 per cent. And of those teachers present only half of them are teaching. Even though government teachers are typically well qualified, experienced, trained, and highly paid, lethargy, lack of commitment and low morale are endemic. In many developing countries government jobs are regarded as a job for life where the lack of accountability and the inability to be sacked, owing to a heavily unionised workforce, generates complacency. Money targeting institutions where no one teaches isn’t going to have much effect. No teaching, no learning.

There are also examples of theft, corruption and irresponsible use of money targeting education.

In Kenya, ministers in the education department, according to some reports, misappropriated $1.3 million from the World Bank and DfID destined for education. Textbooks costing $17.3 million have been ‘lost’, according to some newspaper reports, through fraud, theft and destruction. In other countries such as India, £14 million set aside for government schools was discovered as being stolen by Indian officials by the auditor general and according to some sources the money was used by education officials to buy themselves cars. In the extreme case international aid money has been set aside for government schools in India that don’t even exist.

Is there an answer or a way forward for international aid money and education?

One option would be to stop aid altogether.

Another, as suggested by Easterly and Ayittey is to start ignoring the planners who do not have the knowledge to allocate resources, but listen to the searchers and cheetah generation. That’s the entrepreneurs and innovators, those operating and living in the slums and shantytowns.

Low cost affordable private unaided schools are now burgeoning across the developing world. These private unaided schools typically cost £2-£4 per month and are affordable to market traders, auto rickshaw drivers and daily paid labourers, costing about 6% of their income per child (see my TEDx talk). In Hyderabad India 65 per cent of children attend low cost private schools, in Lagos State Nigeria its 75 per cent and Western Area Freetown, Sierra Leone its 82 per cent.

Poor parents want a choice. They want to send their children to school to be educated, by a teacher who is present and active. In a school where the staff and owners are from the communities themselves and the teachers and school are accountable to the parents. The majority of parents are able to afford these schools themselves. But the very poorest still don’t have that choice.

international aid for private schools

Pauline Dixon’s new book ‘International Aid and Private Schools for the Poor’ published by Edward Elgar is now on sale.

Aid for education should be based on gold standard research to inform policy. Asking the poor what they want, how they see best the allocation of aid should be priority. Aid agencies could target improving access to and the quality of low cost private schools through market led initiatives and market based solutions encouraging entrepreneurship and not aid dependency.

Improving access for the poorest could be through targeted education vouchers and unconditional (or conditional) cash transfers. Education vouchers would be given to parents who currently would like to send their children to low cost private education but are too poor to do so. This would allow parents to make choices whilst supporting local entrepreneurs and businesses. Providing vouchers directly to the poorest and the use of biometrics and bar codes cuts down on fraud and theft. Private schools would want to attract children who hold internationally supported aid vouchers to increase their enrolment, reputation and profits. Competition for additional students would encourage innovation and quality.

Focus could also be provided to setting up micro finance loan schemes, specifically targeting the private schools’ market, allowing low cost private school owners to access loans at affordable rates of interest in order to improve their schools. The regulatory environment also needs to change, so setting up accreditation agencies and independent assessment to overcome corruption and provide parents with a true evaluation of school quality could be one way forward. Finally, aid money could assist in developing affordable materials and innovative pedagogical practices (see my book International Aid and Private Schools for the Poor).

Whatever happens, something needs to change. Throwing good money after bad is starting to grate on those in developed countries being hit hard by austerity measures. Aid needs to start working and making a difference now more than ever before. Given a market focus it can.


Pauline-DixonDr. Pauline Dixon is Reader in International Development and Education at Newcastle University.  She works extensively in Asia and Africa searching for and analysing private and government schools catering for low-income families. She also works on projects which focus on improving the quality of and access to these schools. She makes frequent field trips to conduct research work to many countries around the world. In 2013 she was awarded a Luminary Award from the Free Market Foundation of South Africa. Pauline is currently the Degree Programme Director for the MA in International Development and Education and pathway leader for the MA (Education) full time (IDE).

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2 Comments on “What’s the problem with International Aid for Education? By Pauline Dixon”

  1. Consciousness of Africa Says:

    Foreign aid in Africa will be effective when the donor will give value the local way of thinking of their problems. If they impose their thinking on them it cannot be successful, that we are observing in the African regions for a long time. So, we need to localize the solution of the problem with developed management and resources.


  2. Digital Branding Service Says:

    One of the slightly odd things about the modern world is that we’ve all become rather better at emergency aid and rather worse at development.

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