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Comment & analysis

World Bank role in Namibian education crisis

Shaun Whittaker

2013-01-17, Issue 613

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Namibia has scrapped primary school fees, a stark rejection of the World Bank’s neo-liberal fundamentalist education model imposed on the country, which denied many their basic right and resulted in vast social disparities

The recent decision by the Namibian Ministry of Education to scrap school fees at primary schools can only be applauded. This expresses the reality that education is a social right and a necessity for all. In fact, it should be admitted that it was quite disastrous and downright irresponsible over these years to expect Namibians to pay for primary education. This step by the ministry also confirms that the usual insistence by the World Bank (WB), which directs the Namibian government on education, on ‘user fees’ or ‘cost-recovery’ has failed in the primary school sector of this country. Education is most certainly not a commodity.

The WB has been promoting its neo-liberal or free-market fundamentalist model of education throughout the world since the 1980s. This is one reason why Samir Amin refers to the WB as the Ministry of Propaganda of the Group of 8 (G8). Nevertheless, the recent WB strategy document (February, 2011), written in response to the capitalist crisis of 2008, is entitled ‘Learning for all: Investing in people’s knowledge and skills to promote development’ (WBES 2020) [See: Steven J. Klees et al. (eds). (2012). The World Bank and Education – Critiques and Alternatives]. Despite the social crisis, the WBES 2020 persists with the neo-liberal paradigm and, unfortunately, will dominate the global education debates for many years to come. Indeed, it is therefore crucial that the role of the WB in education should be publicly discussed in this country since this global right-wing institution determines the nature of the Namibian education system and its involvement is without a doubt a significant contributing factor to the education crisis.

A document by the WB on Namibia’s ETSIP [Education and Training Sector Improvement Program], called Implementation, Completion and Results Report (January, 2012), confirmed that: “The World Bank started supporting analytical work in the education sector in Namibia to identify the key bottlenecks in skills formation for competitiveness of the economy in the early 2000s.” ETSIP is a 15-year [2006-2021] strategic plan for which the country would eventually have been given a loan of almost US$500 million from the WB. So, the Ministry of Education has been implementing a neo-liberal framework for education. The emphasis on ‘competitiveness of the economy’ or ‘economic growth’ throughout the document exposes the fundamental ideological assumptions of this educational approach. In other words, education is not regarded as a basic right, but should be evaluated according to its contribution to the economy. Of course, crucial issues such as who benefits from this economic growth, its impact on the environment or the challenges of general human development are never addressed. Nevertheless, the lexicon, so fashionable in Namibia, of ‘knowledge-based economy’ and ‘human capital’ are manifestations of this narrow-minded neo-liberal world-view. This is also what Namibia’s commitment to the bank’s Education for All (EFA) initiative is about. The supposed ‘Education for All’ is driven by strategies such as privatisation, low salaries for teachers in public schools, de-professionalised teachers and standardised testing.

The matriculation results of 2012 revealed again that Namibia is burdened with a two-tier education system; one tier for the elite is well-resourced and privatised, while the second stream for the majority is under-resourced and public. Of course, a few formerly ‘white’ public schools stayed well-resourced as they continue to benefit from the colonial legacy. Needless to say, the Namibian education system is truly in the service of the few since the privatisation of education is to the advantage of the elite while it also serves as a smokescreen for neo-colonial patterns. In short, Namibian education reproduces social disparities. In this regard, the exclusion of a large number of grade 10 learners, who are pushed out of the public schools every year, makes a mockery of education for all.

If anything, free and compulsory education should be extended to secondary, vocational, adult and tertiary education as well. All fees should be eliminated. A discussion is also warranted about the secondary costs of education (for example, food, school uniforms, traveling, etc) that so many Namibians simply cannot afford.

Private education is obviously better resourced but not necessarily more effective. Countries like Cuba and Finland, for instance, have amongst the best education systems in the world, yet they have no private schools. Closer to home, it also cannot be disputed that the private post-secondary institutions in Namibia provide low-quality education.


Another World Bank prescription is that the salaries of teachers in public schools should be frozen or cut. Referring to teachers, the WB document on ETSIP maintained that: ’It was clear that, in order to implement the new activities and the priorities identified as envisaged under ETSIP, critical policy decisions would need to be made regarding core sector policies such as the full implementation of the staffing norms, the introduction of wage restraint to contain wage bill increases (which goes across the public sector)...’ It is highly ironic that government subsidies for private schools ensure decent salaries for teachers there, while teachers in public schools remain terribly under-paid.

The WB decided to downgrade the professional status of teachers. This explains why there is no incentive for teachers to improve qualifications and expertise. The ETSIP document states that remuneration would rather be linked to the ‘performance’ of teachers, which is usually measured by the constant testing and assessment of pupils. Such a performance-based reward system could also be used to scapegoat progressive teachers. So, no innovation or initiative is required from teachers, while WB specialists set the curricula. This is the context of the WB’s hostility towards teachers’ organisations. In an article ‘The war against teachers as public intellectuals in dark times,’ Henry Giroux (2012) avers that teachers are expected to play ’…the role of deskilled technicians groomed to service the needs of finance capital and produce students who are happy consumers and unquestioning future workers.’ Surely, a knowledge-based society could never be constructed with paraprofessional teachers; unless, of course, the (restricted) focus is on neo-liberal knowledge.


The WB seems to be obsessed with standardised testing for mathematics and (English) reading. The over-emphasis on testing leads to ‘teaching to the test,’ instills a technocratic mentality and side-lines critical thinking or any progressive discourse about racism, democracy, social justice, and so forth, in the classroom. In addition, it results in the marginalising of other areas such as the indigenous languages, social sciences, arts and sports.

Aside from the limitations of such a quantitative methodology, standardised testing is done in English, which immediately puts the vast majority of Namibian learners at a huge disadvantage as they are not assessed in their mother-tongue. Testing done by the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) in Namibia (2000) also found that the grade 6 reading and mathematics achievement indicated significant differences between high and low socio-economic status pupils. This shows that social class, rather than quality of teaching, is the primary determinant of learner performance. In any case, test performance could certainly never be equated with quality education.

Namibia inherited a Eurocentric and rigid industrial model of education. This is being reinforced by neo-liberal education which represents an autocratic mode of pedagogy and the instrumentalising of knowledge. What is needed in Namibia is a libratory education (and an equality-based economy), instead of the implementation of an imperial institution’s version of gutter education (and a so-called knowledge-based economy).


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