European exploitation of Africa started with the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 16th century. It continued with colonization and imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries and is primarily economic in the current era of globalization. European, American, and now Asian capitalists smell profit and move in. Sometimes they claim to bring benefits such as civilization, Christianity, philanthropy, and development, but their goal is always how much money they can make. The latest missionaries in Africa are tech and education companies, and like their slave-trading and imperialist predecessors, they do not hesitate to play dirty.
Last week, tech and education companies held a self-congratulatory marketing conference in Nairobi, Kenya called Education Innovation Africa 2016. Its official purpose was to "seek" ways "to deliver transformational and sustainable education businesses as well as collaborative approaches with African governments." The event was held in Africa, but it was not an "African" event. Of the fifty-one speakers pictured on the website thirty-two appear to be were of European background and many of the non-Europeans were also not sub-Sahara Africans.
The conference was also not an "education" event. This year's theme was "Driving Impact in Private, Social and PPP Education Projects in Africa." Organizers want to "unite key education leaders at Ministries, Educators, Programmes and Edtech companies, together with Capital Providers at PE, VC, Impact, Development Banks and Corporate Programmes" to expand public-private partnerships, the PPPs. Only two of the listed speakers were from academia. Forty-four of the fifty-one represented corporations of non-governmental agencies, and five were government officials.
Advertised speakers included Gregg Alpert of Pearson Affordable Learning Fund, Biju Mohandas of the International Finance Corporation, Vineet Bewtra of Omidyar Network, Julia Moffett, Director of Innovation at Equity Group Foundation, Kenyan education investors Ayisi Makatyani of Fanisi Capital and Anthony Wahome of AG International Limited, and Nairobi County Education Executive member Christopher Khaemba. Khaemba, who started out in the Kenyan military and then became a teacher and school administrator has been promoting entrepreneurship for the last decade and has close ties to the Kenyan government.
Gregg Alpert of Pearson is responsible for the company's "programs in emerging markets to build affordable education ecosystems" and for "business development in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America." His speech made clear the real purpose of the conference. He spoke on the "need to understand the different business models as well as required return on investment that investors are looking for in a sustainable education asset."
The corporate take-over and privatization of education in sub-Sahara Africa has been sharply criticized by United Nations officials and advocates for investment in public education. In a 2015 statement, 190 education advocates from 91 countries, called on governments in the under-developed/mis-developed world to stop education profiteers and the World Bank to stop financing these efforts. In May 2016, Kishore Singh, United Nations special Rapporteur on the right to education, described the out-sourcing of public education in Liberia to an American corporation as "unprecedented at the scale currently being proposed and violates Liberia's legal and moral obligations."
Another featured speaker at the conference was Shannon May, co-founder of Bridge International Academies, the company whose expansion into Liberia Singh was denouncing. According to the conference website, Bridge International Academies is the "world's largest chain of nursery and primary schools bringing world-class education to families living below the international $2-a-day poverty line." Bridge operates more than 400 private "academies" in Kenya, 63 in Uganda and six in Nigeria, and is trying to expand into Liberia and India. Bridge is a U.S. company founded in 2007. The Wall Street Journal reports that Gates, Zuckerberg, and Pearson have made more than a 1$00 million investment in Bridge. The company is also funded by World Bank's private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC).
The secret behind Bridge's ability to delivery cheap education in Third World countries appears to be cheap education designed for the Third World. In Bridge International Academies teachers are no longer teachers, but classroom managers who deliver scripted instruction. Many barely have high school educations themselves. They are tracked by academy managers who submit data on student and teacher performance to headquarters in Nairobi and Massachusetts. The school buildings are also built on the cheap with corrugated metal sides and roofs.
Despite its claim that its model will bring low-cost education to Africa's poor, Bridge International Academies is meeting official opposition in Uganda and Liberia. In January 2016 the Liberian government announced plans to turn over its troubled pre-primary and primary school system to Bridge and other private companies. It is probably the largest and education privatization scheme in Africa. Aid agencies and global civil rights groups accuse Bridge diverting public funds that should have been invested in improving "universal, free and compulsory basic education." Liberia's teachers unions are threatening to go on a nation wide strike in the fall if the government moves ahead with the proposed private take-over of the country's schools.
In Uganda, where the wife of the Prime Minister was just appointed Minister of Education, educational policy is highly political. In May, the Ugandan Ministry of Education temporarily suspended the expansion of the Bridge International Academies in Uganda. It remains unclear why and what will happen next.
Bridge International Academies is also one of those companies that play dirty. Educational International (EI) just reported that Bridge International Academies had Curtis Riep, a Canadian researcher affiliated with the organization, arrested by Ugandan police on false charges when they realized he was investigating its Ugandan operations. According to an EI news release, "After arriving for a pre-arranged interview with school officials on 30 May, Riep was detained by police and later charged with impersonation and criminal trespass." He was held in police custody for two days until he was cleared of all accusations. In e-mail correspondence, Riep reported that the level of intimidation was so intense that "Every school inspector and ministry official I have spoken with has told me about their unwillingness to cooperate and withhold information." After his return to Canada, Riep learned that Bridge had published a "wanted ad" in a Ugandan national newspaper accusing him of impersonating one of its employees and demanding that he be turned over to the police.
Gates, Zuckerberg, Pearson, and the World Bank need to stop their support of Bridge and similar efforts to privatize education or else risk losing any credibility in the Third World. In response to Bridges, Gates, Zuckerberg, Pearson, and their local and global allies, I offer an excerpt from the final letter Patrice Lumumba wrote to his family in 1960 just before he was assassinated. Lumumba was the deposed Prime Minister of the Congo and a former leader of its independence movement. The Belgium military and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency are suspected of conspiring in his death. In this letter, Lumumba expresses his thoughts on the Congolese independence movement and opposition to European and American exploitation of Africa.
"All during the length of my fight for the independence of my country, I have never doubted for a single instant the final triumph of the sacred cause to which my companions and myself have consecrated our lives. But what we wish for our country, its right to an honorable life, to a spotless dignity, to an independence without restrictions, Belgian colonialism and its Western allies - who have found direct and indirect support, deliberate and not deliberate among certain high officials of the United Nations, this organization in which we placed all our confidence when we called for their assistance - have not wished it. They have corrupted certain of our fellow countrymen, they have contributed to distorting the truth and our enemies . . . Africa, Asia, and free and liberated people from every corner of the world will always be found at the side of the Congolese . . . [W]ithout dignity there is no liberty, without justice there is no dignity, and without independence there are no free men . . . Do not weep for me, my dear companion. I know that my country, which suffers so much, will know how to defend its independence and its liberty. Long live the Congo! Long live Africa!
From July 8-10, educators, parents, and activists will rally in Washington, DC for three days of action in defense of public education. Featured speakers include author Jonathan Kozol, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, and Diane Ravitch. On July 8 there will be a People's March for Public Education and Social Justice. Save Our Schools is organizing a conference for July 9 to be followed by a July 10 Coalition Summit and organizing session. The program for the rally and meetings includes full, equitable funding for all public schools; safe, racially just schools and communities; community leadership in public school policies; professional, diverse educators for all students; child-centered, culturally appropriate curriculum, and no high-stakes standardized testing.
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