The Evolution of Rights Based Education and its Challenges

By Sarabe Chan, Chimwemwe Manyozo


NGO approaches to education have evolved from a needs-based approach to the present day’s rights-based approach, what were the key steps? What is the most effective response to the continued underfunding of public education systems in many developing countries? How should NGOs respond to the increase of for-profit low-quality private schools?

IDS Students, Sarabe Chan and Chimwemwe Manyozo, reflect on the Sussex Development Lecture, ‘The Evolution of Rights Based Action on Education’, where David Archer, Head of Programmes at ActionAid, attempted to address these questions.

The evolution of NGOs’ response to education

Since 1990, debates and international commitments have been made towards achieving quality education. But, despite so, why are these global statistics still so astounding? 57 million children are not in primary schools, 250 million who are in school fail to learn, the teaching profession is in crisis with a shortage of 2 million teachers, and secondary schools still remain out of reach in many countries. What should NGOs do to make a difference?

David gave an informative overview of NGOs’ response to education – from child sponsorship programmes in 1970s, which gained immense support but failed to engage schools, to a shift in focus on better schooling infrastructure in the1980s, which had little impact on school enrolment and education quality. The 1990s saw a decade of non-formal education with more local teachers and localised curriculums, but still, it was not sustainable as students’ transition into government schools was not feasible. David also mentioned the twisted logic that some large NGOs would secretly wish the government to fail so to garner more funding to establish non-formal schools.

Education in the turn of the century: rights based approach

Moving away from merely ‘providing’ education, the millennium saw the shift of NGOs’ response to a rights based approach, focusing instead on ‘enabling’ communities to demand their rights to quality education and the government as duty-bearers. Strategies were developed at local, national and international levels, such as bringing the grassroot voice to national policy dialogue, and influencing post-2015 agenda, etc.

The recent years have also been about the need to defend and advance transformative public education in the face of privatisation, and to simplify and popularise rights to education. David then presented some interesting examples of how funding would be spent on need based versus rights based education programmes, for example, by adopting the former approach, $200 could buy some textbooks and teaching materials for a school in Northern Nigeria, whereas the same amount could run a national workshop with Ministry of Education sharing research on the impact of School Management Committees (SMCs) in 40 schools in Northern Nigeria – leading to a change in federal government policy mandating the formation of SMCs in all Nigerian schools. He went on to give several examples to show the holistic and systematic change that adopting a rights based approach could result in. They sounded great, yet one cannot help but question the assumptions being made on impacts. For sure, systematic change is the most effective, but does it really happen in reality? Not necessarily.

David also praised the introduction of “free primary education” under the rights base approach that has improved access to education, highlighting that this has led to an increase in enrolment numbers in primary schools.  For instance, in Kenya, 2 million people enrolled soon after abolishing user fees. He further went on to highlight how they have advocated for the removal of other barriers, such as school uniform, etc. However, I questioned whether the pupils received quality education.

Take Malawi for example, when school fees were abolished in 1994, school enrolment increased but education quality was affected. Tarenyika (2010) argues that the policy was met with the lack of facilities, classrooms and teaching materials to satisfy the expanded enrolment numbers. Despite the increase in the education budget, spending per student, already low, fell by about 25 per cent and contributed to the decline in quality. As a result, nearly 300,000 students dropped out during the first year, and high dropout rates continue to this day.

Key contemporary issues: financing and privatisation

Moving forward, in response to the underfunding of public education systems in many countries, David thinks that Gordon Brown’s new International Commission on Financing Global Education should look at domestic funding to increase 1) share of domestic budget to education, 2) the size of overall budget (such as ending harmful tax incentives), 3) the sensitivity of the budget, and 4) the scrutiny of the budget.

In countries like Kenya and Uganda, the growing number of private schools, in David’s opinion, has increased social fragmentation as they are for-profit, low quality and has little to no regulations. A recent headline story in The Economist triumphed the emergence of these schools, but David thought otherwise, and went on to suggest several rights based approach to tackle this issue. While it holds true that privatization may not be sustainable and lack monitoring, the reality is that in countries such as Nigeria, national spending on education is so low that the private sector would probably be the best option in the meantime. Also, David’s argument does not take into consideration that in some countries, private institutions provide the best education as they cover up for states that have failed to provide quality education to its people. In most cases, senior government officers in these countries do prefer to send their children to private institutions than public schools.

Advocating for change and the power dynamics involved

Throughout the lecture, David touched on the use of Civil Society Coalitions for Education to advocate for policy change in the education sector. These coalitions comprise of NGOs, community-based organisations, teachers’ unions, religious-based organisations, and district networks. It however did not touch on the power dynamics between local and national organisations. Who sets the agenda for advocacy? Is it the aid agencies, or do these issues come from the grassroot level?

The issue of power is particularly interesting here, as this rights based approach presented by David would work only under the assumption that providing information to communities will automatically lead to them being able to hold teachers accountable. What about the power dynamics within the community? In practice, would they be in the way of people demanding their rights up front? If these power dynamics at the grassroot level can be addressed, then the starting point towards a rights based approach to education would likely to be more effective.