Private low-cost schools succeed better in development aid

Swedish education assistance is channeled through UN agencies, which assume that private entrepreneurs are not part of the solution to poor countries' failed education systems. It is high time that the success and competence of the private and for-profit low-cost schools is recognized and managed within Swedish development assistance. That is the opinion of Henrik Sundbom, project manager for the think tank Frivärld.

Malala Yousafzai, who was shot because she fought for the right of Pakistani girls to go to school, has become a strong symbol in a global and important struggle for education in poor countries. Swedish development assistance money goes to this purpose through, among other things, UNESCO's Education for All, which tends to see public actors as the only ones who have the opportunity to ensure that poor children receive a good - and free - education.

But what kind of education does Malala advocate? In his book, I'm Malala, she tells how her father decided to give the children in the Swat Valley a good schooling when the public betrayal. She talks about public schools with sky-high teacher absenteeism and corruption, and about teachers who see it as their job to keep the children because they can not imagine that the children can benefit from education. It is hard to imagine that a young girl like Malala could have been allowed to flourish in a public school in a deeply conservative, religious country like Pakistan.

Mala's father, who is often described as a school administrator or, in short, a principal, is in fact the entrepreneur and chairman of an organization that brings together over 400 Pakistani private schools, most of them with poor families as their main target group. The British school researcher James Tooley draws attention to this in this week's issue of The Spectator, and research conducted by him and his colleague Pauline Dixon shows that it is often the type of entrepreneurs who shoulder the responsibility for educating the poorest when the public sector fails.

In Lahore, Pakistan, half of the children in families with incomes below one dollar a day go to private schools.

In the three poorest slums in Hyderabad, India, 65 percent of children go to private schools and the group that chooses private schools the most are Muslims who feel let down by the quality and accessibility of public schools.

In Patna, one of India's poorest cities, 79 percent of the schools are private, and of the private schools, 69 percent are aimed at poor families and charge school fees of less than 300 rupees (about 30 kronor) a month.

In Lagos, Nigeria, 75 percent of the children in the poor suburbs go to private schools.

In the Ga district of Ghana, where 70 percent of the population lives in poverty, 65 percent of children go to private schools.

UNESCO states in the report "Overcoming inequality: why governance matters”From 2008 that school entrepreneurs - like Malala's father - are a symptom of failed education systems, not part of the solution. But the need for good schools is so great that international organizations should not allow themselves to prioritize private actors for ideological reasons. The fact that the schools that are best at delivering high-quality education in difficult circumstances also make a profit must not scare away the support of the outside world.

Far from all private schools are good, the fact that a large number of private schools in Pakistan have chosen to ban Malala's book because it is considered to be against Islam serves as a brutal reminder of that. But it is nevertheless within the private sector that the pragmatic solutions for how poor children should best receive education exist.

It is high time that Swedish development assistance recognizes that private low-cost schools succeed better than anyone else and finds a solution that takes advantage of their skills. In India and Pakistan, small-scale experiments are made with school checks - not unlike Swedish school fees - which children can redeem in private schools, among other things with the support of German democracy assistance. Incorporating that idea into Swedish development aid would be a smart way to export the best of Sweden's system of freedom of choice and take advantage of the market's power to solve seemingly insoluble problems.

Henrik Sundbom, project manager at the think tank Frivärld

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