The impact of aid on education policy in India

Christopher Colclough and Anuradha De

During the past three decades the importance attributed by governments and international agencies to investment in basic education has changed profoundly.  During the 1960s and 1970s, primary education was given far less emphasis in national economic plans, and aid documents, than was accorded to the higher levels of education, which were judged to be the central means of producing the skilled ‘manpower’ needed to achieve rapid economic growth in the countries of the South.  During the 1980s, however, evidence that primary schooling provided an important means of reducing poverty began to emerge.  This showed that primary schooling not only gave better access to formal sector employment for poor households, but that it provided skills which brought greater productivity in rural and informal work, and encouraged behavioural change (particularly in the areas of health, nutrition and fertility) which allowed a range of other development objectives to be achieved.  This evidence became increasingly influential in investment allocation, leading to significant changes in the practice of aid policy, and in the extent to which developing country governments gave renewed emphasis to primary education in their own plans and programmes. 

As a consequence of this changing balance of evidence, many aid agencies increased resources for primary schooling.  A watershed for such attitudes was the World Conference on Education for All, held at Jomtien, Thailand, in 1990, jointly convened by the World Bank, UNICEF, UNESCO and UNDP.  It proposed the attainment of universal primary education (UPE) by 2000, and five additional undertakings on other aspects of access to education and the quality of learning were affirmed.  A UNICEF paper, presented at the conference, indicated that these bold targets were attainable provided that sufficient resources were made available by national governments, supplemented by significantly increased levels of international aid.  Arising from the conference both the World Bank and UNICEF announced ambitious increases in their intended support for primary schooling.  DFID also signalled its intention to put increased emphasis on the primary sector, and on adult literacy and non-formal education (ODA 1994) – a trend that was to define its approach during the first decade of the new century. A number of other donors (notably Netherlands, Canada, and Sweden) were to reveal similar intentions.   The global commitments made by developing country governments at Jomtien to achieve the education for all (EFA) targets in their own countries suggested that there would be no shortage of willing recipients of this newly-pledged  aid support. 

India was to be prominent amongst such choices.  Of the global total of some 145 million children of primary-school age who were out of school in the late 1980s, some 60 per cent were resident in four countries – India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nigeria – and up to half of them (some 30-40 million children) were estimated to be in India.  Because of the sheer size of the Indian population, and its rate of growth, the annual additions to the Indian primary-age cohort were larger than anywhere else.  Accordingly, with more than one million new places needed every year simply to avoid retrogression in the proportion of children enrolled, the task of achieving UPE in India was the most daunting facing any nation.  India’s experience would thus be a critical determinant of global progress. Reflecting this perception, over the years following the Jomtien conference, international aid to education in India increased to a level which, by the century’s end, was larger than for any other country.  Although it fell back subsequently, transfers remained substantial in comparative international terms.  

India’s experience is, therefore, important to examine, if we wish to learn about aid’s impact on education policy.  This paper investigates the objectives of the donor agencies providing aid to Indian education, and of the government in accepting it. An assessment of aid’s policy impact is undertaken, using both documentary sources and evidence from interviews with members of the donor community, the central government and civil society. 

You can read the paper in full by clicking on .  Please do feel free to write and submit your review through the comments section below.


3 Responses

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