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British aid should not be used to support school privatisation abroad

Labour is committed to the principles of universality, democratic accountability and accessibility, says DAN CARDEN

THERE are 260 million children worldwide not currently enrolled in school. 

And too many who are enrolled simply don’t receive the education they need to equip them for life. 

The World Bank has declared this situation a “learning crisis.” 

In my first exchange in the House of Commons with the new secretary of state for international development earlier this month, I asked the government why, given this global learning crisis, it was continuing to use UK Aid to support the privatisation of education overseas.

Fee-paying private schools don’t reach the most marginalised children. And we know from our own experience here in Britain that a universal public education system is a basic requirement to provide all children with the schooling they are entitled to. 

The international development select committee (IDC) has said that the Department for International Development’s (DfID) support for private education is “controversial” at best, and has questioned the sustainability of the model in the long run. 

The IDC has called on DfID to focus on supporting partner countries to “provide free, inclusive and quality education to all its citizens.”

Similarly, the UN Special Rapporteur on Poverty and Human Rights was damning in his report into the impacts of widespread privatisation of public goods as it “further marginalising those living in poverty.”

I saw for myself when I visited Kenya last month the huge educational needs that are faced by countries in the Global South. 

I visited both state schools and low-fee private schools and I met pupils, parents, teachers, trade union representatives and civil society groups.

They told me worrying stories about their experience with so-called “low-fee” private schools, and one chain of schools in particular: Bridge International Academies — a school chain so riddled with problems that over 100 civil society groups have previously called for donor countries, including Britain, to stop investing in the company.

Parents told me how they’d been misled into believing their kids would benefit from scholarships which never materialised, leaving them unable to pay fees and their kids missing chunks of schooling as a result. 

These claims of “false advertising” form part of the case these parents have filed with the World Bank’s ombudsman. 

When I met the head of the Kenyan Union of Teachers, he was clear that he wanted Britain to stop using aid money to privatise their country’s education system. 

When it came to education, the people I met wanted the same thing my constituents in Liverpool want: decent quality, publicly funded schooling for their children. 

Labour is committed to restoring basic goods and services here in Britain to democratic public control. 

We know that our NHS and universal public education underpin our efforts to build a fairer, more equal society. 

We also know that it is the reckless privatisations of these services in Britain in recent decades that have weakened them.

It is not right that Britain exports models of privatisations for public services overseas, rather than supporting the public ownership of these services to countries that so desperately need them. 

We must radically change the approach and strategy of DfID under the next Labour government and we are committing now to set up a new unit within the department dedicated to promoting public services through UK Aid and working in partnership with civil society and governments across the world to achieve this goal.

As well as supporting quality education systems, our unit for public services will focus on strengthening health systems as well as water and sanitation services which are crucial to public health.

Labour’s focus on public services will signal a clear break from years of ideological promotion of privatisation overseas.

For several decades now, DfID, along with other donor states, the IMF and the World Bank, has pursued policies aimed at reducing the role of the public sector.

The commercialisation of public services through privatisation and liberalisation has become widespread and fledgling public services in some of the world’s poorest countries are increasingly under threat from the latest generation of free trade deals.

The same agencies are now promoting various forms of public-private partnerships (PPPs) as the way to finance the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. 

Yet PPPs have proved an expensive way to invest and because they are ultimately accountable to shareholders not citizens, provision tends to be focused on those who are easily accessible or able to pay rather than the most marginalised.

We cannot allow this to continue when we know it serves to worsen the divide between rich and poor and drives down decent work through cost-cutting. 

At this month’s UN general assembly in New York, member states will come together for the first ever high-level meeting on universal health coverage.

At the time of writing it is not clear if our own Secretary of State plans to attend. A coalition of global health NGOs, as well as a cross-party group of MPs, are all calling on the Secretary of State to attend the meeting and show British leadership in achieving health for all.

Given the scale of need globally, it is vital that this meeting confirms a strong commitment to publicly delivered universal health systems. 

The World Health Organisation is asking the world’s leaders to commit to ensuring that everyone has “access to the healthcare they need, when they need it, without facing financial hardship.” 

In government, this is the leadership that Labour will show. Our own unit for public services will be rooted in the principles of universality, democratic accountability and accessibility. 

It will support financing through progressive taxation to ensure services are available free at the point of use and support the development of a skilled public workforce. 

When delivered in this way, public services are a powerful force for equality, social justice and economic development. 

Because, when provided universally they do not discriminate in who can access services. 

This agenda is also vital in achieving greater gender equality as we know it is women and girls who are forced to take on the burden of unpaid care and domestic work when these services are absent.

The Sustainable Development Goals set out an ambitious vision for the world: a world that is free from hunger and poverty, where men and women have equality, where everyone, regardless of income, can realise their right to health, education, water, energy and decent work, and where peace, justice and climate action are prioritised.

It is only through putting people, rather than profit, at the heart of the agenda that we will achieve this vision and ensure a global generation are equipped with the necessary capabilities and skills needed to meet the developmental challenges of our time.

Dan Carden is shadow secretary of state for international development since 2018, and has served as Member of Parliament for Liverpool Walton since 2017. This article appears in Education for Tomorrow.

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