Until recently, the World Bank has been a vocal supporter of for-profit privatized education such as that offered by Bridge International, which had been expanding rapidly in Africa.

Thanks in large part to the work of Education International, a world confederation of teachers’ unions, the World Bank has changed its policy.

In a sudden and far-reaching policy shift, World Bank President David Malpass has agreed to major reforms that include officially freezing any direct or indirect investments in private for-profit pre-primary, primary and secondary schools. This has been a critical issue for Education International for many years and has been the key focus of our interactions with the Bank.

It has also been a major thrust of our Global Response campaign, where member organisations, regions and the EI secretariat have worked together to research and expose the activities of private, for-profit firms. Examples of that work include Uganda and Kenya, where illegal operations took place or labour standards and regulations were violated by Bridge International Academies.

Given that the World Bank is the largest funder of education in the developing world, EI has been keeping a close eye on their work. We have repeatedly and publicly challenged them for promoting privatisation, attacking teachers and undermining quality education systems and have tried to engage in dialogue – in meetings, including with EI officers and through letters, reports, and other methods. Not only did policy and financial support for private, for-profit, education operators like Bridge International Academies continue, but it increased. Some national foreign assistance agencies, including the UKs Dfid and USAID as well as private funders joined the parade. It was an ideological and profit-driven attack on public education.

Two things altered the situation. First, a pro-labour majority was elected in the US House of Representatives in the 2018 mid-term elections. That shifted leadership of key committees to members who were friendlier to trade union views. Second, the COVID-19 crisis required a broad consensus among the House, the Senate, and the White House to adopt a 2-trillion-dollar relief package. The positions of the World Bank evolved in discussions between the House Financial Services Committee chaired by Maxine Waters (D-California), and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

These actions built on growing global recognition of the damage done by private, for-profit education. That increasing concern includes a decision by the European Parliament and an agreement by the Board of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

World Bank polices and advice to many countries have long supported private delivery of education and other public services. Although it has officially committed to support the Sustainable Development Goals, much of its policy and actions run counter to that global consensus.

Financial support for private, for-profit education firms came largely from the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), which is charged with making loans to the private sector. Under the agreement with the US, the IFC will freeze all support to private, for profit schools, including through direct investment, indirect investment and advisory services

EI continues to pressure the Workd Bank to adopt progressive policies that recognize workers’ rights and the need to regulate businesses practices.