“We Are the Perfect Gadflies”
Education has come to the forefront of the development debate. But the implementation and effectiveness of many education programs is hampered by rampant corruption. The combat against corruption needs to integrate young people at the grassroots level.
August 12, 2014 by Frits Brouwer, UNESCO
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9 minutes read
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Credit: Allison Kwesell / World Bank

This blog post is part of a youth series that we are running this week on the occasion of International Youth Day on August 12. The Global Partnership for Education is committed to working with youth as important members of our partnership.

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948, every person has had the right to an education. The right to free elementary education is enshrined in the Declaration’s 26th article.

With the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), coming to an end in 2015, it’s clear that we won’t be able to give every child their human right to an education. Furthermore, as the Institute for Global Development Strategies argued in a March 2014 policy brief, emphasis should shift from education to quality education.

Two issues need to be addressed here: 1) poor student achievement (123 million youths at age 15 to 24 lack elementary literacy skills, primarily due to a lack of qualified teachers, scarcity in teaching materials, and classroom sizes) and 2) the tendency of many educational systems to focus on knowledge and memorization rather than the critical thinking, global citizenship, and creative tools needed for a swiftly changing world.

Money needed, but no corruption!

Improving this situation requires money. And, as usual, that’s where things turn ugly. According to Transparency International’s latest report on corruption in education, some $21 million earmarked for education in Nigeria were lost over the past two years; Kenya, lost $42 million since 2009. This trend has multiple severe social consequences.

Corruption in education may well affect the integrity and dignity of affected students for life. Corruption also undermines the dedication to increase the quality and reach of education.

But how to fight corruption?

Approaches to combat corruption in education and create accountability for governments and the education network sometimes fail in their well-intended mission. A few weeks ago, I attended the Global Partnership for Education Replenishment Conference in Brussels as one of three Dutch youth. At the conference, developing countries pledged $26 billion and donor countries $2.1 billion to finance education in the poorest countries. During the plenary session, I asked European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs, how to make sure that governments also spend the money they said they would spend on education  – not on other projects, not on weapons and, especially, not on themselves. He didn’t have a clear answer, and admittedly, it’s so much easier said than done. But it is very important that we all work together and ensure that our governments are accountable and make their pledges come true.

Corruption happens everywhere

Corruption happens most often in those countries that need education the most – but not only there. It happens in countries torn by internal strife, like Yemen. It happens in countries that have entered a relatively prosperous period in their existence, like Kenya. It happens even in increasingly prosperous economic giants, like China. It happens in the USA, too. And the way to start combating this is by acknowledging the problem.

What are the reasons for corruption?

We also need to understand the reasons for corruption. One reason is the immensely complex administrative structure in many countries’ education system, where money goes through many hands and each hand takes a dollar. Another is the prevalence of patronage systems in many countries developing their education system, which leads to misappropriation of education funds.In many instances, corruption takes the place of social security. With limited social security structures, taking money whenever possible is a practical means to ensure safety.[1]  Furthermore, accountability mechanisms are often non-existent, understaffed, unable to access data, or themselves corrupt.

A few simple measures would go a long way in decreasing the risk of money slipping into the wrong pockets. Simpler administrative structures and rules concerning financing would be a great start. Government audits of education systems, although not always effective, would form another valuable contribution. Moreover, NGOs and international organizations, and in particular the Global Partnership for Education, have increasingly called for civil society involvement in accountability. This is a very promising stance.

An important role for youth

Young people can play a crucial role in fighting corruption. Transparency International calls us ‘innovative’ and lauds the networks youth can mobilize to push for change. But they miss the most important reason to engage youth: we are the perfect gadflies. Not tied to a government, and not always wed to an organization, we have the energy and the liberty to make statements and calls for action.

We can be the perfect critics precisely because we have been in the education system so recently, and often still are. And we have the outspokenness to engage in policy discussions and, often, the like-mindedness to pursue a shared goal – where later in life people may increasingly pursue personal interests.

Here’s one example that work

Take as an example Connected Development’s Education Budget Tracker, presented by youth advocate Ojonwa Miachi at the GPE Replenishment Conference. This Nigerian initiative relies on crowd sourcing through smartphones, a texting service and a digital form to check whether the money pledged to education institutions accomplishes what it was intended for. The wide availability of mobile phones, especially among young people, allows for a far more efficient control of the budget.

Students (as well as parents and teachers) can directly report anything they encounter in their schools. Young volunteers raise awareness on the importance of accountable schools. So far, the system, which is used by policymakers, students, teachers and parents, has had over 200 reports to the Budget Tracker and its supervision has led to the exposure of funds misappropriation in several school.

Education should not be corrupted

Corruption and lack of accountability still are among the most important issues to be tackled if we want to ensure quality education across the world. As the perfect gadflies, youth can play a vital role.

Putting a halt to corruption is beneficial to governments, too. Shifting their focus to the long-term gives them the honour of working for something greater than themselves. It helps build engaged communities that takes ownership of for their education systems.

In the long run, better education leads to a more powerful economy, a more prosperous population, and greater internal peace. And with that all comes what young people care most for: a future they are prepared for.


[1] Hanlon, J., Barrientos, A., & Hulme, D. (2010). “Just Give Money To The Poor: The Development Revolution from the Global South”. West Hartford, CT: Kumarian.

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