Despite US and civil society objections, World Bank approves Tanzania loan

Secondary school students take their exams in Mpanda District, Katavi Region, Tanzania. Photo by: Kelley Lynch / GPE / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — On March 31, the World Bank’s board of executive directors approved a controversial, $500 million education project in Tanzania, which has drawn criticism from civil society groups, the U.S. government, and opposition politicians.

The “Secondary Education Quality Improvement Project” aims to strengthen government-run schools, while “establishing stronger educational pathways for students who leave the formal school system.”

“A policy of 'separate but equal' should not be supported by the World Bank under any circumstances.”

— Sen. Robert Menendez, in a March 12 letter

Critics charge that those students who do “leave” Tanzania’s public schools are often forced out by the government. Tanzania President John Magufuli’s administration has vocally supported a policy of banning pregnant girls from school and channeling them through “alternative education pathways.”

Because of Magufuli’s endorsement of this policy, as well as his administration’s broader crackdown on civil society and threats to arrest gay Tanzanians, the World Bank withheld the education loan in Nov. 2018 — when it was worth $300 million.

According to a lengthy World Bank fact sheet, the revised version of the project approved this week includes components aimed at addressing gender discrimination and human rights concerns. The project’s environmental and social commitment plan, negotiated with the government, pledges to “keep children in school and help all secondary school dropouts, including pregnant girls, pursue their secondary education and … provide them with a path back into the formal public education system.”

The World Bank also committed to joining with other development partners to advocate for the government to end the practice of expelling pregnant girls from school, including through the project and in its policy dialogue with the government of Tanzania.

Tanzanian activists continue to voice concerns about the project and the government of Tanzania’s commitment to ending discrimination.

“The government has to affirm through legislation that re-entry into regular schools shall be the core pathway for pregnant schoolgirls, that is not clear from the factsheet put forward by the Bank today,” a Tanzanian civil society activist, who requested anonymity due to concerns about retribution from the government, wrote to Devex.

“The government should commit to updating legislation and guidelines, in consultation with civil society and other stakeholders, to institutionalize non-discriminatory policies and processes for re-entry into school for pregnant schoolgirls by the end of 2020, so that they can come into effect when the SEQUIP loan kicks in in 2021,” the activist added.

The U.S. government, the World Bank’s largest shareholder, voted against approving the project on Tuesday, despite acknowledging that the bank had made some progress in its negotiations with the government.

“The United States wishes to be recorded as voting no on this operation, as vulnerable communities still face significant risks in not being able to access quality education, and there remains great concern that the project will continue to stigmatize girls,” the U.S. Treasury Department noted in a statement.

“While the Bank has taken steps to engage with the Government on many of these issues, the United States is not convinced that this investment is appropriate at this time, nor that it will succeed in achieving its goals, and are concerned that Board approval may be interpreted as support for some of the ongoing unfair practices,” it added.

Prior to the board’s vote, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, wrote to World Bank President David Malpass to express his concerns about the project.

“To date, it remains unclear whether the Government of Tanzania has adequately responded to the Bank's concerns about those policies, which led the Bank to suspend the previous loan,” Menendez wrote in a March 12 letter to Malpass, which Devex obtained.

“It appears that the Bank, through this loan, may be helping institutionalize a discriminatory policy of the government by setting up specific institutions for pregnant girls. A policy of 'separate but equal' should not be supported by the World Bank under any circumstances,” Menendez added.

Given that Magufuli’s administration has cracked down on civil society, independent media, and opposition figures, critics of the project remain concerned about how the bank will ensure independent oversight of the government’s education plans.

According to the bank’s fact sheet, 96% of the project’s funds are contingent on the government achieving agreed results, which are to be verified by an independent body that the bank must approve. The project agreement also includes a “joint government, World Bank and civil society mechanism” that will “review the project’s results and how they were achieved.”

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.