The Evolution of World Bank Lending for Education: 1998-2022

In 2011, the World Bank’s new education strategy stressed the need to shift focus from schooling (access or enrollment) to learning (test scores), and specifically towards foundational skills acquired in primary school. But this shift is not always easy to see in the actual lending data. Coding new details on 25 years of World Bank education loans and grants, we find a decline in the share of financing for primary school over the whole period, and no apparent increase in the share of projects targeting “quality” or “learning” as opposed to “access” since 2011. In contrast, there has been gradual but steady growth in projects targeting early childhood education. These patterns appear to reflect both supply and demand side factors. On the demand side, as primary enrollment increases, countries shift their borrowing toward early childhood education. On the supply side, the World Bank is significantly better at delivering early-childhood education programs compared to projects focused on raising test scores, as judged by independent evaluation scores. Evidence on the long-term learning gains from preschool suggest this may be a more feasible strategy for the World Bank to achieve its goals.


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