Why Weaker USA Teachers’ Unions Are Good For Africa

Published on 30th October 2018

When the United States sneezes, as the old adage goes, the rest of the world often catches a cold. The US Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which ruled that public-sector unions cannot force fees on non-union employees, could have significant implications for education in Africa.

It is well known that US teachers’ unions have long used their resources for political campaigning and lobbying, often fighting – to the detriment of students – against needed reforms. What is less known is that this activism has extended beyond US borders, with some teachers’ unions having established their own international affairs departments that focus on campaigning in developing economies. That may come as a surprise to members across the US who believe their unions are focused on their interests at home.

This is not purely an American phenomenon. Many of the world’s teachers’ unions, including the American Federation of Teachers, are affiliates of Education International (EI), a powerful Brussels-based global lobbying federation.

In the last reported year, 2017, EI received over €10.3 million ($11.4 million) in membership fees to fund activities advancing five priorities – all with an African focus. In 2017, it spent over €341,000 – and in 2016 €406,000 — on its first priority: to protect education systems against the introduction of ‘detrimental’ market mechanisms.

This might sound well and good, but in practice, this amounts to opposing parental choice and new school models in sometimes underprivileged African communities. In Nigeria, a DFID report has revealed equity of learning in the very schools being agitated against – and; against a Liberian programme where a 60% increase in learning was proven in an RCT. What EI – through the African teacher unions to which it provides guidance and funding – is actually supporting is the status quo, which does not work for most African teachers or students.

Indeed, using imported rhetoric – largely from the US debate over charter schools – African teachers’ unions are encouraged (and funded) to oppose reform and innovation. This includes the development of public-private partnerships or affordable schools, both models advocated by Bridge schools. Western-based lobby groups like EI drive campaigns against African education reform, despite having only one executive member from the continent limiting their exposure to, and understanding of, the context in which education is delivered outside of Africa.

The reality is that teaching in Africa is in trouble, plagued by high rates of absenteeism, poor literacy, and an absence of training or support. This has contributed to a global crisis in which education systems are failing 600 million children worldwide.

Many teachers in Africa want reform. They want to feel empowered and proud of their chosen profession, and they want their pupils to learn. Innovative solutions can help, and have been shown to produce better education outcomes in Africa than traditional public-education systems. In Uganda, for example, over 93% of Bridge pupils scored in division one or two of the primary school-leavers (PLE) exam, compared to just 56% nationally, falling to just 44% in Eastern Uganda where Bridge pupils sat the exam.

African teachers’ voices have for too long been drowned out by internationally backed union lobbyists. After all, in much of Africa, the majority of public teachers were represented by unions, with fees taken directly from salaries by education ministries. This gave union leadership little incentive to actually listen to their members.

The Janus decision may change this for several reasons. First, local African unions will likely receive less funding from their counterparts in the West once people can opt out of paying fees. Reduced funding and political cover will not only reduce African unions’ overall lobbying capacity, it may also force them to be more responsive to their local members’ calls for reform. If African high courts emulate the US Supreme Court ruling, the impact would be even greater.

Moreover, once membership is a choice, those US non-union teachers who do choose to continue paying fees may look more closely at how their money is being spent. According to a survey carried out for Bridge by the research company OnePoll, three-quarters of Americans surveyed believe that there should be more education public-private partnerships in developing countries. If US teachers express opposition to funding campaigns against education reform abroad, the overall budget for foreign lobbying could shrink further, or be reallocated to different priorities.

Ultimately, these shifts could drive African unions to think more critically about their approaches, developing their own agendas based on their cultural contexts and local imperatives, rather than on the priorities of international umbrella groups. This would be an important first step toward tackling the continent’s education crisis.

Unsurprisingly, within the US, Janus has been denounced by unions. But, when it comes to education in Africa, the decision could be a coup.  If it results in local teachers’ unions paying more attention to their own members, this could be the start of desperately needed education reform.

By Morrison Rwakakamba,

Public Policy Analyst and Uganda Country Director, Bridge Schools.


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