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08 Feb 2024
D. Brent Edwards Jr., Alejandro Caravaca, Annie Rappeport and Vanessa Sperduti

Pathways of World Bank Influence in Policy Formation in Education

In this blogpost, D. Brent Edwards Jr., Alejandro Caravaca, Annie Rappeport and Vanessa Sperduti summarize 11 “pathways” of World Bank influence on education policy globally. The authors argue that the World Bank is likely to remain an influential actor for the foreseeable future in the field of global education policy. The blog post marks the start of a new NORRAG blog series on International organisations and the global governance of education.

Since at least the 1980s, the World Bank has been one of the most important international organizations in education. This institution is best known for its activity related, on one hand, to financing education reform and, on the other hand, to evaluating reforms and then disseminating its findings broadly.

In practice, the World Bank engages a much broader range of strategies for influencing education policy globally. However, these strategies are not widely known. This lack of common knowledge is understandable because the operations of the World Bank are largely out of view of the public. In response, we conducted a systematic review of the literature, in order to identify and enumerate these strategies (Edwards et al., 2023).

We located 70 studies that shed light on how the World Bank is able to influence policy formation. These findings—recently published in a paper in the Review of Educational Research—draw on and expand the work of Dale (1999) and Samoff (2009), two authors who have long sought to clarify the impact of international organizations on education policy around the world.

In what follows, we summarize the 11 different “pathways” that we present and further discuss in the article mentioned above. As can be seen, these pathways relate not only to the provision of financing but also to a range of other avenues of influence, including pilot projects, technical assistance, and the coordination of other foreign aid providers, among others:

  • Loans: The provision of financial assistance by the World Bank to borrowing governments to fund reforms with which the World Bank agrees.
  • Conditionalities: Those conditions attached to the approval or disbursement of loans. Loans unrelated to education may include requirements for education sector reform; conversely, education sector loans may require actions beyond this sector.
  • Pilot projects: Small-scale projects or programs that test an innovative approach. These may be supported by the World Bank or other organizations. If deemed successful, the World Bank may provide loans and technical assistance to scale it up. Pilot programs can be the first step in a long process of entrenching the World Bank’s preferred approaches to education reform.
  • Advice and recommendations (technical assistance): World Bank representatives provide guidance to borrowers on what they should do, when, and how. This advice carries weight, particularly when associated with World Bank loans.
  • Loan-related reports and studies: Loans are enmeshed in a web of documents that include, for example, early studies, pre-appraisals, sector analyses, public expenditure review, implementation and management reports, and evaluations, etc. These reports specify what has been done, what has yet to be done, and what should be done. Ignoring the content of these reports can compromise loan eligibility.
  • Research: The numerous studies conducted by the World Bank are influential when it comes to establishing reform priorities around the world. The technical, rational, and objective appearance of the research lends credibility to the findings. Commissioned studies can guide education policy by providing findings that justify certain policies.
  • General publications: The World Bank’s publications include small reports on individual projects, analyses of aid and its consequences, and periodic reports on the state of the world. One of the most influential is the annual World Development Report, not to mention the journals produced by the World Bank, such as the World Bank Research Observer and the World Bank Economic Review, with the first of these designated as “enjoy[ing] the largest circulation of any economic title” (World Bank, 2016). These publications have become a global reference point not only for information but also for analyses of relevant problems and potential solutions.
  • Certifying role: The approval of the World Bank indicates to other development partners that a national government is taking appropriate steps towards reform in a satisfactory fashion, and that it can therefore be trusted with additional financing.
  • Coordination of foreign aid: The World Bank often facilitates dialogue among international organizations and with government agencies, in addition to overseeing the provision and use of other agencies’ funds—making it the primary point of reference for how to organize and manage development assistance.
  • International events: The World Bank has often used its resources to highlight, communicate, sell, and ingrain a particular message about education through events such as international conferences/summits, seminars, workshops, colloquia, and study tours.
  • Actor recruitment and socialization: The World Bank selectively recruits and attracts professionals from high-income and borrower countries who can help the agency advance its agenda. While these professionals often carry with them particular assumptions, frameworks, and expectations that align with those of the World Bank, the World Bank can also be a powerful socializing institution through its professional norms and its organizational incentives (Edwards et al., 2023).

It should be noted that these pathways go beyond “material” forms of influence based, for example, on the provision funding. They also speak to discursive influence of the World Bank. Through its capacity to produce and widely circulate its own studies and messages through a range of knowledge products, the World Bank plays a key role in shaping the priorities, themes, and framing of the global education reform agenda. And, finally, through the World Bank’s role as a certifier and coordinator of aid, these pathways also underscore the ability of this organization to keep issues off of the reform agenda of governments and other international agencies. In these ways, the World Bank’s forms of influence connect with what Steven Lukes (2005, originally published in 1974) in the book, Power: A radical view, famously called the “three faces of power.” These three forms of power are (a) the ability to influence the direction of reform in formal decision-making processes (as when it works with borrowing governments), (b) the ability to guide others’ preferences for reform, and (c) the ability to prevent unwelcome ideas or proposals from being seriously entertained.

While other organizations are gaining in prominence, and while the number of international organizations working in the field of global education policy has increased drastically in recent decades, we do not see the privileged position of the World Bank being seriously challenged in the near future. The main competitor for this organization—the OECD—has become one of the main reference points for education reform since 2000, but it is important to note that the OECD is not a lending organization. Thus, although there may be more competition when it comes to knowledge production and the sharing of reform ideas, no other organization comes close to the financial support offered by the World Bank. In terms of the provision of development finance to low- and middle-income countries, the World Bank is likely to remain an influential actor for the foreseeable future.



Dale, R.  (1999).  Specifying globalization effects on national policy: A focus on the mechanisms.  Journal of Education Policy, 14(1), 1-17.

Edwards Jr, D. B., Caravaca, A., Rappeport, A., & Sperduti, V. R. (2023). World Bank Influence on Policy Formation in Education: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Review of Educational Research, OnlineFirst, 1-39.

Lukes, S. (2005). Power: A radical view. 2nd ed. Palgrave Macmillan.

Samoff, J.  (2009). Foreign aid to education: Managing global transfers and exchanges.  In L.  Chisholm & G. Steiner-Khamsi (Eds.), South-South cooperation in education and development (pp.  123-156). Teachers College Press.


About the Authors

D. Brent Edwards Jr. is Graduate Chair of the Department of Educational Foundations and Professor of Theory and Methodology in the Study of Education at the University of Hawaii.

Alejandro Caravaca is a current PhD candidate at the Faculty of Educational Sciences of the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Annie Rappeport is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland and a lecturer at the University of Virginia.

Vanessa R. Sperduti is a postdoctoral fellow at Technion—Israel Institute of Technology, visiting scholar at The George Washington University, and the assistant director for the Comparative and International Education Society, University of Pittsburgh.

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1 Response

  1. Mike Douse

    Yes, of course the World Bank is a unique influencer. But it remains a bank, with all that that implies. Would that it – maybe in tandem with UNESCO – would lead the drive to address all of education’s fundamental challenges – limited human and material resources, inequities and inequalities, the colonisation of the schoolroom by the workplace, the stress on selection, the limited emphasis upon enjoyment, et cetera – by the careful and creative application of AI.

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