The World Bank, comprised of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Development Association, is tasked to provide for the development and rebuilding of national economies. One such goal of economic development is the provision of education to reduce illiteracy, a major impediment to economic development worldwide and especially in developing countries. However, initially, the World Bank was founded to rebuild the infrastructure of countries devastated by the aftermath of the Second World War. That has started to change with the founding of the International Development Association, the second arm of the World Bank, in the 1960s.
Under World Bank President Robert McNamara, the World Bank started to diversify its focus from developing physical capital such as infrastructure to developing human capital, which included the implementation of measures to improve the health and education of people in developing countries. He transformed the World Bank from merely a bank that lends money for projects into the world’s premier international development agency. By boosting literacy of the populace, other important development activities such as dealing with water shortages, desertification, and contagious diseases can take place.
The World Bank has conducted numerous studies linking the increase in literacy of a particular nation or region to economic growth in that particular nation or region. One study linked increased maternal literacy to fewer children per mother as a result of increased ability to participate in family planning programs. That ties into the Millennium Development Goals which are to be accomplished by 2015.
Furthermore, the World Bank does substantial work in partnership with other public international organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to boost literacy in the developing world in particular. These partnerships enable the World Bank to accomplish its goals.
According to a study conducted by UNESCO, countries with a literacy rate above 96% have a per capita annual income of $12,600, while countries with a literacy rate below 55% have a per capita annual income of $600. Obviously, a nation’s per capita income is an indicator of a country’s economic and, to an extent, human development. Thus, the higher the per capita annual income, the greater the degree of a nation’s economic and overall development, which is the major goal of the World Bank’s programs.
Countries that apply for World Bank funding to improve their education systems are given funds on the condition that they satisfy various benchmarks. These benchmarks are effectively set by the World Bank and progress towards improvement of education is measured against such benchmarks. Such benchmarks include the increase of overall literacy rates or the increase of the number of children attending primary school. Although the World Bank aims to fight illiteracy in developing countries by lending funds to various governments, the results of these projects can be variable.
Of course, as the World Bank is heavily funded by wealthy countries, most notably Western countries and Japan, the recipient of World Bank funds is often pressured to accomplish development goals as set by, in effect, wealthy countries. In effect, the recipient is held to the standards directed by the West and Japan. One example of the World Bank’s effort to combat illiteracy is its extension of a $500 million credit (loan) towards an Indian government education project. However, such funding can come with conditions. According to India’s National Policy on Education 1992, the Indian government made a commitment to provide at least three teachers for every primary school. However, on the advice of the World Bank, the Indian government was to introduce multi-grade teaching, in which a single teacher handles five classes simultaneously. In addition, the government was encouraged to “water down” the minimum acceptable level of schooling from eight years to five years on the premise that “eight years of free universal elementary schooling was too much for a developing economy to promise its people.” This is due to the World Bank’s emphasis on overall literacy in general and simply increasing the number of children enrolled in schools at the expense of other priorities.
The World Bank participates in the recently launched Fast Track Initiative, the global compact for education. For example, in Madagascar, the government, under a seven-year World Bank sponsored project between 1998 and 2005, provided funds to 90% of schools, distributed basic school kits to 3.4 million primary school students, and distributed teacher kits to 47,000 teachers for the 2003-2004 academic year. In addition, 1,200 classrooms were built and over 50,000 instructors were trained. However, only 31% of students in that country continue to secondary school.
Overall, the World Bank, through its projects, intends to reduce illiteracy and expand access to education. However, these projects do not always produce the results desired.
 “Bank Pays Tribute to Robert McNamara” Washington, DC: The World Bank Group. http://go.worldbank.org/C5CP4J6JAO
 “Why Does Literacy Matter?” Youthink Portal. Washington, DC: The World Bank Group. http://youthink.worldbank.org/issues/education/literacy/ Created December 18, 2006.
 David Cheney, Lecture Presentation.
 Sudha Ramachandran, “Literacy Beats out Education in Asia.” http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/FD24Df04.html, Asia Times Online, 24 Apr 2004.
 “School Enrollments Rising as African Nations Reform Education Systems” Washington, DC: The World Bank Group. http://go.worldbank.org/VC94IFM7K0 Created July 6, 2006