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Composition Forum 16, Fall 2006

Exporting the “Violence of Literacy”: Education According to UNESCO and The World Bank

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Claude Hurlbert and Anestine Hector Mason

In her groundbreaking book, The Violence of Literacy, the relevance of which has not diminished in the twelve years since its publication, J. Elspeth Stuckey argues that despite the best intentions of teachers, literacy is largely a tool of oppression rather than liberation. Learning to write, Stuckey argues, does too little to guarantee economic success for students of color other than white. Literacy is a promise in default—a default whose result points to the violence at the heart of economic and social arrangements. As Stuckey explains, “Literacy, like communication, is a matter of access, a matter of opportunity, a matter of economic security—a total matter. The violence of literacy is the violence of the milieu it comes from, promises, recapitulates. It is attached inextricably to the world of food, shelter, and human equality. When literacy harbors violence, the society harbors violence” (94). In writing our article we hope to convince literacy educators to rededicate themselves to paying attention to the promises being made on our behalf: including what these promises are, how they are defaulted on, and what the terrible consequences of these defaults mean.

In this article we argue that literacy educators need to give careful consideration to how the United Nations is committing, through the work of its Specialized Agencies, UNESCO and The World Bank, violence on a global scale. In the case of the World Bank, its eradicate illiteracy policies exclusively promote business literacy while attacking diversity of thought and expression, academic freedom, and teacher knowledge and security. The curricula it disseminates abroad do not value local knowledge, expertise, culture or discursive forms. And its commitment to eliminating teachers’ unions and traditional protections for teachers, such as tenure, is a threat to the forms of academic freedom that make education possible.

As citizens of the United States, we bear, of course, unique responsibility. Yet in our many conversations with literacy educators from around the country we find that the profession, while caring and concerned, still, as a whole, needs to develop its understanding of the history and tragic effects of this problem. In this article, we try to address this problem with information, suggest some positions and actions that might be taken, and offer hope that indeed things can change.


In response to its objectives to foster peace and promote worldwide democracy and development at the end of the Second World War, the United Nations established, in 1946, the Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. According to Article 1, Section 1 of the Preamble to UNESCO’s constitution, the purpose of the Organization was:

To contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion, by the Charter of the United Nations. (UNESCO, Basic Texts 8)

The preamble also made a strong call for international cooperation and world peace: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” To construct these defenses and create a lasting peace, UNESCO was dedicated “to collaborate in the work of advancing the mutual knowledge and understanding of peoples…to give fresh impulse to popular education and to the spread of culture . . . and to maintain, increase, and diffuse knowledge” (7).

In a series of meetings at “UNESCO House” in Paris from November 20 to December 10, 1946, delegates and intellectuals from member states conferred as a subcommision on education to examine the “Education” chapter of a document called Report of UNESCO’s Programme. Among the varied projects proposed were development of popular libraries and museums as cultural, educational institutions; study of the tensions which threaten peace; application of research findings to town and community planning; promotion of international cooperation in the theater; a study of the conditions of the arts in war-devastated areas; and a world-wide campaign in “fundamental education” against illiteracy (Wilson 297).

The delegates were unified in their commitment to drafting a system to foster a peaceful international environment; unfortunately, concerns regarding the “best” foundational ideology for the design of such a system were tabled as quickly as they arose. Many delegates were worried that UNESCO was being dominated by the United States, which had made the largest financial contribution to UNESCO (Shuster 3), but harmony was paramount in a world that needed healing. So, the delegates did not take up the serious questions that plagued them. Because only 26 of the 50 member states had voting power (states with voting power are those with the most financial contribution), naturally, nearly half of the member countries continued to wonder about whose values and principles the educational peace plans reproduce would (Wilson 302).

Between 1950 and 1980, the United States’ contribution to UNESCO was approximately ten to fifteen times the contribution of poorer member states. For example, the contribution by Australia and Sweden in 1950 was roughly 2.5% of the total budget, whereas it was 37% for the United States (Du Boff). Such high contributions didn’t last. By 1980, the US lowered its contribution to 25%, and by 1984 the US removed itself from UNESCO altogether, blaming the organization for restricting one of democracy’s most important liberties: freedom of the press. UNESCO’s historical documents record the result: “1984: The United States withdraws from the Organization citing disagreement over management and other issues. The United Kingdom and Singapore withdraw in 1985. The Organization’s budget drops considerably” (UNESCO, “About UNESCO”). Arguments were made that the US removed itself because communist countries had voting power, but the results were the same: “a 30% reduction of contributions to UNESCO, and a general increase in the percentages of the regular budget contributions by the remaining Member States” (UNESCO, “Contributions”).

While the “threat of communism” may have played a role in the US pulling out of UNESCO, it surely was not the only reason. The US also recognized that it could have more influence on world culture through economic avenues. So even as it was pulling out, the US threw its resources behind the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. According to the IMF’s website: “known collectively as the Bretton Woods Institutions after the remote village in New Hampshire, US, where they were founded by the delegates of 44 nations in July 1944, the Bank and the IMF are twin intergovernmental pillars supporting the structure of the world's economic and financial order” (The Bretton Woods Institutions). The IMF was founded to maintain world market stability by controlling international monetary funds and by securing open markets and exchange. The World Bank was founded to eradicate world poverty by spurring economic development in Third World countries by financing development projects in education, health and construction. Over time, however, as former World Bank president, Joseph Stiglitz explains, the missions and operations of the two organizations became intertwined, so that the IMF was also funding development and the World Bank was making stabilization loans. Such overlap has helped to make both organizations seem inscrutable to critics and impervious to criticism.

Washington’s decision to invest in the IMF and World Bank paid off in increased, and largely unchecked, international financial power and policy influence. The headquarters of both institutions were permanently housed in Washington, D.C., and the 1980s saw the forming of the “‘Washington Consensus’—a consensus between the IMF, the World Bank, and the US Treasury about the ‘right’ policies for developing countries” (16). Indeed, from this point forward, the US would have final say on any World Bank-IMF aid package, a level of influence granted to no other nation.

UNESCO continued its cultural work through the Cold War years, and though the US chose not to participate, it maintained its channels of influence. Between 1948 and 1980, 188 countries joined UNESCO. When they did, they often faced pressure to contribute to UNESCO’s educational fund. Those countries that did not were barred from UNESCO’s illiteracy eradication drive, a consequence that made developing countries appear as poor risks for World Bank loans and IMF investment (Jones). For many countries, then, joining UNESCO meant borrowing money from the World Bank, whose policies were, again, aligned with US conservative fiscal and political vision. The consequence was the concrete linking of UNESCO and the World Bank and IMF. This linking, in turn, resulted in the imbrication of literacy with conservative economics, producing a paradox of grand proportion: many countries’ economies went insolvent as a result of the enormous loans they had to take out because they wanted to join UNESCO, a move made to educate their people and save their economies in the first place. Matters were, and are, made worse with the imposition of Bank loans and IMF economic adjustments, such as forced market liberalization without appropriate protections. With these imposed burdens many developing nations found, and find, it necessary to use their own social welfare funds to make payment on their World Bank debts, thereby, ironically, cutting whatever funds for education that had existed before joining UNESCO.

Thanks to the work of such groups as the US Network for Global and Economic Justice (Fact Sheets), we know that loans initially borrowed from the IMF and World Bank to eradicate illiteracy are today being paid back by some of the world’s poorest nations; up to 60-70 percent of their Gross National Products are sometimes used to make payments on these debts. As a result, serious concerns have arisen regarding how the political and ethical practices of the IMF and World Bank have tainted UNESCO’s plans, with critics complaining that UNESCO’S literacy mission has not brought its founders’ hoped for peace to the world (Lengyell).

Despite this history, UNESCO continues, and, indeed, it has claimed notable successes. For instance, it claims to have eradicated illiteracy in the West Indies. According to UNESCO, in 1946, an estimated 34 percent of the people of Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia were illiterate (UNESCO, Compendium, 1998). By 1970, that number had been reduced to 4.2 percent. According to UNESCO’s latest statistics, today 98 percent of the people in that region are literate. For these islands, then, if UNESCO’s claims are valid, the organization has met its objective. But what UNESCO does not report is that literacy alone isn’t commensurate with economic prosperity. Though reportedly literate, the people of the West Indies still do not have opportunities for upward mobility. Making matters worse, the bulk of financial aid for the islands still comes in the form of external loans which exacerbate the islands’ economic problems. “If UNESCO has been successful in eradicating illiteracy, The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have been just as successful in saddling the West Indies with devastating debt” (Wagner 356).

Today UNESCO is faced with a perception problem. It is no longer perceived to be an organization dedicated to abolishing illiteracy; instead, it is seen as a US contrivance, loyal to the economic and cultural designs of the US, working to disadvantage and hinder the economic development of third world nations. As long as UNESCO’s plans are tied to the US and The World Bank’s agenda, this problem will likely persist.

The World Bank

In the late 1960’s The World Bank, which, with its affiliates, is now called The World Bank Group, was granted responsibility for UNESCO’s financial division:

According to the UN Charter, these financial institutions [The World Bank and IMF] were supposed to be under the control of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) which is under the control of the General Assembly. This arrangement, had it been preserved, would have made the World Bank and IMF, somewhat accountable to a broader constituency than just first–world banking interests. But note that the World Bank and IMF do not operate under the control of the General Assembly. Not only are the officials running these powerful institutions unaccountable to the citizenry, . . . the average citizen has no idea what the IMF and World Bank do. (Danaher 38-9)

But we need to know what they do, and we can. The World Bank’s publications on education are easily available on the Bank’s web page (, and they are a lesson in how international policy is connected to USdomestic policy and how both contain dangerous harbingers for the future of literacy education here and abroad.

For instance, The World Bank institutes its loan process with conditions called structural adjustments. Specifically, when a “developing” country applies to the Bank for a loan for educational development, the loan will be contingent on the borrowing country's ability to adopt The Bank’s views about the structuring and administration of educational systems. The Bank argues that the position of power from which it operates is an asset to a debtor nation because it can “mobilize” “global and cross-country knowledge” and “multi-sectoral coverage” of financial as well as educational ministries. It can stimulate key figures in government and business to help in the production of curricula (The World Bank, Education Sector Strategy 21). So, to obtain a World Bank loan, a borrowing country must agree to develop business-university linkages: including business investments in higher education programs, business funding of educational research, the appointment of business professionals as university faculty and as university governors (The World Bank, Higher Education: The Lessons of Experience 70-2). The Bank persuades universities to have business leaders “actively define and design new curricula, monitor institutional management, organize student placement, and arrange for industry personnel to be seconded to tertiary institutions.” In addition, The Bank calls for “academic staff to have industrial experience,” all with the goal of “aligning education to the country’s needs and to the changing structure of the labor market” (75). This alignment of business and education comes at a price. The borrowing nation must promote competition—euphemistically called “diversification”—in education (Task Force on Higher Education and Society 11). According to Bank logic, by breaking state control of education through the fostering of for-profit universities, such as the University of Phoenix, whose aggressive marketing The Bank praises (31), developing nations will improve the quality of the educational experiences of its citizens.

Far from improving education in Africa, Alamin Mazrui details how The World Bank demands deep cuts in public education while at the same time insisting on support to private and for-profit schools and institutions. This policy has caused the closing of public schools and universities in Kenya where children of the poor have traditionally been taught—60% of African students come from the poor and working class—and the opening of private schools and universities where the children of the upper middle class and rich have opportunity to receive a more “Western” form of education. In place of public universities, The World Bank proposes the opening of “regional polytechnics,” schools to train working class students to remain working class (53-54). Indeed, Ousseina Alidou, coordinator for the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa, argues that:

The World Bank and IMF insist that Africa should promote vocational training because it lacks both intellectual and technological capacity to sustain higher education. In other words, what Africa needs are carpenters, agricultural agents, and nurses, not engineers, agronomists, and doctors. The latter category should be supplied to Africa by the West in the form intellectual or multilateral cooperation through institutions like the World Bank and IMF, that are supposedly better suited to identify local African needs. (39-40)

The Bank also demands that debtor nations recognize its administrative expertise, and, this means a program of decentralization. Decentralization, of course, is a shibboleth of post-Fordist business for the process of delegating authority and workload to the lowest members of a workplace. It rests upon the principle of developing a workforce which can take on greater and greater responsibility without significantly greater remuneration. The supposed efficiency of a decentralized educational system is used as a guiding principle in attacks against teachers’ unions. As The Bank’s publications argue, a country whose teachers are professional will adopt the decentralization of authority because they will recognize its efficiency and potential for local decision making on how to implement Bank sponsored curricula (Gaynor 42). On the other hand, an unprofessional teacher workforce will resist decentralization, efficiency and economy in education because they remain committed to centralized structures of labor, such as collective bargaining. Never mind that, as the voices of large groups of educators, unions resist academic exploitation, deplorable working conditions and schedules, failed administration, and economically-gutted curricular initiatives.

Because unions stand up for the collective needs of local teachers, The Bank attacks on all fronts. It demands that debtor nations be able to demonstrate adequate structures for managing system-wide resources. This means that universities should, in The Bank’s view, offer long-term, but not indefinite teaching contracts. According to The Bank, the system of tenure is not responsive or responsible to changing market conditions. Faculty salaries are also a problem. Clearly, the unions’ commitments are commitments to the wrong ideology: As one Bank publication states, “While they obviously reflect the interests of teachers, unions are forces in their own right with their own district interests to protect. They have a strong stake in maintaining central bargaining and such practices as a centralized system of collecting union dues. Unions are typically allied with particular political parties, usually on the left” (Fiske 6).

Professor and union leader Babacar Diop is an outspoken critic of World Bank policies in his country, Senegal. He has argued how, at The Bank’s direction, government ministries have tried to dismantle unions. For instance, at the direction of The Bank, the Sengalese ministry of education has appointed part-time lecturers without faculty review or approval (Alidou), thereby undermining faculty tenure, security, expertise and authority all in one fell swoop. Which is not to say that these lecturers and professors will escape burdensome evaluation procedures largely inconsistent with their educational ambitions. According to The Bank, borrowing states should articulate how they will encourage faculty-workers to accept Western models of accountability, including accountability to state governmental standards and external accreditation (The World Bank, Higher Education: The Lessons of Experience 69-70). But as Alamin Mazrui points out, The Bank’s call for standardization hides other objectives. The Bank imposes English and French in the curricula of many African nations, effectively repressing the study of native languages which are not deemed useful to European and North American business interests, the very sort of linguistic genocide so thoroughly documented and theorized by Tové Skutnabb–Kanagas. It is also a policy that has had negative economic repercussions. As Mazrui reports:

[A] World Bank loan to the Central African Republic (CAR), supposedly intended to improve quality and accessibility of elementary education, came with a package of conditions requiring the nation to import its textbooks (and even French language charts) directly from France and Canada. This draconian move was justified on the grounds that printing in these western countries is cheaper than in the CAR, making their publication more affordable to the average African child (Hymbound 34).

It has been estimated that, due to similar World Bank linkages and projects, over 80% of school books in “Francophone” Africa are now produced directly in France (Nnana 17). In this process, the World Bank has not only empowered “the West” to further control the intellectual destiny of African children, but it has also continued to weaken and even destroy Africa’s infrastructural facilities, beginning with its publishing houses, needed for the local production and distribution of knowledge. In terms of sheer cost effectiveness, French and Canadian publishers would have found it far more difficult to participate in this World Bank agenda, had the language of instruction in CAR been one of the local languages instead of French (56-7).

It gets worse. Several of The Bank’s documents state that the organization recognizes the importance of education for the dissemination of values (see, for instance, The Task Force on Higher Education and Society). Of course, schools and universities have always promoted ways of thinking, sometimes, even, that all thought should be questioned. The problem with The Bank’s educational agenda is that it promotes colonialist views of people and their value. This is clearly seen in The Bank’s rationale for funding education to develop a nation’s “human capital,” the concept that says that people are an exploitable resource. Why not? As The Bank states, labor is “the main asset of the poor” (The World Bank, Priorities and Strategies for Education 1); consequently, The Bank begins development plans by, as it says, stabilizing the networks of social and institutional relations in which people live their lives. For instance, a government can encourage membership in groups that promote, in The Bank’s view, regional and national stability. Often, the way The Bank tries to achieve the stabilization and development of these networks of social and institutional relations, a country’s “social capital,” is through rendering these social networks available to the influence of foreign business. But as economist John Harriss has pointed out, this thinking veils the true nature and effects of the power wielded by The Bank. As with other Bank initiatives, the debtor nation must make itself available and accountable to Western banking and corporate interests, and these “holdout the prospects of democracy (in ‘civil society’) without the inconveniences of contestational politics and of the conflicts of ideas and interests that are an essential part of democracy” (118). In other words, The World Bank promotes, not just democracy, but sanitized democracy, democracy scripted by the force, thinking, and needs of Western capital. This fully capitalized democracy requires, in turn, the linkage of international literacy education and debt:

The World Bank’s support for literacy has a two fold basis. First, the Bank sees the production of a literate world best promoted through universal primary education, its highest priority for education lending. It places considerable pressure on governments to adopt this strategy as well. Second, it persists with a policy stance that rejects the potential of adult literacy programs to contribute to increases in worker productivity and hence economic growth…. At no time has the Bank urged a government to place adult literacy education higher up on its list of priorities for education…. The Bank remains nervous about programs that might unsettle the consciousness of adult citizens. (Wagner et al. 251)

An informed citizenry might realize how pernicious the trap in which they find themselves is. Whatever their rhetoric says, The World Bank and IMF need the adult populations of developing nations and their government to remain quiet. For instance, in order to obtain economic aid, developing nations are required to keep deposits, based on Western estimates of their capacity, with the IMF. Their currencies—which include the reserve deposits themselves—are measured against international currency, for instance, the US dollar, against which, of course, they will not measure very well. Countries with trade balance problems, that is, most developing nations, will therefore need funds from the IMF in order to pay for imported goods. The borrowing nations then have to have to increase their deposit with the IMF. As they do so, they must accept new Bank and IMF austerity measures. The borrowing nation thus quickly finds itself caught in a cyclical trap from which it may not escape: The Bank and IMF will demand levels and kinds of literacy education they deem necessary to develop a nation’s workforce even as they dictate dramatic cuts in educational funding. It is a trap in which literacy and education are used to keep debtor nations economically dependent on USbail-outs, which inevitably means more debt, and, additionally, the incursion of international corporations, which in turn means the repatriation of profits to the centers of global capital.


It is our hope that teachers of composition and ESL will continue to educate themselves about literacy as it is employed in the events and processes we detail in this article. We have read much in the profession in recent years about the corporatization of the university. Books such as Kumar’s World Bank Literature and Bousquet, Scott, and Parascondola’s Tenured Bosses and Disposable Teachers, to name only two on the subject, chronicle how higher education has been conscripted to serve business’ interests and how these interests run counter to our traditional missions and higher objectives. We in English have particular reason to be disturbed, then, about the actions of UNESCO, The World Bank, and the IMF. Theirs is the rhetoric of business, it is often antithetical to the ends of a serious, critical education, and it is a rhetoric hiding an ideology that undermines the critical thinking and writing we try to encourage in our classrooms, both here and abroad.

Evan Watkins proposes that we begin to think about how education is conscripted to serve the needs of corporations in terms of “World Bank literacy.” As defined by Watkins, World Bank literacy is a way of thinking about education that is supported by American businesses. UScorporate leaders report directly to Congress about what they want taught in American schools and colleges, and what they want, as we all know too well, becomes policy (Blitz and Hurlbert). In other words, World Bank literacy is here, in our federal and state and local governments, in our administrations, and in our own offices and classrooms. As Watkins describes it:

World Bank literacy . . . becomes just another mask for a ruthlessly global competitiveness and efficiency, dedicated to eliminating the complex ensembles of cultural values that, however precariously, used to be part of the educational process in the United States. . . . World Bank literacy naturalizes economic priorities that translate all too easily into the loss of genuine program diversity and any pretense to a diverse student population in the university; the drying up of tenure track lines and challenges to the very idea of tenure; the proliferation of part-time and temp faculty in the name of efficiency and the packaging of curriculum modules to student consumers; and the general reluctance on the part of students to engage seriously with “alternative” ways of thinking that might jeopardize their eventual careers. (14)

World Bank literacy, or thinking, circulates with the fluidity of capital through our colleges, schools and departments. Readers will surely recognize governmental resistance to teachers’ unions, proliferation of the use of part time faculty, the rapid development of distance education, and even administrative support for the reorganization of traditional English curricula into professional and technical training programs. In the collection, Beyond English, Inc.: Curricular Reform in a Global Economy, several English educators write about the effects of corporate and global economic ideology and practices as they see them in their own English departments (Downing). Bruce Horner, Kelly Latchaw, Joseph Lenz, Jody Swilky, and David Wolf write about faculty cuts that show how precarious the commitment to the humanities, particularly to quality composition instruction, are in the corporate university. James Thomas Zebroski describes in great detail how the use and abuse of adjunct, as well as tenure track faculty, fulfills the dictates of corporate drives for efficiency and flexible labor practices. And Joyce Magnotto Neff and Juanita Rodgers Comfort detail the way that distance education is used a smokescreen for profit production at the cost of meaningful educational experience.

We are, in other words, all in this together. As George Caffentzis writes:

[T]he World Bank, like the IMF, operates right in our midst, being financed by US tax dollars, and staffed by academic colleagues. Thus, it is arguable that we have a special responsibility to inform ourselves about its operations, particularly when they affect students, colleagues, and the future of academic institutions. And we have a responsibility to make our voice heard if we stand convinced that the “rationalization” of African academe risks destroying for millions of Africans and for years to come the possibility of schooling at all levels. (18)

What can we do? What can we do when faced with the reach and power of The Washington Consensus and the governments which share the IMF/World Bank’s ideologies?

We can read and study the rhetoric of the documents published by UNESCO, The World Bank, and the IMF. They are easily available through the webpages of these organizations. We can continue to study the history of the corporatization and unionization of the university. We can study our curricula for the ways that they support business rather than student interests when they do; indeed, we can study how business and student interests conflict, when they do. We can continue to study the processes and destructive effects of globalization and learn how they are occurring in the US as well as abroad. We can share what we are discovering with each other as often as we are able. We can join and support teachers’ unions. We can choose to work in unionized universities, when we have the choice, that have collective bargaining and which protect the rights of adjuncts (they do exist, though, as in Pennsylvania, they are under greater and greater pressure from conservative state officials). And we can support unionizing in our own universities and colleges as well those who are unionizing elsewhere. Finally, we can support those who are demonstrating against international policies that do more to create world poverty than alleviate it.

The point is that we literacy educators need to know the issues and the history if we are to make united, purposeful and effective calls for change. Some informed intellectuals and teachers have already begun. For instance, The International Forum on Globalization is creating and disseminating alternative visions for alleviating world poverty, managing the global economy, sustaining global stability, and encouraging economic democracy (Cavanagh). The global power of the Washington Consensus might seem to put organizations such as The World Bank and IMF out of our reach, but the fact is that they are not. Certainly the World Trade Organization has been affected by the attention and presence of those demonstrating against the exploitation occurring in the name of globalization. And, as the back cover of Kevin Danaher’s 10 Reasons to Abolish the IMF and World Bank reminds us: “We abolished slavery; we abolished Jim Crow laws; we abolished child labor; we abolished the exclusion of women from voting; we abolished the 60-hour work week; and we can abolish international banking institutions that do more to prevent democracy than to promote it.”

Things change slowly, and history shows that things certainly change more slowly for some than for others. The human imagination is always under pressure from those with profit–inspired designs to commodify thought, desire, and care. If there is hope in the human condition, however, it is that something of the human imagination always escapes. No product: no one car, no one motion picture, no one video game and no one corporate-sponsored curriculum has captured the human imagination in total. Something escapes, some surplus in imagination that resists commodifcation. We need to look beyond national boundaries and learn how capital’s interests in literacy education are international. Perhaps, if we do, we will begin to learn how to stop exporting the violence of literacy.

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