Taking Stock of the Abidjan Principles
Today we take stock of the first human rights guiding principles for education, known as the Abidjan Principles. Adopted in 2019, these principles provide guidelines for State obligations to provide quality public education and the role of the private sector in Education.
My guest is Frank Adamson, Assistant Professor at California State University, Sacramento. Together with Sylvain Aubry, Mireille de Koning, and Delphine Dorsi, he’s recently co-edited the open-access book, Realizing the Abidjan Principles on the Right to Education: Human Rights, Public Education, and the Role of Private Actors in Education.
Citation: Adamson, Frank, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 246, podcast audio, July 12, 2021. https://freshedpodcast.com/adamson/
Will Brehm 0:56
Frank Adamson, welcome back to FreshEd. You were actually the first guest ever on FreshEd about six years ago. So, welcome back to the show.
Frank Adamson 1:31
Thanks, Will. It’s great to be back and happy to have a new offering for the show. And seems like we’re still talking about the same topic -privatization- but we’ve made a lot of progress. So, happy to share.
Will Brehm 1:43
Indeed, we have made a lot of progress. I mean, it definitely is still about privatization but today, we’re actually talking a little bit about these Abidjan Principles, which helps states in a sense, work their way through some of these messy issues of privatization. So, why don’t you tell me what the Abidjan Principles are and what your role was in their crafting?
Frank Adamson 2:05
Sure. So, the Abidjan Principles, consolidate the relevant law on the right to education across all of the different human rights treaties and texts. And in addition to these state obligations, they also focus on the role of private actors in education. So, they provide a comprehensive and new look at what is already existing law and material from our previous agreements globally. My involvement in the Abidjan Principles was not as a writer or expert of producing the text, which was done by a committee of lawyers. But I did sit on the adoption committee in Abidjan. I’m an original signer on the Abidjan Principles, and I’m an education researcher who is focused on the education side of the application of the right to education, and the role of private actors in education. So, that’s sort of my role and what I bring to editing this volume.
Will Brehm 3:12
Right. So, you’ve sort of seen these Principles from their very creation all the way now into their application, at least in the beginning stages.
Frank Adamson 3:23
Absolutely. And I was actually part of some of the consultations that happened prior to the adoption committee in Abidjan.
Will Brehm 3:31
Right. So, I guess, for me, as someone in education, I didn’t really know too much about these ideas of guiding principles in international law. So, are these common in other sort of fields or sectors outside of education? In international law, do they have guiding principles?
Frank Adamson 3:49
Well, that makes two of us Will, because I was unfamiliar as well. But yes, there are guiding principles. And I think that’s something really important to understand that their guiding principles are common, they’re in other areas, such as poverty reduction. And international laws, as we might imagine, is complex and varied. And so, you do need this sort of drilling down into a particular topic that compiles all of these different laws that are relevant so that we can better understand and use them in practical circumstances. And so, what has not been done is that it hasn’t been done for education yet. And so that’s where the Abidjan Principles are a new contribution, but based again, on existing law.
Will Brehm 4:34
Right. And the other thing that I found interesting reading your volume is that in other sectors where guiding principles have been written for international law, it does come often from civil society members. It doesn’t have to just come from like the UN or –
Frank Adamson 4:52
There are two sources. Yeah. There are two main avenues if you will. One of them is an official institutional organization requests the production of a guiding principles document, or civil society can produce a guiding principles document and the legitimacy will be determined by its use, and also by the process that was taken. And one of the first chapters in the book discusses how well the Abidjan Principles process was conducted in terms of inclusion across the globe of different actors, of different constituencies. So, in that way, the Abidjan Principles do have a very strong foundation.
Will Brehm 5:32
Right. So, through this participatory and consultative approach over years and working with lawyers, how many principles are we even talking about here? Like, is this something that’s like 10 principles that we can easily count off?
Frank Adamson 5:50
Oh, just a few. Well, and this is part of the adoption process was that we did end up with 97 total principles. And then it was, “Okay, well, that’s a lot to digest”. So, there was this idea and eventually they were grouped into 10 overarching principles. But really, the Abidjan Principles from a legal perspective are meant to be taken as a whole. But if you open the Abidjan Principles as a document -it’s downloadable, obviously- then you can see that there is a structure in which each group or topic full of a couple of principles focuses on one area, such as education finance, or the role of multinational organizations, these types of things. So, you can actually sort of get into the document at any particular place that is of interest to you through the 10 overarching principles.
Will Brehm 6:41
And when you say “you”, who are these principles for?
Frank Adamson 6:45
Well, they’re for everyone. They’re for governments, who are looking to ensure that they are meeting their state obligation. They are for international organizations who are interested in promoting the human right to education and delivering on the Sustainable Development Goal 4 and particularly equity, which is a big topic in the Abidjan principles. And they’re also for civil society and everyday people to let everyone know, because we didn’t have guiding principles before in education, that we do have a right to education. And actually, there’s a chapter in that book that addresses exactly this, that there actually is a right to education in international law, and that was not previously fully established. So, that is a major contribution of one of the chapters.
Will Brehm 7:35
So, can you say a bit more about what you mean by this right to education? And how in international law, there’s actually precedent for a right to education? What does that actually mean? I mean, it’s really easy to say, in a way, and many people just sort of say, I have a human right to education, but give me a bit more there. I feel like what does that actually mean in practice, or for a state? Or how might the Abidjan Principles guide us into realizing that right to education?
Frank Adamson 8:04
Right. So, I think the first thing I want to say is that the entire process of editing this volume was very interesting, because I’m not a lawyer. I’m an education researcher. And this volume actually marries the legal context, jurisprudence analysis with the empirical education evidence, and provides that unique lens. So, from a right to education perspective, which gets very detailed in terms of the international treaties that are drawn upon, we can say that there is an obligation on states to provide public education. So, and the right comes with the individual to say that this state is not fulfilling its obligation to the individual. So, that’s what, from a legal perspective, the right exists to say, “You have an obligation as a state, and I am going to make a demand”. And then in the Abidjan principles is the idea of remedies also. That you cannot delay on the remedies that there needs to be a maximum effort in an immediate way to remedy any violations of that right to education. And this, in Jacqueline Mowbray’s chapter, she talks about that, bothly from a theoretical, legal analysis and also from the practical application of legal principles in a contemporary education environment.
Will Brehm 9:41
So, the right to education is something that a child has, and the state has an obligation to provide it and there must be remedies if the state is not providing it. What about parents? How do parents fit into this equation since a child might have a right to education, but often it’s a parent who decides on the type of education that child will receive.
Frank Adamson 10:11
Yeah. I mean, so parents, they do have a right to choose with some parameters, the type of education that their child receives. So, that means that if they want a certain type of religious education, they do have a right to that. But that education still needs to meet a minimum standard in terms of the overall provision of education by the state. And the state still needs to provide high quality public education in addition. So, you can’t just have a choice between high quality private education and low-quality public education, that’s not really a choice, right? But just to your point about the parents, the parents do actually have some role of choice under international law. It’s not like the state is completely subsuming parental discretion. At the same time, though, when it comes to the hierarchy of whose right supersedes in a disputed case, then the state does have the obligation of providing a high-quality public education to the child. Because that is the actual beneficiary and you have to protect the right of that child to education.
Will Brehm 11:37
So, there’s some interesting points that I would imagine are rather difficult to begin defining in international law. Such as earlier, you said, minimum standards, that these institutions must meet a certain minimum standard, or a certain quality education. How on earth do we begin to understand what say “quality education” is of a minimum standard? How do we even begin to understand that in international law?
Frank Adamson 12:05
So, I mean, that’s where the evidence on education comes in? That is a contested space. What do we mean by that? I think international law has some very broad definitions. So, under international law, the right to education is based on a premise that a well-educated, enlightened, and active mind able to wonder freely and widely is one of the joys and rewards of human existence. And in the Declaration of Human Rights, I believe it says, it is their full realization of human potential. So, we have these very broad notions of what we mean by what an education or right education needs to be. And so, when I say a minimum threshold, I’m already using an education speak to get to that sort of human rights notion of what that is. And I would argue that even the term a minimum threshold is probably not enough to actually get there. So, this is very much the crux of the issue in education. What does it mean to actually reach that human rights level of this idea of the enjoyment of the full potential of a human life? So, in that way, do we get to that by measuring test scores? No. That’s a very poor and inadequate proxy. So, part of the job of incorporating the Abidjan principles into an international education framework is to really rethink how and what we’re measuring to be more in accordance with this broader vision of what enjoyment of a right to education actually means under international law.
Will Brehm 13:58
So, are you saying in a sense that some of these international examinations or even national examinations that are used to measure quality in a particular system, are you saying that they might not actually live up to the Abidjan principles?
Frank Adamson 14:16
I’m saying that they may not. Yes. I’m saying that they may not. And that is in analysis. That’s not a point that I can go through and say, in x point -I mean, PISA, for instance, just to take the most common international one, does do more than -first of all, it’s framed as is literacy in different content areas, not just a rote memorization or repetition of math or science. So, it does have this concept of a higher level, higher order thinking skills are embedded in the way it’s constructed. It also measures other issues, even past the socio-economic status of the student in a variety of different domains. So, it’s not that there’s not a there there in terms have what is important, but part of the analysis is to figure out like, “Okay, are there other features of this international right to education that are missing”? And that’s work that we’re doing with the Global Education Monitoring Report. But I think more broadly, many states aren’t even really living up to what and this gets back to the minimum threshold would be on even these international assessments. You have a wide swath of students. And usually, the marginalized students are very well known. They’re low SES, they’re students of color in many countries. Those students are not at the higher proficiency levels. So, inequality, inequity is baked into the systems currently. And so that’s like, issue number one. And then there is also issue number two of are we actually realizing the full human potential? No, we’re very, very far away from that right now. Extremely far away from that. And many, many states are not even close to that in any sense of that word, right? Because we have large out of school populations in many countries. So, you can’t say that you’re realizing the full human potential through education when you don’t even have 10% or 15% of your kids in school. That’s a massive problem. And the point here about the right to education is the state is obligated through its treaty signatures to actually provide that education. And that’s really the crux of the issue. The state has already made a legal commitment and entered the obligation to do that.
Will Brehm 16:34
So, there’s a lot of questions that come up that I have. I guess, I’ll start with that last point you made about when a state has the obligation to provide that education that is supposedly of high quality. How is the state supposed to pay? I would imagine in some low- and middle-income countries, it can be rather difficult for the state to provide and pay for public education without relying on fees of some sort.
Frank Adamson 17:01
I mean, you are opening a Pandora’s box here in terms of global education finance because you get into the relationship economically, between the global north and global south, you get into the colonial history of extraction, you get into the relationship between the development banks and what they prioritize in terms of investment structures. So, I think that that’s at the international level that we can see that. And this is why it’s important that also international organizations understand when and how they are actually supporting states to realize the right to education, or when they’re actually acting in ways that are contrary to that. So, that’s at the international level.
Will Brehm 17:58
Do the Abidjan Principles provide guidance to say international organizations like the World Bank to help them? Can you say a bit more about that?
Frank Adamson 18:06
Absolutely. That’s one of the sections that I mentioned. I mean, it’s really just saying that you -So in particular, different organizations, say like the World Bank, or any international organization, they prioritize different approaches to education, right? And then we get into the private actor, part of the Abidjan Principles, right. So, are private actors supplementing the state, or are they supplanting the state in how they provide education? And a lot of times, what happens is that the private actors are supplanting the state and they’re not providing the same quality of education, and they are creating inequities. And I think this gets to one of the very important education, empirical chapters in the book by Tony Verger and co-authors on comparing all of the different types of public-private partnerships in education by type and sub-type. So, you have like universal vouchers, and targeted vouchers, which basically means the state is paying a family to go to a private school, and they’re paying everybody (universal), or they’re paying some people that mostly usually the poor folks would be targeted vouchers. So, what they find is that targeted vouchers actually can help achievement in some cases but that all of the public-private partnership approaches have equity concerns, right? So, this gets back to: if you’re an international organization, and you’re supporting this type of public-private partnership, or PPP approach, then you very well empirically, are supporting inequity. And in that case, then it’s a possible human rights violation to those folks who are on the inequitable side of the equity equation, right? They’re being shut out of educational opportunity.
Will Brehm 19:57
Okay. So, the equity here is if you are not able to access some of these private options?
Frank Adamson 20:02
Right. If you’re not able to access private option, but more on the state side, if the state abdicates its responsibility and says, “Oh, well, we have schools here, they’re just private schools”, that’s not good enough. The state is obligated to provide high quality public education. And so, you can’t then go ahead and charge for it. Which gets back to your original point on the finance. And I did only talk about the international side of the finance. And there’s also the domestic side. So, within every country, how much are you allocating actually towards education? What is the tax justice going on in your system? So, education is a huge line item within any national budget. And so, the tax justice movement on the domestic side is also very important in terms of making sure that companies are paying their fair share wherever they’re working. You know, it’s a whole interlocked, global economic system that’s functioning to say whether or not an individual is able to access their right to education. And that’s what we see play out all the time.
Will Brehm 21:08
Do the Abidjan Principles provide states guidance on tax?
Frank Adamson 21:12
No. I don’t think on tax in particular. Now, I also have to say there are 97 principles, so I would need to -there are other people who have them fully memorized. It’s not me. But I don’t think it’s on tax in general, but they are more principles, right. So, how would you approach this? So, you do need to actually make sure that you are providing the right amount of money, they’re required to deliver on the obligation for the right education. But that’s why I mentioned that it could come down in one country to they’re doing a lot of debt servicing. So, that’s where the international organizations need to take a look and say, “What’s happening here? Are we actually creating more of a problem”? And that has been historically, that has absolutely happened. Whereas other countries may have a situation where they have companies that are not paying their local taxes? So, it varies. I mean, there’s hundreds of countries, right? So, it varies by context but the principles do say that you need to be allocating to do this. That is the commitment.
Will Brehm 22:14
So, what about religious schools? Because that seems like an interesting sub section of private schooling in some states. How would the Abidjan Principles deal with religious schooling and parents choosing to send their child to a religious school?
Frank Adamson 22:32
So, I mean, that is a complicated question. It’s complicated also because it functions so differently in different states. So, I’ll try to give some context here. But the Principles would say, obviously, that the parent has the right to choose a religious school. And fundamentally, the state cannot depend on that provision as the only choice, right. A child has no other choice, but that they have to have a public choice of a high-quality school. Not just a low-quality school, but a high-quality school. But then some countries actually have religious embedded in their public system, right. The Netherlands has a historical system where there are religious schools that are considered public and sort of treated as such, except that they’re not managed by a public entity, they’re managed by a church. So, it gets to this very murky line. And that’s why in the Abidjan Principles, we identified different kinds of actors that are private actors. And then when you get to this specific topic of privatization, you can think about that across different levels of influence within a public education system. For instance, funding could be private, or the management of schools could be private, or the ownership of property could be private. So, there’s all these different ways in which the privatization of education can occur. But the Abidjan Principles don’t go into that as much as they talk about the types of private actors that are involved. In terms of their religious concept, I think the most important thing to know is that there is a freedom for the parents to go to a religious school, but it can’t impinge on everybody else’s freedom to have a high-quality public provision. And in many ways, we’re going back and forth on all these sub-topics but that is really the overarching topic. And I keep repeating it because not only is that like the synthesized version of it but as I said before, we are so far from actually doing it in so many places.
Will Brehm 24:37
Yeah, religious schooling is, like you said, very murky when it comes to these public and private actors and how it operates within different contexts. Another potentially murky area that I would imagine exists would be private tutoring. You know, every system that I have seen has some form of private tutoring, and often you see children in public schools but then spending huge amounts of money on these private tutors to sort of supplement and perhaps at times supplant the public schooling system. So, would the Abidjan Principles be helpful in trying to understand private tutoring and all of the diversity of actors from a college student doing tutoring on the side to big companies that are tutoring millions of children? I mean, would the Abidjan Principles, in a sense, help us think through how we should treat these different private tutoring actors?
Frank Adamson 25:31
Yes, I think that it would, in the sense of in the broad level, are students and families who have the money to access these private options gaining an unfair advantage over everyone else? And in a sense of gaining a higher quality education that the state really should be providing it. So, at a fundamental level, if that’s true, then the states are not providing the highest quality education they could, and they need to remedy that situation. In practice, there’s also this -and I know that this is like the issue of shadow schooling, particularly in Asia- on the demand side, there’s a huge problem where we have an education arms race. You know, when you have hundreds of millions of students who need or want advantages in life, and families who are willing to pay for it. And so, in that way, at a fundamental level, our system actually breeds that type of inequality. The competitive market breeds that. And so, I think in a very large scale global dynamic analysis, you would have to say, “Okay, if that is how we’re doing it, the role of the Abidjan Principles is to highlight the state obligation not to enhance that inequality or inequity, but to actually try to mitigate it”. And so in that way, one way, you know, this goes back to the issue of Finland. In Finland, as we spoke about from my previous book, there are not a lot of private schools, because when something’s high quality and public meaning free for the individual, you pay through it for your tax dollars, for sure. But people are not choosing en mass to pay for something additional, because they are getting so high-quality public option. And so that is actually available.
Will Brehm 27:17
The last sort of murky area that I could think of actually relates to the pandemic. Because during the pandemic, one of the things that we’ve seen is this massive increase of ed tech companies trying to sort of use this crisis as an opportunity to provide various online platforms to do education and sort of do all sorts of things that I don’t even know about probably. And I think teachers are being targeted and emailed, and school principals are, and definitely superintendents and ministries of education are probably cutting deals with Google. Is it possible for the Abidjan Principles to sort of help us begin to think through our current moment and the rise of ed tech?
Frank Adamson 28:01
Absolutely. And there’s a practicality here that we’re in a pandemic, and we’re in an emergency situation. And that there might need to be different solutions applied. But the issue is, if there is private actor involvement, that that would be temporary. That the trend is not towards consolidating private actor involvement, but it is using something in particular for an emergency situation and then having the state fulfill the obligation. And in the law, they call that the progressive realization right. So, maybe the right isn’t realized at the moment fully, but there needs to be progressive realization, there needs to be devotion of the maximum amount of available resources of fulfilling the obligation, and also avoiding a retrogression. So, what used to be public doesn’t then become outsourced to private and then the public doesn’t have an option of public availability. And then it’s just all of a sudden you get to you have to pay the tech fees, or you have to give your information or data to a tech company. Because really, when we’re talking about tech, we’re talking about big data, we’re talking about them monetizing the variety of different commercial ways, their information that’s collected on students without any compensation, or maybe even knowledge of students of what’s being happened and no certain agreement on that. So, yeah, we’re in a pandemic. It’s an emergency, right? We had to do what we had to do. And honestly, thank goodness that there is a technology there. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that it’s carte blanche to replace our public system. And to the extent that the states want to use tech, they need to be doing it within this supplementing context of we are the main primary guarantors of the right to education. And I will say one other point on this pandemic. A lot of the private schools that opened -low fee private schools in the global south- many of them actually ended up closing during the pandemic and leaving students adrift, right? Because they are businesses, they’re functioning like businesses. They open, they close. Like the restaurant down the street that closed because they couldn’t staff, right? They don’t have the public backing to be the guarantor of education, even in the emergency. So, that’s where you get to this really problematic leaving of students out in the cold in the middle of a pandemic where they have no access to educational opportunity. And that is really one of the fundamental dangers of the competitive model is it creates winners and losers both at the student level and at the institution level. And when the institution loses, those students are also inherently losing.
Will Brehm 28:06
It seems like the Abidjan Principles are going to be even more important in, potentially, the idea of the “post-pandemic world” trying to ensure that that public schooling has not disappeared and been overtaken by some sort of private actor. Or potentially all of these students that have been left out of private schools that have closed have a place to go. So, it just seems like they’re going to be needed going forward to help different constituencies sort of figure it out. One of the things I’ve been wondering is how many organizations or even nation states have adopted these principles? If that’s even what one does with principles. Are these principles in a sense being taken up by the institutions and organizations and states that we’ve been talking about?
Frank Adamson 31:21
Well, the good news on that front is that they’ve already agreed. The Abidjan Principles are based on already-signed human rights law. So, everybody’s already agreed to this. That’s one of the things I keep returning to. There’s nothing new here. It’s a new package that’s very particularly tailored but this is already extant human rights law. So, it’s just us calling to account the countries to say, “Hey, we came out of World War Two, we established the UN, we established the UN Declaration of Human Rights, we established these treaties over the last 75 years. So, now it’s time to make sure that they’re delivered upon”. And so, there’s that level of it. But then there is also the point of okay, who’s actually engaging with this. So, I will give the example of the High Court in Uganda referencing the Abidjan Principles in particular in one of the decisions it made, right. So, saying that this document is valid, it contains legal material that’s relevant to this case. And I don’t know the ins and outs on the legal level of what gets applied in terms of case law at the individual country level, but it is an example of that being used. Now, in chapter 10 of the book, the final chapter, we have a table of all of the different groups that are using the Abidjan Principles. It’s quite extensive across the globe in different contexts. So, that’s all underway. And we even lay out the roadmap for how it should be deployed. Essentially, it’s the idea of many folks need to even still recognize and understand that there is a right to education. That the Abidjan Principles do collect this existing right and bring it together. And so there can be no longer like, “Oh, we don’t know, maybe this treaty says that maybe this treaty doesn’t”. That’s not an available excuse anymore because it’s compiled, it’s there. So, now it’s like, okay, we realize that we expand awareness, and then we need to build capacity on how do we think about human rights as we reconfigure or evolve our education system to better deliver on that obligation. And that goes from technical assistance at the local level, the country level, all the way through the international level when we’re doing international reports, and their researchers have a role to play there. And then there is a legal component of where any jurisdiction could say that we are actually now following the Abidjan Principles in all of our decision making. And I think that would be a really powerful step. I don’t know of a jurisdiction that’s actually made that statement but that will be one way to say, anywhere from a country to a local school board could say, okay, we’ve joined the Abidjan Principles, so every decision we make needs to make sure that we’re not essentially committing a human rights violation. I mean, because when you get right down to it, that’s a very heavy allegation. So, in any particular case, I wouldn’t just say, oh, they’re committing human rights violation, I would want to know the details. But the point is that you don’t want to be committing the human rights violation and you want to be honestly delivering on what we’ve committed to as a human right. And I think that’s where the issue is that it does cost money and there may not be profit for certain actors in doing that. But that’s really one of the major issues is that we have to value fundamentally the educational opportunity of the children involved rather than any of the sort of profit schemes or skimming off the top that so often happens when you involve private actors in a sort of supplanting of the public education endeavor around the globe?
Will Brehm 34:56
Well, Frank Adamson, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. Please don’t be a stranger. Come back on before the next six years passes by.
Frank Adamson 35:03
I would love to Will. Thanks so much for having me.
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Related Guest Publications/Projects
Strengthening the implementation of the Abidjan Principles
Realizing the Abidjan Principles on the right to education
Global education reform: How privatization and public investment influence education outcomes
Sustainable Development Goal 4
Global Education Monitoring Report
Antoni Verger et al – The privatization of education
The Abidjan Principles as a human rights framework to evaluate PPPs in education
Is there a right to public education?
Parental rights in education under international law: Nature and scope
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