Bridge International is the largest for-profit education chain in the world, serving upward of 750,000 children in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and India. The founders, two Harvard graduates, developed an attractive business model for investors. With centrally-produced curriculum and bare-bone standardized schoolhouses, Bridge offered a vision of making a profit while doing good. But then rumors started to swirl about the dark side of the company.
This week on Deconstructed: Journalists Neha Wadekar and Ryan Grim narrate the saga of Bridge International Academies. As allegations of sexual abuse and neglect emerged against Bridge, investor responsibility became the center of a controversy at the World Bank.
[Upbeat music from video.]
Shannon May: Between 700 million and 800 million children living in poverty across the globe, the majority of those children are not accessing a reasonable education.
Ryan Grim: In the early days of the era of big tech disruption, two Harvard University graduates dreamed up a bold experiment in education.
Shannon May: In 2007, we came to Africa where due diligence had showed us that there were an incredibly high number of enrolled children who were still illiterate upon graduation. And was there a possible business model that could solve this? Was there something that could be done? Even though people said there wasn’t anything that could be done?
Ryan Grim: That’s Shannon May. She studied education development in rural China and she spied an untapped global opportunity. She teamed up with her husband, Jay Kimmelman, an education software developer.
Shannon May: If you go direct to that family who needs the service and you figure out what their problem is and you create that service and then you could have a business because you can charge them the fee that’s affordable for their current income levels and change their life and their children’s lives.
Ryan Grim: In a MIT case study that opens with children running around informal settlements, more commonly known as slums in the west, May details their vision and how they accomplished it.
Shannon May: We all moved to Nairobi in 2008 and within six months we had the first school up and running.
Ryan Grim: The couple did the math and found that parents of impoverished children around the globe were spending tens of billions a year on schooling. They would go on to start: Bridge International Academies.
Shannon May: We started in Kenya because this seemed the right place to start. It had the population density we were looking for. It had a neutral regulatory environment. It had people we could hire into our head office support staff who could help us build out the business.
Neha Wadekar: Over the next decade, Bridge grew into a chain of private schools providing an easy to deliver standardized curriculum — school in a box, if you will.
The curriculum was developed by researchers in Cambridge, Massachusetts and taught to hundreds of thousands of students in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and India.
Shannon May: From the very beginning. Bridge was never designed to be one school or two schools, or 10 schools even.
Neha Wadekar: Today, Bridge is the largest for-profit primary education chain in the world. As the company mushroomed, it found ready investors.
Shannon May: I’d say between 2011 and 2012, it became clearer to more investment professionals that wait, there really does seem to be a market for this. There is a market for this, that there are people paying for this service. There’s a great demand for this. It was not social impact investors who were interested. It was straight commercial capital who saw like, wow, there are a couple billion people who don’t have anyone selling them what they want.
Neha Wadekar: Sounds promising, right?
[Deconstructed theme music.]
Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed, I’m Ryan Grim.
Neha Wadekar: And I’m Neha Wadekar, reporting from Africa.
Ryan Grim: Over the last few months we’ve been looking closely at Bridge, whose founders became darlings of Silicon Valley and Beltway donors.
Neha Wadekar: One Bridge investor told the New York Times, “It’s the Tesla of education companies.” Some of the highest-profile do-good donors in the game stepped in to finance the education start-up, including Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Pierre Omidyar (also a major funder of The Intercept), and Bill Ackman. The United Kingdom’s development bank, the European Investment Bank, and the International Finance Corporation — the IFC — of the World Bank funded it too.
Shannon May: So one of the ways we first tried to get our investors to understand what we were doing was by calling it a “school in a box.” And then when we realized everyone here calls a private school, that’s good, an academy. An “academy in the box,” was to help our investors understand that you could scale education.
Because one of the early questions: How do you scale education? Isn’t that a one-off? Isn’t it just a teacher in a classroom? So don’t you have to have brilliant teachers in every room in order to have a well-educated child? Because honestly, that’s how a wealthy person would think of it.
Honestly, that’s an incredibly luxurious way of approaching education and is why there hasn’t been extensive education reform in the developing world.
Neha Wadekar: To become profitable, May and Kimmelman had to scale up quickly while keeping costs down. To do well with small margins, thousands of classrooms would be needed, because each classroom could bring in a profit of just tens of dollars a month. Here’s May again from the MIT case study video.
Shanon May: We decided to use what’s called teacher guidelines, where you prepare heavily scripted instruction for the teacher that they then present to the child.
Ryan Grim: The idea was straightforward: The largest cost when it comes to education is teacher salaries. So if curricula can be centrally produced and distributed on tablets that teachers read to the class word-for-word, then you can significantly reduce their pay.
Shannon May: You have to be able to upscale the teachers that would be available within the same community as your child.
How are you going to get tens of thousands, eventually hundreds of thousands, of teachers to be working with hundreds of millions of impoverished children? They need to be from the same community, they need to face similar challenges, but also economically, they need to be part of the same economy.
Ryan Grim: Hiring teachers who are “part of the same economy” meant paying them just a few dollars a day.
Shannon May: The operations still have lots of tweaks they need, but they’re working well enough that it makes sense to now blow the business out a little more. The stage we’re at now, it’s much more hard to hire people. So to hire people who can grow as quickly as the business can grow, right? And I think that’s one of the difficult things a lot of people don’t talk about with really rapidly growing companies.
Ryan Grim: Bridge plowed ahead, hiring less qualified teachers at significantly less cost than rival public schools. In 2022, Nobel-prize winning economist Michael Kremer conducted a study in Kenya to assess the efficacy of standardized learning at Bridge schools.
The resulting report, which was paid for by the World Bank and which Bridge heavily promotes, found that public school teachers in Kenya were paid between two to four times more than Bridge instructors. Benefits are also far less generous than what public schools offer. Kremer’s study read, “By not requiring post-secondary credentials, which typically represent a smaller share of the labor force in lower-middle income countries, Bridge has been able to draw from a larger pool of secondary school graduates.” When we asked about this, Bridge said that all the teachers it hires meet the Kenyan government’s requirements.
Neha Wadekar: Bridge also whacked away at the second highest education costs: facilities. While public schools in Kenya are required to have stone, brick, or concrete walls, Bridge designed schoolhouses out of wooden framing, enclosed by iron sheeting with mesh-wire windows.
The schoolhouses are meant to be as easy to put together as Ikea furniture. The standardization, according to Bridge, allows the company to free up resources to dedicate to other school improvement measures. Bridge says all its schools meet local standards. Here’s Jay Kimmelman, Bridge co-founder, speaking at a venture capitalist event in 2013.
Jay Kimmelman: So how do we do it? Well, we take lessons that other large global service providers use like McDonalds or Starbucks: We build for scale, we systematize, we standardize, we build in places systems of audit and accountability, we heavily leverage mobile technology to drive down the cost.
Neha Wadekar: It was a familiar model to investors, one that would understandably lose money in the early years, but as long as user growth was steady, profitability could ultimately be reached.
Shannon May: How can you convince them of your knowledge of the product and the market while making sure that they know that they could make a return because if you can’t help them make a return, you’re not starting a business. So you have to make sure you have that all kind of locked up at the beginning.
Ryan Grim: Bridge opened hundreds of schools throughout Africa and India, often without obtaining the bureaucratic approvals and permits required to do so legally. By 2022, the World Bank reported, Bridge was serving some 750,000 kids. And the results were encouraging.
The study by the economist Michael Kremer found that underserved pre-primary and primary school children received more learning and had higher test scores at Bridge than in other Kenyan schools. The study also showed that so-called “higher-order skills” and creativity did not appear to be affected by Bridge’s uniformed teaching model.
And for the last eight years, Bridge Kenya students have exceeded the national average exam score in their primary school exit exam, according to data compiled by Bridge. The data seemed so promising that Liberia even contracted out some of its struggling public schools to Bridge, as the company’s global expansion accelerated.
Neha Wadekar: Then in March 2022, the World Bank’s financing arm quietly divested from NewGlobe, the parent company of Bridge International. No announcement was made. No reason was given. Just a short disclosure in small print at the bottom of a portal reading: “Update: IFC has exited its investment in NewGlobe Schools, Inc.”
Among locals and within the global network of civil society organizations that work on development projects, rumors swirled that the dark side of Bridge’s success may have played a role — specifically, a series of abuse and neglect allegations in Kenya that had caught the eye of a Nairobi-based human rights group, the East African Centre for Human Rights, or EACHRights, as well as the internal watchdog at the World Bank, known as the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, or CAO.
In February, we reached out to Bridge about the “abuse and neglect” allegations the World Bank watchdog was probing, Bridge thought we were inquiring about different allegations that were “unsubstantiated.”
A Bridge spokesperson pointed out that the CAO was duty-bound to assess all allegations pertaining to their investments, but suggested EACHRights, who filed the complaints, had a longstanding opposition to its schools in Kenya. “EachRIGHTS [sic] has campaigned against Bridge Kenya for many years. Bridge Kenya has been fully cooperative with the ongoing CAO process over the years.”
It’s true that EACHRights has campaigned against Bridge, but behind some of the allegations lodged with CAO was a haunting story of abuse.
David Nanzai: It all started with a note from one of the pupils in the class where I was teaching.
[Sounds of children playing at Academy Mukuru Kwa Reuben school.]
Ryan Grim: During lunch break on a school day in 2016, David Nanzai, an eighth grade teacher at the Bridge International Academy Mukuru Kwa Reuben school in Nairobi, found an anonymous handwritten note that had been left in the pages of a textbook sitting on his desk.
A note to listeners, what he eventually uncovered was deeply disturbing.
And the next portion of this episode includes details of sexual abuse.
David Nanzai: A pupil did a note to me and told me, you know, teacher, you are like my father, and there is this thing that is happening to me. I’m uncomfortable because of this particular teacher.
Neha Wadekar: So you have a student write you an anonymous note.
David Nanzai: Yes.
Neha Wadekar: Did they say in the note exactly what was happening?
David Nanzai: Yeah. The student described clearly what was happening. She tell me, she told me that the teacher was touching her inappropriately and to some extent asked for sexual intercourse.
Ryan Grim: The man had touched her, the letter said, taken her hand and put it on his private parts, and asked her for oral sex and intercourse.
Neha Wadekar: She wrote this all in the letter?
David Nanzai: She wrote it on the note and then left it there. So I went, I had to go and find out more because I wanted to find out who the pupil is. The letter was anonymous.
Ryan Grim: Nanzai shared what he learned with a colleague, Andrew Omondi, and the two set out to investigate.
David Nanzi: How I had developed my own rapport with the kids. They looked at me as a father figure so they approached me.
Ryan Grim: He considered the best way forward and decided to meet privately with each of the female students in grades six through eight.
David Nanzai: So that is why I had to clear the class and then decided to call those girls one by one. So that I could create an environment whereby they can open up and share the story so that I get to know.
Neha Wadekar: Omondi encouraged him to record the conversations so they’d have evidence.
Andrew Omondi: So he had to record all of the information and he sent me the clip.
Neha Wadekar: Eventually, they figured out who had written the note, and as they investigated further, they found at least 11 girls, aged 10 to 14, had been assaulted. They suspected three other girls may have been too frightened to come forward.
We spoke with more than two dozen sources for this story including interviews with parents, former Bridge teachers and staff, nonprofit workers, community leaders, education activists, and police officers. We corroborated the scope and many of the details of the sexual abuse.
Many of the sources asked for confidentiality, expressing concern about a culture of secrecy and fear of reprisal from Bridge. The students’ stories were eerily similar, as parents and teachers relayed to us.
The accused teacher would instruct the students to come to school as early as 6:00 am for extra prep. He would call them into an office one-by-one and close the door. The crimes he was accused of ranged from unwanted touching to rape – without a condom.
Andrew Omondi: In fact, I’m the one who connected him with the job, because he was a fellow friend from a different church.
Neha Wadekar: Omondi had introduced the accused teacher to Bridge. Omondi knew the instructor was fired from his previous teaching job. But he didn’t know why. The accused teacher had reached out to Omondi’s pastor for help.
Andrew Omondi: After that he talked to my pastor. Then I connected him on this end. We brought him on board. He came for an interview. He was a good friend, a close friend.
Neha Wadekar: The teacher was married and a devout church attendee who styled himself as a man of God — something David Nanzi noticed too.
David Nanzi: This teacher also tend to kind of camouflage in Christianity so much that he was seen as a pastor. He camouflaged as a pastor and that really made even parents get into believing him.
Neha Wadekar: During an interview at a community center in the Mukuru settlement, Omondi said he received training on how to identify and handle cases of sexual abuse when he first started teaching at Bridge in 2012. Bridge told us that it has been providing “safeguarding training” to teachers and school leaders since December 2008.
Nanzai reported his findings to the school’s academy manager, similar to a principal, a woman named Josephine Ouko. Ouko called a staff meeting in her office with the alleged perpetrator in attendance. We were unable to reach Ouko for comment.
The other teachers confronted him, seething. Initially, he denied the allegations, according to four Bridge teachers present, but the teachers played audio recordings of Nanzai’s conversations with the students and shared their written testimonies. Here’s Omondi again.
Andrew Omondi: So we called a meeting with the head teacher — the academy manager —by then. She was called, Josephine. And we talked. We played the audio clip that the pupils were now testifying how these things have been happening. And the guy [was] there.
We had to play because that was the only evidence that we had. The pupils were not able, were not comfortable testifying the presence of other teachers. And so we had to play the audio. All the staff were there, plus the teacher himself.
One of the teachers was so small she could not hold the tears. She fell down and the guy now had to submit that indeed, it has, it has been happening that way.
Neha Wadekar: Four teachers confirmed that the accused teacher eventually admitted his guilt to his infuriated colleagues. We identified the man but were unable to reach him.
After the meeting, the teachers expected Ouko, the academy manager, to notify Bridge and call the police. But Ouko instructed them to leave her office so she could speak to the accused teacher alone.
[Sounds from the streets of Mukuru settlement.]
The next thing they knew, the man had disappeared into the maze of crowded dirt streets that make up the Mukuru informal settlement. He was gone.
The following day, Omondi got the parents involved. He called Daniel Wambua Ndinga, one of the survivor’s fathers, asking him to come in immediately.
Neha Wadekar: I’ll check this every once in a while to make sure it’s working, but just keep—
Daniel Wambua Ndinga: [Crosstalk.] My name is Daniel Ndinga.
Ryan Grim: At the school, Omondi told Ndinga what happened.
Daniel Wambua Ndinga: My daughter was defiled.
Ryan Grim: Ndinga called in his daughter and several other students, and they verified the story. He mobilized the other parents and escorted them to the nearby police station to begin an investigation.
Daniel Wambua Ndinga: I do mobilize the parents to take that matter seriously so that we can protect our children.
Ryan Grim: We spoke with a police officer involved in the initial report who confirmed that the incident was indeed reported to them. No further details were provided.
The girls were taken by ambulance to a nearby Doctors Without Borders clinic for check-ups. One student’s medical records, provided to us by a parent, read that she was forcibly violated by a teacher in the early morning hours before school started. She was described as being anxious. She was prescribed prophylaxis for sexually transmitted infections, given vaccines for Hepatitis B and tetanus, and encouraged to attend counseling.
But the abuse could have been caught sooner. Sometime in 2015, a year before the serial assault came to light, two girls had attempted to get help from another teacher, Jackline Anudo.
The girls had approached Anudo alleging that the same teacher was sexually assaulting them. Anudo tried to speak with the accused teacher, but said he initially denied any wrongdoing. Several days later, Anudo said three other girls approached her with the same story. Anudo said she spoke with the teacher again, and this time, he admitted the assault. When she raised the issue with the then-academy manager, Josephine Ouko, she said Ouko warned her not to tell the parents and refused to investigate the allegations.
Neha Wadekar: Anudo told us, “I kept quiet. I feel very, very bad because when we are there, we, as the teacher — I wanted to make the pupils’ future better, to better their future.”
In the months following the incident, Ndinga and several Bridge teachers attempted to find the man in the depths of Nairobi’s informal settlements. Several times, they got word from their contacts that he was in a certain location, but by the time they arrived, he had disappeared. Even his wife claimed she had not seen her husband.
Told that we had identified the alleged perpetrator by name, a Bridge spokesperson acknowledged the abuse had taken place and confirmed the former teacher’s identity. Asked why the company had previously dismissed our inquiry, the spokesperson said that the company thought we were referring to different allegations. And the company added the threat of a lawsuit against The Intercept.
Bridge’s attorneys sent us a letter saying, “a few bad apples” shouldn’t “tarnish” the overall work and success of their educators and schools. They also posited that the problem was simply endemic in Kenya. “It is also important to acknowledge the sad reality that sexual abuse of students by teachers has historically been a serious problem in Kenyan schools.”
The legal threat was a glimpse into the aggressive posture Bridge had become known for, a reputation that was forged in the global press amid its battle in Uganda with a Canadian graduate student named Curtis Riep.
Ryan Grim: In May of 2016, just weeks after the teachers and parents had reported the perpetrator to the police in Nairobi, Curtis Riep sat down in a cafe in Kampala, Uganda. An education policy Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alberta, Riep was in the city researching Bridge for Education International, a global federation of teachers unions. He had managed to schedule an interview with a Bridge national director and a regional manager.
As the men began their conversation, Riep hit start on his recorder, as he did for all such meetings, so that he could later transcribe the answers.
Neha Wadekar: Moments later, a plain-clothed police detective – or, at least, a man identifying as one – and two men in militarized uniforms carrying assault-style weapons approached them. Riep transcribed the whole incident, verbatim, in his dissertation.
Ryan Grim: After exchanging pleasantries with the executives, one of the men told Riep, “I work with the police – the Uganda police. I’m going to be taking you now.”
It would later emerge that Bridge officials in Uganda had accused Riep of gaining access to Bridge schools by impersonating a teacher.
Riep insisted he had permission. He said, “These are the directors of the schools, so maybe we could have a conversation here.”
Neha Wadekar: Andrew White was one of the Bridge executives there to meet Riep. White, a Bridge national director, was also later part of the Bridge team that responded to the investigation into serial assault in Kenya.
Riep asked White, “Did you make a complaint to them?” There was no answer from White. Riep asked again.
Sipping his coffee, the Bridge national director said, “I don’t know what you mean. This has nothing to do with me personally. I don’t know what it is.”
Ryan Grim: Feeling uneasy about the situation and unsure if the uniformed men were even cops, Riep asked to send an email to his fiancé. In the message he was able to fire off, Riep told his fiancé he was being escorted by the police and that if she didn’t hear from him within 24 hours, to take action.
After several failed attempts to get the executives to clarify and resolve the situation, Riep pleaded one final time, telling them “Please, I don’t know if these are real police. I mean, I don’t want my life to be in jeopardy. So, if you feel like you really need to protect yourself and Bridge to this extent, I think it is a mistake. Let’s not make this more of an issue. You are the director of Bridge so obviously we can sort this out another way.” The executives remained silent.
Neha Wadekar: Riep was escorted to an unmarked car, noting that the men bore a “striking resemblance” to the private security guards the Ugandan elite hire to protect their homes and businesses. Inside the car was another man, who identified himself as an attorney for the government of Uganda, but whom Riep later told the press he learned was a lawyer working for Bridge.
They passed the Kampala Central Police Station and kept driving for more than an hour and a half, arriving at a two-room, clapboard police station, home to a front office and a holding cell. Four media outlets waited outside, filming Riep’s arrival. Two Bridge officials held forth about the danger Riep represented to the community.
Ryan Grim: He was interrogated for several hours and told that Bridge had taken out an advertisement in a major local paper on May 24. The ad warned the public Riep was “wanted by the police,” underneath a photograph of his face.
After being released on bond, Riep was required to return the next day for more questioning. Fortunately for him, he had consistently signed into log books at schools under his own name and affiliation, according to later reporting by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC),
And Bridge could produce no staff witnesses or other evidence to sufficiently back up the claim that he had impersonated its personnel. The police dropped the charges, but warned that Bridge may “come after you again,” he said.
Riep’s arrest was covered by the Washington Post and CBC and led to the co-founder of Bridge, Shannon May, being questioned in the U.K. Parliament about the arrest.
Stephen Twigg (Chair): There have been allegations of some of the Bridge staff exhibiting threatening behavior towards independent researchers, both in Uganda and Nigeria. What is the response to those allegations?
Shanon May: I believe I know the case you are talking about in Uganda, which we found incredibly unfortunate. There was a gentleman who did not have ethical review board approval from his university who was misrepresenting his identity, stating that he was someone who worked for Bridge.
Ryan Grim: Shannon May was asked about this incident in an interview later by Graham Brown-Martin.
Graham Brown-Martin: Who placed and funded the advert in the newspaper that was suggesting that this gentleman was wanted?
Shanon May: No, so I think Graham it’s important to understand what’s expected and recommended practice in Uganda.
Graham Brown-Martin: Listen, Shannon, Shannon, I’m just trying to get beyond this. I’m just trying to say, I guess asking you a simple question: Who?
Shannon May: It wasn’t a wanted article. You should look at it.
Graham Brown-Martin: I have. I’ve got a copy of [crosstalk]. Shannon I’ve done my research. I have a copy.
Shannon May: Bridge in Uganda posted that article.
Graham Brown-Martin: I have a copy.
Shannon May: Bridge in Uganda took out that advertisement as recommended by the police and legal counsel because he was faking false identity.
Graham Brown-Martin: [Crosstalk] Shannon, which, which organization paid for the advert?
Shannon May: Bridge in Uganda.
Neha Wadekar: The British version of the World Bank, which had invested several million dollars in Bridge, pulled its support following this incident.
Riep’s subsequent report did not paint Bridge in a positive light, but Bridge offered a confounding response alleging that Riep had only been able to unearth what he had from Bridge teachers because they believed he was a fellow colleague and therefore trusted him and “freely discussed work-related grievances, as one usually does with co-workers.”
The Ugandan Ministry of Education soon moved to shutter Bridge schools on the basis that they were “operating illegally because they have no provisional or other licenses.” Bridge fought the order in court, and ultimately lost. But Bridge has continued fighting and has not closed the schools.
Ryan Grim: Bridge wasn’t finished with Riep. In December 2016, it filed a complaint with the University of Alberta accusing him of violating the University’s Code of Student Behaviour. Riep said that a two-month investigation resulted in the allegations being dismissed. A university spokesperson said privacy rules barred him from commenting, though he said Riep received his doctorate from the school in 2021.
Riep, reached by phone, said, “They basically tried to paint me out to look like some perpetrator, which I find obviously just full of irony, especially given this new news that they had a sexual perpetrator within their own ranks, sexually abusing their students at this point in time.”
Neha Wadekar: The stories coming out of Bridge’s work in Africa did not go unnoticed by investors — civil society and non-governmental organizations working in the region, like Oxfam, made sure of it. Bridge had been battling a growing coalition of opponents for years, establishing a reputation as a sharp-elbowed company that responded aggressively to any hint of criticism.
In 2014, a Kenyan court ordered Bridge schools closed in one county for not complying with the minimum education safety and accountability standards. When the county education board moved to enforce the court’s decision two years later, Bridge responded by suing the Board and its director saying they had not followed the required process.
Ryan Grim: In 2015, more than one hundred national and international organizations across the world released a joint open statement addressed to World Bank President Jim Young Kim, expressing deep concerns about the bank’s support for the development of Bridge in Kenya and Uganda.
Neha Wadekar: In March 2017, Bridge sued the Kenya National Teachers Union and its leader based on a damning report they released called “Bridge vs. Reality.”
Ryan Grim: That same year, over 170 unions and civil society organizations globally released a statement calling on investors to withdraw support for Bridge. The following year, 88 groups wrote an open letter to discourage current and potential investors away from Bridge.
“It is clear that Bridge is a contentious partner,” a House of Commons report concluded, as the United Kingdom’s development bank decided to divest from Bridge.
Neha Wadekar: In 2018, the Kenyan nonprofit EACHRights filed a complaint with the World Bank’s watchdog about general noncompliance with country regulations, labor abuses, unfair fees, and unqualified teachers on behalf of current and former parents and teachers. That complaint, which we mentioned earlier, kicked off an investigation that quickly mushroomed and, five years later, is still ongoing.
Ryan Grim: The investigation of the Bridge investment has become the center of a controversy at the World Bank over investor responsibility when their investments result in harm and the nature of the accountability process inside the IFC, the World Bank’s financing arm.
The IFC’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman or CAO was created in 1999 amid pressure from the anti-globalization movement for accountability related to private sector projects financed by the World Bank Group. Under the tenure of CAO head Osvaldo Gratacós, which began later in 2014, the ombudsman completed a litany of hard-hitting investigations, uncovering major scandals.
In 2020, CAO staff and experts traveled to Nairobi to look into the complaints EACHRights had filed a few years earlier. Accoding to the CAO report, their team spoke with community members who raised concerns of sexual abuse allegations by teachers at Bridge schools.
Neha Wadekar: Around the same time, African civil society groups brought their concerns to U.S. House Representative Maxine Waters, one of the more outspoken congressional advocates of human rights in Africa and the Caribbean. Waters, as the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, wielded enormous influence over U.S. policy on the World Bank, which was looking for new capital from Congress.
Waters conditioned the new capital on a series of demands, including the bank divesting from Bridge. Her letter cited EACHRights, which worked directly with some of the victims. The pressure from Waters led to the IFC’s eventual divestment from Bridge.
Meanwhile, the sheer length of time the CAO was spending on the investigation began to capture the attention of the global civil society community. CAO’s head, Gratacós continued to pursue the investigation.
Typically, CAO just investigates allegations when a complaint is filed by a third party. But in September 2021, the CAO filed its own child sex abuse complaint regarding Bridge. The decision to move ahead with the sexual assault investigation ratcheted up the tension between the bank and the CAO.
It would be the last major decision Gratacós made at the bank. In October of that year, the World Bank announced that Janine Ferretti would be taking over as CAO head. Reached by phone, Gratacós, now listed as a realtor in Northern Virginia, said he can’t comment.
Ryan Grim: Organizations who represented clients with open investigations at the CAO privately reacted with alarm to Ferretti’s appointment. Three U.S. senators also expressed concern. This was because Ferretti was seen as a management insider with no experience in accountability investigations, unlike Gratacós. Previously, she had spent most of her career as an executive at the Inter-American Development Bank, involved in setting environmental and social policy — the very type of management official she’d now be tasked with investigating.
She unleashed a storm of protest when she tried to bring in a new head of compliance, Emmanuel Boulet. At the IFC, he is in charge of dealing with the CAO and would now be switching sides. Under pressure Boulet’s appointment was withdrawn, but officials at civil society organizations who interact with CAO say they’re increasingly finding management types working for the watchdog.
One civil society source said, “The whole office is just stacked now with management people, people who’ve spent their careers defending financial institutions against allegations of impropriety and environmental and social harms. It’s very sad, because the CAO has always been the kind of beacon of accountability of any kind of institution, public or private. No more.”
The CAO’s most recent update in the Bridge investigations was published in January 2022, after an extraordinarily long delay. The full investigations have yet to be released. A CAO spokesperson told us that the investigation has been slower than expected due to the heavy caseload and staff turnover, and expects to publish the results of their investigations not until the fall of 2023.
Neha Wadekar: Seven years after Nanzai first discovered the note, the case remains unsolved and unresolved, and the victims uncompensated.
In late February, the IFC put forward a new draft proposal addressing what it calls its “Approach to Remedial Action”: its effort to respond to the ongoing pressure to take responsibility for any harmful outcomes associated with its investments. Dozens of civil society organizations critical of the new proposal, signed on to a letter saying the IFC’s proposed approach “falls short of expectations.” Neither Bridge nor the IFC have offered the survivors of the serial assault any compensation.
We asked the IFC, Chan Zuckerberg, and the Gates and Omidyar funds what, if any, responsibility investors had to remedy the situation. A Chan Zuckerberg spokesperson said, “Any instance of harm to a child is unacceptable. We would refer you to the letter from Bridge Kenya on the practices it has in place to safeguard students and immediately investigate reports of any safety issues.”
A spokesperson for Omidyar’s Imaginable Futures said the fund owns a 2.7 percent stake in the company and “We refer you to the statement provided to you by Bridge Kenya.”
Ryan Grim: Even the best schools can find themselves in a situation in which a teacher or other school employee has broken the law and violated the trust placed in them by students. The question is what safeguards the school had in place and how the school responds.
Bridge provided us with a bullet-point list of nine action items the company took in the wake of the revelations of the abuse. The serial assault, a Bridge spokesperson said, sparked the creation of the Critical Incident Advisory Unit, which advises schools on how to respond, and led to additional training to “recognize ‘grooming’ behavior” and otherwise stop abuse before it occurs, or report it as quickly as possible. “Since 2020, all staff are asked to affirm their commitment to child safeguarding every year by re-signing the ‘Child champion promise,’” the spokesperson told us.
Students now learn a “Magic number cheer,” which teaches them to remember a phone number they can use to report abuse. The number is also printed out and stuck to the walls and on other signposts and informational fliers. The company also takes a hardline, the spokesperson said, with failing to report abuse: “If you do not report a safeguarding concern and that is subsequently discovered it is a gross misconduct offense for which you are dismissed.”
When Bridge learned its academy manager, Josephine Ouko, had not reported the crimes, the company said, she was suspended and then fired.
Neha Wadekar: The company commissioned an education consultancy, Tunza, to evaluate its practices and policies. The report found that public schools faced far greater rates of abuse than Bridge schools, though the methodology betrays an extraordinary confidence in Bridge’s reporting systems. For public schools, the study relies on anonymous surveys of students. To gather the rate of abuse at Bridge schools, the report largely relies on actual cases that were reported to higher-ups and investigated.
The report, funded by Bridge, gently suggests that Bridge ought to at some point also survey its student body to find out if its assumption about nearly universal reporting through official channels is accurate. The Tunza report also pointed to a lack of sufficient training and education for academy managers like Ouko.
Many of the other action items that Bridge listed were carried out by Bridge teachers, and parents, including taking the girls to the clinic and reporting the case to the police. The report also claims, “Bridge partnered with local institutions to provide ongoing counseling.” That counseling continued for months, Bridge said, and “would have continued as long as it was needed.”
Ryan Grim: Ndinga was one of the parents who encouraged the others not to pursue the case, legally or in the media, because he feared that the girls would be stigmatized and shamed if the incident became public.
Daniel Wambua Ndinga: That will make them be ashamed by other childrens.
Ryan Grim: And after his daughter went back to Bridge to finish her schooling there, Ndinga said he felt scared. He used to “monitor” her, checking in and investigating when she went to school early in the morning or came home later at night.
Daniel Wambua Ndinga: Even her was scared. I do monitor. When it was late I call teacher, why? Sometimes I take time and go and visit them. Sometime when it was late, I just go to school to know why, because I was very scared.
Neha Wadekar: Well thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I’m just curious, why did you agree to speak with me?
Daniel Wambua Ndinga: It’s good to share. So that we can heal and to protect others who can fall to the trap in the future.
Neha Wadekar: The effects of the serial assault on the parents and students involved have been severe.
The aunt of one of the survivors at the school in Nairobi, an illiterate laundress who was caring for her sister’s child when the incident occurred, said she has never spoken out until now. She said that months of being raped by her teacher changed her niece in front of her eyes. Before, she had been a jovial child who loved to play, and she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up. As the assault continued, unbeknownst to the aunt, her niece grew unhappy and withdrawn. Often the aunt said she came home and saw that the girl had been crying.
[Voice of aunt speaking.]
Neha Wadekar [translating]: “I did not report the matter to the police. I saw that my niece had waited for a very long while before reporting, and the days had passed. I did not know what else I could do,” she said. “No one from the school has ever followed up on the matter… No one else has come out to ask me about this issue.”
Her niece declined to speak to us about the incident. Her aunt said she wanted to put it behind her and forget the whole thing ever happened.
Ryan Grim: Bridge Kenya provided a statement from its director of Gender and Child Empowerment, Lilllian Wamuyu, writing “Bridge Kenya is appalled by any safeguarding breach. We have always treated safeguarding as our number one priority. All Bridge teachers and school leaders have been continuously trained in safeguarding since Bridge Kenya opened its first school in 2009 and students are recognised as safer in our schools. If any safeguarding concern is reported, swift and decisive action is taken, including alerting the authorities and providing full support to students affected. It is horrifying if any indecent act takes place in a school and it is the duty of all those that work in education to ensure perpetrators are brought to justice as quickly as possible.”
Wamuyu’s statement also pointed us to the Tunza report and the list of measures it had taken in the wake of the 2016 incident to improve child protection at Bridge schools. “In 2022, Bridge Kenya became a founding member of the Child Safeguarding Association of Kenya (CSAK). Bridge continually ensures that safeguarding policies and practices are reviewed and updated, so they remain best in sector,” Wamuyu concluded.
Neha Wadekar: Despite its efforts to address these issues, there have been other troubling cases at Bridge Kenya, both before and after the 2016 incident at Mukuru Kwa Reuben. Court records show that in 2017, several prepubescent female students were sexually harassed by a teacher at a Bridge school. The perpetrator was arrested, and the case is still being adjudicated in court.
In one particularly gruesome case, a Bridge teacher was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for cutting the genitals of a 7-year-old student with a razor. The case, despite its made-for-the-tabloid details, was hardly reported, nor did we find any announcement or statement by Bridge International Academies pertaining to the incident.
Ryan Grim: One morning in September 2019, the mother of a Bridge student at another Nairobi school was startled to find a crowd of her son’s classmates outside her home. They were there to deliver harrowing news.
After the school’s daily assembly, her son, a young student named Bernard, reached up to touch a wire that was dangling inside school property. It was a live wire, and he was electrocuted and killed. Another 9-year-old boy was badly hurt and rushed to a nearby hospital.
Halima Ali, the mother of the second boy injured in the incident, is currently fighting to get monetary compensation, support for her son’s ongoing medical care, and an apology from Bridge. The financial burden of the incident was devastating to Ali’s family, she said, but Bridge hasn’t budged an inch.
[Halima Ali speaking.]
Neha Wadekar [translating]: “To be honest, I have so much pain,” she said, crying during an interview in her family’s one-bedroom shanty house in the informal settlement. “I wish it happened to me and not my son.”
Ryan Grim: The case around Bernard’s death was settled through a mediation process, with CAO bringing Bridge and the student’s mother and her advocates together to agree on terms. Throughout the confidential process, according to people briefed on the talks, Bridge was reluctant to give her even the most basic remuneration for her son’s death. The mother wanted to know exactly what happened to her son and to get back the sweater he was wearing that day. She also wanted a public apology. But the company fought to keep from admitting liability.
Neha Wadekar: Bridge and the mother ultimately agreed to a public statement that acknowledged the child’s death, but offered no apology or detailing of events. The family has never gotten his sweater back.
[End credits music.]
Ryan Grim: And that’s it for this episode of Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept.
Neha Wadekar: And I’m Neha Wadekar, a journalist reporting across Africa. You can find me at Neha Wadekar on Twitter. Ryan and I reported and wrote this story. Find the print version at the Intercept.com.
Ryan Grim: Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept.
Nausicaa Renner edited this story. Laura Flynn and José Olivares produced it. And William Stanton mixed it. Legal review by David Bralow. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
To support this podcast, and the rest of the work of The Intercept, go to theintercept.com/give — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. And please go and leave us a rating or a review — it helps people find the show. If you want to give us additional feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com.
Thanks so much!
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