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"The singular issue is improving human capital."
- Carl Schramm


Education in developing countries can help improve life in obvious ways, such as economic growth, political stability and personal health. Unfortunately, developing countries tend to be behind the rest of the world in basic education, especially women’s education. Still, increased education funding is not a silver bullet, and not only because foreign aid for education often gets misdirected by inefficient and corrupt bureaucracies. With education, as with most issues in poverty relief, good intentions need to be yoked to sound economics and a right understanding of the human person if they are to generate positive results for the poor. 

Education in Developing Countries and Foreign Aid

In his essay, “After Empire,” Theodore Dalrymple describes a negative consequence of formal education that he observed while living and working in Tanzania: “The aim of education was, in almost every case, that at least one family member should escape … rural life and get into government service, from which he would be in a position to extort from the only productive people in the country—namely, the peasants from whom he had sprung.” As Dalrymple says in the PovertyCure interview, “The purpose of education was to get a job in the government so that you became a member of this parasitic class,” meaning the ruling political class, which “had actually an interest in making sure that no one else flourished, because that would be the end of aid.” In other words, badly focused Western education efforts in Tanzania resulted in people leaving the real foundation of the economy, its farming, to join the government in extorting from the remaining farmers, with devastating consequences for the society. Without care taken to prevent problems like this, formal education can actually worsen the situation in a developing economy. 

The international push for free primary education has attracted billions of dollars in support for planting government schools all over the globe. The cause seems unquestionable, but James Tooley, a Professor of Education Policy at Newcastle University, has noticed some troubling unintended consequences. Kenya has experienced some of these actions directly. Propelled by a $55 million grant from the World Bank in 2003, the Kenyan government instituted Free Primary Education (FPE), a program which official sources estimated, “would allow an extra 1.3 million children to be enrolled in public school: all of them children not previously enrolled in school.”

But the results were less than hoped for and the effect on local entrepreneurs was stark. “Private-school owners in Kibera alone reported a total enrollment decline of some 6,500 after Free Primary Education was initiated; some schools closed altogether," said Tooley. Also contrary to early predictions, the government schools posted only subtle increases in enrollment numbers, and according to local school owners, “FPE caused an overall net decline in [school] attendance of nearly 8,000 children from one slum alone." However well-intended, the “international community” ended up crowding out local education pioneers instead of partnering with them.

Subsidiarity and the Vision of Education in Developing Countries

To effectively improve education in developing countries, subsidiarity needs to play an important role, allowing local knowledge to shape the sort of education children receive. What may be best for a child in suburban Boston may not be the best curriculum for an equally bright kid in a farming village in India. Or there may be substantial overlap. But a one-size-fits-all mentality will not allow anyone to make an informed decision on this score.

More fundamentally, an effective educational system must begin with a true understanding of the nature of the human person. An educational system that buys into a redistributionist and zero-sum view of wealth, for instance, is less likely to encourage children to aspire to wealth-creating activities in their professional lives. Consider the example that Dalrymple gives of education in Tanzania when he lived there. Notice that in that example, an understanding of local needs by itself would not have been enough to break the cycle of parents seeking to train their children to enter the government bureaucracy: families’ local knowledge apparently was informing them that there were so few opportunities for advancement outside of government service that they shouldn’t bother trying to educate their kids to be entrepreneurs or scientists or engineers. Thus, fruitful transformation requires holistic change—in this case, an effort to reform both the vision of a good education and the cultural institutions beyond the school so that some children not only develop wealth-creating skills, but also have opportunities to use their training to create new wealth for themselves and their communities.

Education at the Sonrise School in Rwanda—Training Job Makers

The example of the Sonrise School in Rwanda, founded by Anglican Bishop John Rucyahana, offers one positive example. Bishop John has sought to fashion an educational experience that nurtures the creative and leadership capabilities of the school’s students, many of whom were orphans. “Instead of training job seekers, we train job makers,” he says. “We need to be able to move from aid to production.” At the same time, and for several years now, the country’s political leaders have been working to make Rwanda a more business-friendly environment—friendly both to investors from the developed world and for indigenous entrepreneurs. If Rwanda’s strong rate of economic growth since the latter half of the 1990s is any indication, these efforts are paying dividends. Such institutional reforms mean that children who are taught entrepreneurial skills are more likely to have a positive outlet for such skills, a fact that will encourage Rwandan families to search out and cultivate entrepreneurial talent in their children. In this way, a vicious circle may eventually be replaced by a virtuous one.

Entrepreneurs Meeting Education Needs

We sometimes treat "the poor" as if they were somehow uniquely incapable of rising out of poverty without our assistance. We often assume, if we don't provide them with everything they need, including education, that no one will. Yet if we look closely (and with a bit more humility), we see indigenous solutions everywhere.

Part of Tooley’s research was undertaken in Kibera, Kenya, the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa. “Kibera has, according to various estimates, anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000 people crowded into an area of about 630 acres, smaller than Manhattan’s Central Park,” Tooley notes. It is also a place where private property ownership is difficult to achieve. Many of the homes and businesses are labeled temporary structures, and the owners are unable to gain land title and recognition by the government.

Despite the challenging business landscape, Tooley found entrepreneurs stepping in to fill educational needs. “…We found 76 private elementary and high schools, enrolling more than 12,000 students. The schools are typically run by local entrepreneurs, a third of whom are women who have seen the possibility of making a living from running a school,” he explains. The schools also offered shelter for the poorest, including orphans.

Surprising discoveries were also made in the Gansu province, a remote and mountainous region situated on the upper and lower reaches of the Yellow River in northwest China. “Roughly half of its counties, with 62 percent of the population, are considered 'impoverished',” says Tooley. Looking beyond the major towns and bustling villages, where public schools are common, Tooley’s team scaled the steep mountain paths to discover “a total of 696 private schools, 593 of them serving some 61,000 children in the most remote villages.” “Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Gansu’s private schools were set up by individuals, or the villages themselves, because government schools are simply too far away or hard to get to,” says Tooley. Locals identified the vital need for education and acted to meet the need.

Government Education in Developing Countries vs. Low Cost Private Schools

Another area of study connected to education reform in developing countries is the question of public vs. private education. Efforts have been made by organizations such as the United Nations to increase worldwide primary education through donor-funded public schools, in the belief that only rich families have access to private education. Despite the expectations, however, studies show that poor families around the world frequently opt to pay for low-cost private education rather than the free education provided by government schools. Tooley researched this phenomenon, and in “Backing the Wrong Horse,” he reports, “Across the developing world the poor are eschewing free, disturbed by its low quality and lack of accountability. Meanwhile, educational entrepreneurs from the poor communities themselves set up affordable private schools to cater to the unfulfilled demand.”

In his study, Tooley found that private schools outperformed their public counterparts in nearly every level of comparison. Public education suffers from problems such as lack of accountability; indifferent teachers who often fail even to show up at schools, and overcrowding. Tooley quotes a woman in Kenya who uses an analogy to describe the situation: “If you go to a market and are offered free fruit and vegetables, they will be rotten. If you want fresh fruit and veg, you have to pay for them.”

Tooley found the rate of teacher absenteeism to be higher in most government schools than private schools. In addition, student performance in many private schools was noticeably higher. In Hyderabad, India Tooley observed that “students attending recognized and unrecognized private schools outperformed their peers in government schools by a full standard deviation in both English and math (after accounting for differences in their observable characteristics).”

While publicly-funded schools initially have a larger pool of resources to draw from, the educational experience in private schools may be just as good, if not better. Tooley observed a private school in Ghana consisting of little more than an iron roof and rickety poles. When speaking with the school’s owner, he gained a much different perspective than one might expect from merely looking at the architecture. “Education is not about buildings,” she scolded. “What matters is what is in the teacher’s heart. In our hearts, we love the children and do our best for them.”

This richness is an aspect not always present in government-funded schools, which lack accountability to the parents. Tooley maintains that “when parents pay fees they demand more of the schools, and the schools themselves are more accountable to the parents.” Making a financial commitment to education empowers parents to be more conscious of and committed to the education process, and urges schools to be good stewards of the resources given to them by parents.

Education in Developing Countries: Parent Choice and Accountability

Riddhi Shah cites competition, parental choice and accountability as factors that help to sustain the high standard of education in private schools, allowing them to outperform public schools at a very low cost. Some have suggested more funding to improve public schools, but in her article, “Class Difference,” Shah quotes an Indian mother criticizing the idea: “The problem isn’t the money … The problem is the teachers don’t have to listen to us.” Tooley suggests helping extremely poor families pay for private schools with government vouchers, to ensure that parents can put pressure on schools to perform and choose the right education for their children.

Even when given the option of sending their children to public school at no cost, a significant number of parents in the developing world seek out alternate options. In Ghana, the government has built schools across the country. The tuition is free, but the quality is generally low, sending frustrated parents looking for private solutions. The PovertyCure DVD Series features interviews of Ghanaian parents who have opted for private schools providing high-quality education at a fraction of the teacher cost.

This desire for private education is reflected in the high number of private schools within portions of the country. In the Ga district of Ghana, which surrounds the capital city of Accra, Tooley’s researchers found “a total of 799 schools, 25 percent of which were government, 52 percent recognized private, and 23 percent unrecognized private.”

Competition and Partnership in the Education Process

While entrepreneurs have stepped in to fill the high-quality education void across the developing world, sustainable private education requires something more. Recognition of these schools by the government is needed, as well as a legal framework that allows for their expansion. Some countries have made great strides in this area. In Peru, for example, the law on for-profit education was liberalized, with the goal of allowing international companies involvement in the education process. As competition is good for the development of high-quality goods and services, it is also beneficial for education.

In addition, outside investment in private education can yield high-level growth and a long-term impact, providing resources initially lacking in school start-ups. Tooley and others believe the high-quality education provided by private schools makes this a worthwhile venture, not just for communities themselves, but countries as a whole. He co-founded Omega Schools, which creates private schools in Ghana that benefit low income families and empower students. In just three years, the Omega Schools chain has grown to 20 schools and 11,000 students.

Rethink Poverty

Subtitled in 15 languages, this six part video series that will change absolutely everything about how you approach charity and missions.