International Development and Educating the Poor – by Pauline Dixon

African children during English class, East Africa

Image Credit: Istockphoto

Low-cost private education is increasingly popular in poorer regions throughout the world.  Professor Pauline Dixon argues that this is a great way of providing education and giving children the chance to succeed.

We all know that education is important. The cognitive skills of a population have a high correlation with economic growth and through growth poverty eradication occurs.

It’s what a population knows that counts.

It would seem intuitive that school is a place to stimulate and foster these cognitive skills. That’s why such a high emphasis is put on ‘education for all’ and ‘equality of education’ by the west.

But it’s not the quantity of schooling that’s important. It’s the quality.

That’s where the Millennium Development Goals got it wrong. Just get the kids into school. Let’s improve the numbers attending. Surely we can rely on the teachers to do their bit?

Not so. It turned out ‘more is less’.

True schools can be places where education happens. However, in the developing world it can also be where no learning occurs at all. In some government schools around the world you are lucky if your teacher turns up. Absenteeism is high, accountability low. Even if your teacher gets to school it’s highly likely they’ll be doing something else. Chatting in the staff room, sitting outside in the sunshine, texting, knitting, or sipping tea.

So, they got it wrong. Education for All wasn’t the right goal. Well not one that would have stimulated economic growth or given these children some kind of start. At least the new Sustainable Development Goal targeting education has the word ‘quality’ in it –

‘Proposed Goal 4: Provide equitable and inclusive quality education and life long learning opportunities for all’.

But goals can be set, not met, set, not met, set … ad infinitum. Surely we must do some good this time? However, for me it brings to mind the famous quote by Einstein who stated that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.

A World Bank report indicated that poor parents were getting a bad deal with regards government education for their children. The consequence? Parents needed to be “patient” whilst public education systems were reformed to rid them of corruption, lethargy and general inefficiency.

What I have seen during my travels to sub-Saharan Africa and India is that parents aren’t sitting around patiently for an exultant West to come and fix things. They aren’t waiting for a new set of Goals to come out either. Owing to high levels of teacher absenteeism and low teacher effort parents went in search of alternative schooling for their children. They voted with their feet, abandoning government schools for what they assumed were better quality private ones.

9781783473533A bottom up approach has stimulated the existence of a new market in education – low cost private schools. Our work for the last 15 years has been dedicated to researching, engaging with and disseminating findings about different school management types and the choices parents have in slums and shantytowns around the world. 15 years ago, no one wanted to know. Indeed in 2004 Kevin Watkins, who was working for Oxfam at the time, was so against the whole low cost private school movement wrote in an article published by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) that Professor James Tooley and myself were:

ploughing a lonely furrow. Nobody, it seems, is listening to them. Long may it stay that way.’

Well 11 years later we are being listened to. Indeed The Economist’s front cover and the lead article recently highlighted ‘The $1-a-week school’. Governments around the world are listening too. But they aren’t just listening to us. We just highlighted and discovered an amazing phenomenon. They are listening to the millions of poor parents who demanded an education, not from failing states, but from entrepreneurs recognizing the need. It’s a grassroots revolution. Schools have grown organically out of the communities themselves.

Parents are reclaiming education back from the state and voicing their right for choice, a right for growth, a right for the development of their children’s cognitive abilities.

Maybe we should just sit back. Let the low cost private schools’ market become more innovative and develop spontaneously. It’s accountable to the parents as it is. We don’t want meddling to have a negative effect on all that is good.

We need to take care here. If we do want to help are there legitimate ways to develop the market? We explore some ideas around improving the access to and the quality of private schooling in our new ‘Handbook of International Development and Education’. Some of the expert authors have considered targeted education vouchers, micro finance loans, developing social entrepreneurship and the potential power of community-based accountability as possible ways forward.

Human capital is seen as the dominant pre-requisite for economic growth and key to the long run success of development. This has been an amazing journey for the parents, the school owners and the children in these developing countries. They have undertaken an education revolution for the good of their children’s future as well as their nations. This is something that should be celebrated and admired.

Pauline-Dixon Pauline Dixon is Professor of International Development and Education at Newcastle University.  She works extensively in Asia and Africa searching for and analysing private and government schools catering for low-income families. She also works on projects which focus on improving the quality of and access to these schools. She makes frequent field trips to conduct research work to many countries around the world. In 2013 she was awarded a Luminary Award from the Free Market Foundation of South Africa. Pauline is currently the Degree Programme Director for the MA International Development and Education (MA (IDE)) and the MA International Development and Education with CCC (Cross Cultural Communication). She is Deputy Director of Sole Central and Research Director of the E.G. West Centre. She is a member of the newly formed Centre for Research on entrepreneurship, Wealth and Philanthropy (REWP).

The introductory chapter to The Handbook of International Development and Education can be downloaded on Elgaronline

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  1. International Development and Educating the Poor – by Pauline Dixon « E.G. West Centre - August 20, 2015

    […] Low-cost private education is increasingly popular in poorer regions throughout the world.  Professor Pauline Dixon argues that this is a great way of providing education and giving children the chance to succeed. Read the Edward Elgar blog. […]

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