Posted by: Jeff | November 24, 2009

Give Education A Chance

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a seminar led by a member of the Education sector team for Sub-Saharan Africa at USAID.  It was a fascinating discussion, which touched upon both the newly emerging shift in focus of education development efforts as well as the institutional resistance to promoting qualitative shifts in education as a pillar of development policy.

The inclusion of education as a tool of economic and political development efforts has a turbulent history, marked by periods of support and skepticism regarding its importance.  In 1972, World Bank President Robert McNamera proclaimed a deficiency in the role of education in the development industry, noting that education deserved a role as a primary tool of poverty alleviation.  This commitment to human development as a precursor to stability and economic growth was short-lived, however, as the emerging neo-liberal “Washington Consensus” soon shifted focus back on free-market economic reform.

After the revelation of the acute short-comings of this free-market approach for standard of living and human security, as well as the era of perceived civil instability throughout the developing world in the post-Cold War years, education resurfaced as a prominent development goal.

Today, after several years of adjusting practices and objectives to reflect past policies both failed and successful, there is an emerging consensus that previous education indicators – universal access to primary school and literacy rates foremost among them – are important but only scratch the surface of the education reform needed.  The subsequent shift to qualitative reform – changing the structure of education institutions within fragile and least developed states, training teachers and supplying them with the resources needed to succeed in a classroom, improving and unifying curricular content – has improved the lives of innumerable youths.  In ways that are nearly impossible to measure.

The development industry is plagued by an obsession on immediate outcomes.  While it is certainly understandable that donors giving millions of dollars for a project should expect to see results, the annual nature of budgets and project duration fixates on short-term indicators.  How many additional children went to school this year?  How many additional children can now read?  How many schools were built?

Congress is the most fickle of all – with frequent elections in the House and a shaky commitment to foreign aid among constituents, Congress is very sensitive to how projects play in public.  It is much easier to tout the success of a program that builds 20 schools in rural Uganda than it is to cheer the implementation of a vocational training program designed to teach ex-combatants how to manage small businesses – especially when many of those businesses will take years to get off the ground and may eventually fail.  How do you measure success of a psychosocial therapy program aimed at war-affected youth?  The short answer is that you can’t, and that Congress isn’t interested for that reason.

This begs a difficult question – how does one measure the success of broadly-conceived education policy in fragile states?  The best indicator is naturally the absence of conflict, an indicator impossible to assign any individual causation.  Who is to say that education policy, only one facet of what is ideally a broad and sweeping development agenda, is the primary reason a state does not submit to violent conflict?  It’s impossible to measure in any quantitative way.

For that reason there is still institutional resistance to education as a prominent component of development policy, particularly in post-conflict states.  What focus there is at the donor level is largely aimed at improving access and literacy – indicators that don’t necessarily do enough to improve standard of living or equality (though there is some correlation).  We see this to some extent in the US – inner city schools provide students access, yes, but is the quality sufficient to ensure that they stay committed?

Donor fatigue and skepticism about the efficacy of education as a tool of development and stability is a shame because quality schools give youths an appealing alternative to a life spent on the black market or in conflict.  In the end, hope is the greatest deterrent against conflict and terrorism.  If hope is rooted in opportunity, why aren’t we doing our best to improve the educational systems that provide those opportunities?



  1. […] mentioned before that I view the biggest problem related to development as the inability (or unwillingness) to take […]

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