John Richards teaches in the Graduate Public Policy School at Simon Fraser University and is a fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute.
The second of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals is to ensure that by 2015, “children everywhere” are able to complete primary school. Some progress has been realized over the past decade and under the earlier Education For All initiative, which was strongly endorsed by Canada and other G8 countries. Some progress, but not enough.
The UN has acknowledged that “hope dims” for fully realizing its goal for education. The focus of the G8 has now shifted to maternal and child health, notably at the 2010 Huntsville summit. As the G8 prepares to meet this month at Camp David, it would do well to take stock of the role education plays in achieving development goals generally – including maternal and child health and economic outcomes.
In many of the so-called “least developed” countries, over 90 per cent of children may enter Grade 1, but half drop out before completing the primary cycle and the quality of schools is low. With a high probability, half or more of the next generation in these countries will remain illiterate.
Primary education deserves its high rank among the Millennium Development Goals. The core purpose of primary education is that children be able to read and write, and near-universal literacy is a necessary – if far from sufficient – condition if a country is to escape extreme poverty. Very few countries have achieved a per-capita GDP above $2,500 with adult literacy below 80 per cent. And very few countries achieve decent public health outcomes with female literacy below that threshold.
In sum, few countries escape extreme poverty and achieve decent health outcomes without also achieving high literacy. As UNESCO puts it, in terms unusually blunt for a UN agency: “The mentality that leads donors to neglect education in favour of narrowly defined health interventions threatens to hold back progress in both health and education.”
It may be harsh to pit better schools against better health clinics in a competition for aid dollars, but development priorities are inevitably translated into budgets.
Based on statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Canadian International Development Agency’s share of aid devoted to basic education (primary plus lower secondary) ended the decade close to what it was in 2000. By contrast, the share devoted to health more than doubled. In 2010, Canadian spending on basic and general health was nearly three times that on basic education.
A skeptic is prompted to pose the following questions:
• If the productivity and health returns from primary education are so high, why have host country governments not already organized provision of universal primary education?
• If they have not done so, can donors have any impact?
In answer to the first question, achieving universal literacy is a complex undertaking. It requires a reasonably effective government to assure provision of education services at low cost to parents. In many countries, the host government is not effective. In the context of extreme poverty, governing elites face intense pressure to engage in policies yielding short-term benefits and have little incentive to build good school systems whose benefits will not be apparent for a decade or more.
In some countries, civil war has severely disrupted the national school system (Côte d’Ivoire and Nepal, for example). In others, the government has given a higher budgetary priority to military spending than to schools (Pakistan). And in still others, political interference and corruption have hampered the school system (which is the case from Pakistan through the northern states of India to Bangladesh).
Faced with weak government systems, many parents – including low-income parents – have chosen a range of non-government schools. In India, 25 per cent of children now attend non-government schools; in Bangladesh, the proportion has risen to 40 per cent.
In answer to the second question, the key is donor pragmatism and willingness to engage with both the host government and, where governments are ineffective, with other credible agencies engaged in education. While there are cases of failure, there are also many examples of success.
Sometimes offering a fiscal incentive to parents succeeds. Donors prompted the Bangladesh government to offer a cash stipend to low-income parents of girls who attend secondary school, provided the girls achieve reasonable grades and do not marry. Secondary school enrolment of girls has tripled over the last two decades. Bangladesh served as a precedent for Brazil’s successful bolsa familia program.
Sometimes, large NGOs can supplement and substitute for ineffective governments. The Aga Khan Foundation, for example, has an impressive record in education projects throughout the Muslim world.
There are no simple solutions to aid effectiveness. But refocusing on basic education is almost certainly an effective means to achieve multiple Millennium Development Goal objectives, including those on maternal and child health.
“The mentality that leads donors to neglect education in favour of narrowly defined health interventions threatens to hold back progress in both health and education.” (UNESCO)
It is not difficult to imagine both donors and potential recipients of "aid" dollars favouring the more immediate, more dramatic and thereby more attractive targets of specific health care needs over a much longer, and much less dramatic and much less observable "development" that can and will only come through higher school attendance and significantly higher literacy rates. If the data demonstrates that a per-capita GDP of $2500 is highly unlikely where the unless the literacy rate is 80%, and if, as Mr. Richards writes, that more than half of young children drop out before completing the primacy "cycle" of education in underdeveloped countries, and Canada's contribution to health care is more than three times that to education, then his argument seems not only reasonable but also contingent on self-interest.
Canada has a reasonably sound education system, while acknowledging pockets of soft achievement according to OECD testing, and, although its teacher education facilities could use significant overhaul, there is no budgetary or political or security reason that some candidates for the Bachelor of Education program could not be funded by the federal government on condition that they proceed, for a stipulated term, to teach in an underdeveloped country, under the supervision and security provided by Canadian personnel.
If privately funded schools are being utilized by poor parents in some countries, there is a window for states like Canada to establish, and to sustain "Canadian developmental school systems" in countries that would welcome such an initiative.
The advantages would include a non-ideological approach to the curriculum, a Canadian flag on a flag pole at every school, links and relationships between these Canadian schools in underdeveloped countries with schools, teachers and students back in Canada making detailed and important information available to a wider public, potentially generating both contributions and interest from other Canadians, including the interest of some retired teachers who would and could feel safe and somewhat "at home" in schools operated by Canadian educators.
Further, Canadian universities would have an opportunity to recruit students from Canadian-operated schools, as would Canadian companies seeking workers in other lands. Eventually, Canadian faculties of education could be opened to offer teacher training to indigenous and committed students who would and could be retained to instruct in the schools in their own provinces and countries.
However, in order for such a vision to become conceivable, the place of education on the totem pole of national priorities, and provincial priorities at home would have to change. Rather than a mere "drag" on the fiscal balance sheets of every jurisdiction, education must be seen as it truly is, as an investment in the country's future. And so long as local and provincial and national political actors continue to put their own personal agendas of re-election ahead of national interests, that is not about the change.
In one of the first classes I attended at the Ontario College of Education, back in 1968, I listened as an educational philosopher whose name I cannot recall, intoned words like these:
- there would be no doctors without teachers
- there would be no lawyers without teachers
- there would be no nurses, social workers, engineers, accountants or even teachers, without teachers
- there would be no aircraft pilots, and no ships' captains, and no military generals, without teachers
- there would be no journalists, and no poets and no film and stage writers, and no novelists, without teachers.....
And to that list we could add, without solid, formal education for the majority in every country, each country's GDP will remain stunted, along with the health of the world's poor, the capacity for change and the capacity to assume responsibility for their own country's governance.
And, among those who cannot read or write, or think critically, predators will be more easily able to recruit child soldiers, and more easily train them to kill their countrymen and women, and religious fanatics will be more easily able to brainwash those children into whatever kind of cult-like belief system they wish.
Here is a potential national cause, with international implications, with which all Canadians could identify, and to which many Canadians could and would contribute in time, talent and treasure. And it is neither an issue of the ideological "right" nor the ideological "left"...but rather one of import to all people everywhere, regardless of language, geography, ethnicity, culture or religion.
Is there the vision and the courage and the commitment in Ottawa for such a proposition? We'll see.