Of all the supposed development panaceas touted in the twentieth century, education seemed to many the most likely to succeed. It’s so logical and makes for such a nice argument: invest in education and your country will flourish. This is why the post World War II period saw an unprecedented increase in gross school enrolments in developing countries, up from 66% to 100% for primary and 14% to 40% for secondary.
Governments built schools and hired teachers left right and centre, and then sat back and waited for the economic growth to come pouring in. Did it? The short answer is not really. The long answer requires reading lots of boring, stuffy economic development journal articles. Luckily for you, I’ve read far too many of said boring, stuffy economic development articles. When the effects of the post-war education explosion were being evaluated in the late 1990s and early 2000s some studies found a positive relationship between education and growth, others found no relationship, and some even found a negative relationship – higher government spending was actually associated with negative economic growth. The results were rather disappointing. Where had all the education gone? This is the question renowned development economist Lant Pritchett asked.
Being a pirate (the kind with the wooden leg and a parrot on his should, not the kind that downloads Game of Thrones from a dodgy website) must have been actually quite difficult when you think about it. You’d have to know a great deal about naval warfare, commercial shipping routes and the market for your treasure. In short, a basic education is pretty handy if you wanted to be a pirate. If educated people are using their education by taking part in socially harmful income redistribution (i.e. piracy, or perhaps corruption), then the money spent on educating them will have been a complete waste. I’ve actually pirated this reason from Douglas North’s book, so maybe my education was also a waste…
Another reason is utterly obvious yet often ignored in the studies of the economic development effects of education. Building a school doesn’t automatically translate into learning, and it’s learning that really counts. In the same way that I didn’t learn anything when I used to go to the university library to browse Facebook, children won’t learn anything in a classroom if they aren’t being engaged in educational activities. Too often it has been the case that children in developing countries have been in school but not learning. You can spend a lot of money building schools and paying teachers, but unless the teachers teach – it will all have been for nothing.
Tanzania has one of the highest enrolment ratios in Africa and yet it’s educational outcomes are far from exemplary. One study found that on finishing primary school, 7 out of 10 Tanzanian children are unable to read basic Swahili. Free universal education is all well and good, but it is wasted, from an economic development standpoint at least, if the children are not learning anything.
In terms of my Douglas North’s piracy example, President Magufuli’s major offensive against corruption is reason for optimism, but his tough stance must continue in the long term for any significant benefits to be seen.
Of course, the benefits of education aren’t limited to the economy. Education can be hugely enriching, both for the individual and for society. At Seed Change, our farmer extension program enables knowledge exchange and transfer that boosts the incomes of our farmers, but it is also plays an important role in building positive relationships, giving people a sense of control and there’s always the simple joy of learning.