Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Education Push Yields Little for India’s Poor

From the New York Times:

LAHTORA, India — With the dew just rising from the fields, dozens of children streamed into the two-room school in this small, poor village, tucking used rice sacks under their arms to use as makeshift chairs. So many children streamed in that the newly appointed head teacher, Rashid Hassan, pored through attendance books for the first two hours of class and complained bitterly. He had no idea who belonged in which grade. There was no way he could teach.

Another teacher arrived 90 minutes late. A third did not show up. The most senior teacher, the only one with a teaching degree, was believed to be on official government duty preparing voter registration cards. No one could quite recall when he had last taught.

“When they get older, they’ll curse their teachers,” said Arnab Ghosh, 26, a social worker trying to help the government improve its schools, as he stared at clusters of children sitting on the grass outside. “They’ll say, ‘We came every day and we learned nothing.’ ”

Sixty years after independence, with 40 percent of its population under 18, India is now confronting the perils of its failure to educate its citizens, notably the poor. More Indian children are in school than ever before, but the quality of public schools like this one has sunk to spectacularly low levels, as government schools have become reserves of children at the very bottom of India’s social ladder.

The children in this school come from the poorest of families — those who cannot afford to send away their young to private schools elsewhere, as do most Indian families with any means.

India has long had a legacy of weak schooling for its young, even as it has promoted high-quality government-financed universities. But if in the past a largely poor and agrarian nation could afford to leave millions of its people illiterate, that is no longer the case. Not only has the roaring economy run into a shortage of skilled labor, but also the nation’s many new roads, phones and television sets have fueled new ambitions for economic advancement among its people — and new expectations for schools to help them achieve it.

That they remain ill equipped to do so is clearly illustrated by an annual survey, conducted by Pratham, the organization for which Mr. Ghosh works. The latest survey, conducted across 16,000 villages in 2007 and released Wednesday, found that while many more children were sitting in class, vast numbers of them could not read, write or perform basic arithmetic, to say nothing of those who were not in school at all.

Among children in fifth grade, 4 out of 10 could not read text at the second grade level, and 7 out of 10 could not subtract. The results reflected a slight improvement in reading from 2006 and a slight decline in arithmetic; together they underscored one of the most worrying gaps in India’s prospects for continued growth.

Education experts debate the reasons for failure. Some point out that children of illiterate parents are less likely to get help at home; the Pratham survey shows that the child of a literate woman performs better at school. Others blame longstanding neglect, insufficient public financing and accountability, and a lack of motivation among some teachers to pay special attention to poor children from lower castes.

“Education is a long-term investment,” said Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and the government’s top policy czar. “We have neglected it, in my view quite criminally, for an enormously long period of time.”

Looking for a Way Up

Education in the new India has become a crucial marker of inequality. Among the poorest 20 percent of Indian men, half are illiterate, and barely 2 percent graduate from high school, according to government data. By contrast, among the richest 20 percent of Indian men, nearly half are high school graduates and only 2 percent are illiterate.

Just as important, at a time when only one in 10 college-age Indians actually go to college, higher education has become the most effective way to scale the golden ladder of the new economy. A recent study by two economists based in Delhi found that between 1993-94 and 2004-5, college graduates enjoyed pay raises of 11 percent every year, and illiterates saw their pay rise by roughly 8.5 percent, though from a miserably low base; here in Bihar State, for instance, a day laborer makes barely more than $1 a day.

“The link between getting your children prepared and being part of this big, changing India is certainly there in everyone’s minds,” said Rukmini Banerji, the research director of Pratham. “The question is: What’s the best way to get there, how much to do, what to do? As a country, I think we are trying to figure this out.”

She added, “If we wait another 5 or 10 years, you are going to lose millions of children.”

Money From the State

India has lately begun investing in education. Public spending on schools has steadily increased over the last few years, and the government now proposes to triple its financial commitment over the next five years. At present, education spending is about 4 percent of the gross domestic product. Every village with more than 1,000 residents has a primary school. There is money for free lunch every day.

Even in a state like Bihar, which had an estimated population of 83 million in 2001 and where schools are in particularly bad shape, the scale of the effort is staggering. In the last year or so, 100,000 new teachers have been hired. Unemployed villagers are paid to recruit children who have never been to school. A village education committee has been created, in theory to keep the school and its principal accountable to the community. And buckets of money have been thrown at education, to buy swings and benches, to paint classrooms, even to put up fences around the campus to keep children from running away.

And yet, as Lahtora shows, good intentions can become terribly complicated on the ground.

At the moment, the village was not lacking for money for its school. The state had committed $15,000 to construct a new school building, $900 for a new kitchen and $400 for new school benches. But only some of the money had arrived, so no construction had started, and the school committee chairman said he was not sure how much local officials might demand in bribes. The chairman’s friend from a neighboring village said $750 had been demanded of his village committee in exchange for building permits.

The chairman here also happens to be the head teacher’s uncle, making the idea of accountability additionally complicated. One parent told Mr. Ghosh that their complaints fell on deaf ears: the teachers were connected to powerful people in the community.

It is a common refrain in a country where teaching jobs are a powerful instrument of political patronage.

The school’s drinking-water tap had stopped working long ago, like 30 percent of schools nationwide, according to the Pratham survey. Despite the extra money, the toilet was broken, as was the case in nearly half of all schools nationwide.

From Development As Freedom by Amartya Sen:

For a variety of historical reasons, including a focus on basic education and basic health care, and early completion of effective land reforms, widespread economic participation was easier to achieve in many of the East Asian and Southeast Asian economies in a way it has not been possible in, say, Brazil or India or Pakistan, where the creation of social opportunities has been much slower and that slowness has acted as a barrier to economic development.

A poor economy may
have less money to spend on health care and education, but it also needs less money to spend to provide the same services, which would cost much more in the richer countries. Relative prices and costs are important parameters in determining what a country can afford. Given an appropriate social commitment, the need to take note of the variability of relative costs is particularly important for social services in health and education.

The Different Paths of India & China
Beijing, China

The contrast between India and China has some illustrative importance in this context. The governments of both China and India have been making efforts for some time now (China from 1979 and India from 1991) to move toward a more open, internationally active, market-oriented economy.

While Indian efforts have slowly met with some success, the kind of massive results that China has seen has failed to occur in India. An important factor in this contrast lies in the fact that from the standpoint of social preparedness, China is a great deal ahead of India in being able to make use of the market economy. While pre-reform China was deeply skeptical of markets, it was not skeptical of basic education and widely shared health care. When China turned to marketization in 1979, it already had a highly literate people, especially the young, with good schooling facilities across the bulk of the country.

In contrast, India had a half-illiterate adult population when it turned to marketization in 1991, and the situation is not much improved today. The social backwardness of India, with its elitist concentration on higher education and massive negligence of school education, and its substantial neglect of basic health care, left that country poorly prepared for a widely shared economic expansion.

*During my research in the Philippines I repeatedly came face to face with the vulnerability created by low education and unemployment. While the majority of higher education is privatized in the Philippines, and therefore inaccessible to all but the wealthy, there exists an under funded, yet functioning lower, middle and secondary school system.

The reality for a young child, however, is that rather than attending school, he/she will seek a job to help their family, which then creates a large population of young people with no skills desperate for jobs who are vulnerable to trafficking. One of the common frustrations of the NGOs I worked with was the inability to help trafficking victims once they were rescued, rehabilitated and finally reintegrated back into their home communities. What often ends up happening once they arrive home is they will go and apply for another job and take the risk of being trafficked all over again because the economic need is so great.

At the end of the day the lesson is simple economics- school is not an option when there is no food on the table. At the same time, an educated population is one of the cornerstones of development that will ultimately lead to increased jobs, higher quality of life, and decreased susceptibility to trafficking.


Read “Cooking Up Profit” for more about the relationship between development and trafficking.

Read “International Labor Migration & Human Trafficking” for more on how education can help stimulate development and decrease vulnerability to trafficking.

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