Education in developing countries seen through a poor lens of 'Poor Economics'
Poor Economics by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo have shined penetrating light on the effects, promises and limitations of microfinance. They found some truths that shatter many established beliefs in both pro-microfinance and anti-microfinance camps.
Beyond microfinance, they dealt in details with some basic human needs like education and health. Their search was for specific steps in specific contexts. So their focus was on what works and what does not in a given situation. A piece of a particular socio-economic step has been applied to a group of people randomly selected and then compared with results in a control group and thus identifying the specific effects and the solution.
After Abhijit V. Banerjee, his wife Esther Duflo and co-researcher Michael Kremer received Nobel prize in economics in 2019, Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece, wrote, "Most interestingly, they have specialised in borrowing the methods of randomised trials from medicine and deployed them in developing countries to ascertain what policies can alleviate suffering with given resources."
However, the effectiveness of randomized control trials (RCTs) which they have popularized in development economics borrowing from the discipline of medicine is not beyond question. There are many who question whether RCT applied in the field of medicine is equally applicable to a field as complex as socio-economic issues. Economists like Grieve Chelwa and Sean Muller think that results derived from this type of trials in the socio-economic sectors have weak foundation and are imposed from above.
Taking Varoufakis's criticism into account we will discuss the book and remain within the limit of education. A very interesting part of Banerjee and Duflo's book is on education. They looked at it in both broad and minute views. They have founded their observations on ground reality.
We will see that Varoufakis's criticism of failure of their enlightened approach to address capitalism's fatal flaws is as well applicable to their views on education in Poor Economics. As a proof we will draw results from an experiment on education done by them in India a year before its publication.
They summarized the problem of educating poor children in views held by both 'supply wallahs' and 'demand wallahs.' Both the view-wallahs fail to grasp the root of the problem with poor children's education.
Supply wallahs' MDGs did not require "that children should learn anything in school, just that they should complete a basic cycle of education." Teacher absenteeism during the MDG period was high in Bangladesh, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Peru, and Uganda. Teachers were also found wasting their time in their own pleasant way while they were supposed to be in classes. Was school actually making children unlearn? It was found that "all over the Third World, little boys and girls who help their parents in their family stall or store do much more complicated calculations all the time" than children in school.
On the other hand, the demand wallahs' case is not to push education toward any population until there is any demand for it. Their core view is that "education is just another form of investment." So if there is no good return in the form of money, no one will invest in education. It is in fact a 'no education policy.'
'Does Top-Down Education Policy Work?' asks Banerjee and Duflo. They found good evidence of it: "The benefits of education are not only monetary: The Taiwan program had a large effect on child mortality. In Malawi, girls who did not drop out because of the cash transfer were also less likely to become pregnant. The same results were found in Kenya."
Yet it is found that in some areas private schools provide better learning than public schools though they do not perform as efficiently as they could. Some small interventions after school for children performing poorly in specific subjects can remedy the problems to a good extent. The small interventions can be done by education volunteers with no high education.
They have discussed a 'curse of expectations' from parents. One of which is: "Parents seem to see education primarily as a way for their children to acquire (considerable) wealth." The easiest route for them is some government job for which they try harder than for anything else. The purpose of education thus becomes very narrow in their view.
Another thing is: "The willingness to use words like 'stupid' and 'intelligent' to refer to one's own children, often in their presence, is entirely consistent with a worldview that puts a large premium on picking a winner (in getting everyone else in the family to back the winner)." This is damaging for those who are not 'winners' in this competition, but surely a family strategy for survival and escaping the prison of poverty. Closely similar things also happen in schools, which is extremely damaging for the whole education system.
'Elitist School Systems' grow out of this situation. "The whole education system colludes with them," say the authors. They have pointed to the historical background of making some servants and clerks out of the subservient local elite class for the colonial rulers. They say, "Despite the influx of new learners, teachers still start from the premise that their mandate remains to prepare the best students for the difficult exams" that act as a gateway to prosperity in later life. Continually new curriculums get added in the name of modernization and textbooks become fatter. Along with these, "focus on covering the syllabus" and "finishing the curriculum" becomes too much of a barrier in the education system.
Schools fail in these regions because "both the curriculum and the teaching are designed for the elite rather than for the regular children who attend school." The "entire point is to prepare the best-performing children for some difficult public exam that is the stepping-stone toward greater things, which requires powering ahead and covering a broad syllabus."
In such a system, leaving most children behind is not any accident, but inevitable. The hidden agenda is "a more or less explicit policy of expelling the bottom of the class every year, so that by the time the graduation exam came around, it could claim a perfect pass record."
In this scheme English language instruction, popular in South Asia, which poor parents are unable to understand whether correctly provided or not, fits well with the pressure to cover the syllabus, which is usually hard and big for children unaided at home.
The rich can bypass this problematic system by sending their children to private schools which teach better with compassion for helping the children reach their true potential. But children from the poor backward families get the early message that "they are not wanted unless they show some exceptional gifts" that results into eventual dropout from school for many of them. In this way, "education systems in developing countries fail their two basic tasks: giving everyone a sound basic set of skills, and identifying talent."
Accomplishing these basic tasks is not only possible, but fairly easy, the authors believe because of the overwhelming backing of all the evidence they have got from Pratham, an Indian NGO, and others that ran some remedial education programs by teachers with a very little training for children who were not good at basic subjects.
So Banerjee and Duflo say, "A first factor is a focus on basic skills, and a commitment to the idea that every child can master them as long as she, and her teacher, expends enough effort on it."
One of their suggestions is "to make the boundaries between the grades more fluid, so that a child whose age puts him in fifth grade but who needs to take second-grade classes in some subjects can do so without additional stigma."
They suggest "scaling down expectations, focusing on the core competencies, and using technology" in order to change the current system of waste and cheating of the poor in the name of education that "delivers essentially nothing to a very large fraction of children." The first step is "Recognizing that schools have to serve the students they do have, rather than the ones they perhaps would like to have" and giving "a chance to every child."
Banerjee and Duflo's observations and views can reform the education system in those countries where education, contrary to the stated goals and expectations, provides next to nothing for children of the poor and disadvantaged. Yet their prescription will also do next to nothing to radically change the education system in developing countries.
Their suggestion may produce some limited amount of benefits by some alteration in the process but keeping the faulty structure of education largely intact. Their discussion is focused on how to make non-formal education more effective in developing countries and what lessons the mainstream education system can take from the trial-based experiences in non-formal sector.
But some of their promises in the book are empty and not realistic. They have prescribed medicines for alleviating pain, not to root out the basic cause of the illness in the education sector. This prescription is quite compatible with the neoliberal economic principles now dominating across the world, which is to commercialize the education sector putting it more at the mercy of market forces.
Poor Economics points to many critical gaps in education in developing countries. Yet education in these countries cannot be improved to the level existing in developed countries, if people are not aware of the gaps set by Nobel winning Abhijit and Duflo in such a famous book under discussion here.
The reviewer is Editor of Biggan O Sangskriti, a Bengali little mag on science and culture published from Dhaka