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Development: A misplaced emphasis on education?

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16 November 2011 11:09

Danielle Romanes is an intern with the Lowy Institute's Myer Foundation Melanesia Program.

There's often a big disconnect between international ideas about what's good for development in Papua New Guinea and local ideas about what actually works.

A good way of surmounting this disconnect is to tune in to the ever-expanding PNG blogosphere, where complaints about the national 'education trap' (best summarized in Martyn Namorong's award-winning essay) are increasingly common.

The idea of education being a 'trap' is the complete antithesis of conventional development theory. Education is commonly defended in the human development literature as vital to the empowerment of individuals. However, if education precludes a person from economic participation then the opposite of empowerment results. Lacking economic opportunities for social contribution, self-reliance and even survival, the individual ends up deprived of self-worth.

This may be what is happening in PNG, where children enter formal education for a given number of years, only to graduate or drop out with little prospect of employment in the formal economy, where there are few jobs. 

Education becomes a 'trap' precisely because it is undertaken at the opportunity cost of learning skills in the subsistence economy, where upwards of 85% of Papua New Guineans derive their livelihoods and a small cash income. Children are unable to simultaneously learn from both the formal education sector and the informal one, because the scattered, remote and predominantly rural nature of most of PNG's communities compels families to send their children to centralised boarding schools removed from traditional economic environments.

If it operates as described, then the existence of an education trap in PNG poses serious challenges to local and international development praxis.

In PNG a huge amount of funding is devoted (or at least, is supposed to be devoted) to education. Under Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, the national government has made education one of its four spending priorities, and AusAID's country program has recently been realigned to match these.

Already a significant and increasing portion of AusAID funds in PNG go to addressing supply-side constraints in the national education sector. Funding is primarily allocated to the delivery of textbooks, the construction of classrooms, the training of teachers, and the subsidisation of school fees, with an overarching aim of increasing the national enrolment rate. NZAID and the World Bank are active in the national education sector too, as are a number of accredited Australian NGOs.

This focus on education is consistent with prevailing development norms, which are strongly informed by the values of human development theory as epitomised in the Millennium Development Goals. Education is placed at the very first rung of the development ladder, since people tend to be more productive when they can read and write, and thereby understand technology manuals, weather reports and pharmaceutical instructions. National democracies are more cohesive when their constituents can read newspapers, and literacy skills enable access to global information and conversations via mobile telephony.

The value of education is indisputable but its relative place on the development ladder is not. Research is emerging to show that the demand for education decides enrolment rates – not the supply. A recent study found that in the last few decades young girls in Bangladesh were generally only sent to school when there was demand for skills, mainly in the form of a job in the garment manufacturing industry.

By contrast, enrolment rates weren't measurably affected by a supply-enhancing stipend scheme, which offered an income boost to girls who maintained attendance rates of at least 75%, achieved 45% marks on term and annual exams, and remained unmarried. Like many supply-side interventions (the Millennium Villages Project comes to mind) the stipend scheme was very expensive to administer and its benefits were negligible (although this didn't prevent over-hyped claims about impact – see footnote two of the study cited above).

If a parallel situation exists in PNG, as anecdotal evidence suggests, the demand for education from the formal sector may be far more instrumental to increasing education levels (and reducing poverty) than simply amping up the supply of teachers, books and classrooms. If true, then the current approach may not succeed so long as it continues to tackle poverty from the wrong direction.

Human development may be objectively valuable in its own right, but it cannot be meaningful for beneficiaries until it results in employment opportunities and incomes, which are sorely lacking in PNG.

Photo by Flickr user One Laptop Per Child.

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