November 24, 2013

Editor's Choice Award

I am four years late to the party. If everyone else has already read The Beautiful Tree, just giggle at my late indulgence. But I cannot remember a book I enjoyed more.

I will be buying a few copies and recommending it until I become tiresome. While the book is not political or economic per se, it encapsulates and exemplifies much of what I believe. My buddy, Brad, at Liberty on the Rocks -- Flatirons always encourages liberty folk to appeal to the heart as well as the brain. This masterpiece does both.

Author James Tooley gets "first class BSc honours in Logic and Mathematics from the University of Sussex" and goes to teach math in Zimbabwe. His hope of, repeat after me, making a difference to the rural poor is shunted as the prize is kept for the children of government and NGOs in the city. A trip into the slums reveals a vibrant marketplace for private education. Big, beautiful, well equipped, western buildings staffed by accredited teachers are routinely eschewed for village schools in crumbling slums. By parents who, in absolute privation, devote money to pay private tuition instead of utilizing free government schools.

He devotes his life to finding out that this is true and then proving it to arrogant government officials and snot-nosed charity organizers from DfID, Oxfam, Save the Children, &c.

Curiously-- at least to me-- this was not a conclusion reached by any of the development experts. The Oxfam Education Report was typical. Let me repeat: it was quite explicit that private schools for the poor were emerging in huge numbers and that these schools were more accountable to parents than government schools for the poor. Notwithstanding any of this, its position was that "there is no alternative" but blanket public provision to reach education for all.

Universal, free, education for all! What kind of sick bastard would oppose that? I am told that Judaism holds the giver responsible not just for intention but also for outcome of charity. The outcome of "free, universal education for all" is startlingly -- even grading on the NGO efficacy curve -- poor. It seems that there are incentives in the private schools to please paying parents and fire non-performing teachers.
"We don't have that power in the government schools." He told me the story of a public school principal whom they found last year sleeping at school at 9: 00 a.m. on a classroom bench; he was drunk and no other teachers were present. "Eventually, we managed to get him transferred. That's all. There was nothing else we could do." It's always the same story, he says, "If teachers or principals are caught in child abuse or alcoholism, then all we can do is transfer them elsewhere. And then they continue with their abuse."

This story is repeated again and again. They visit the local government school and the children are playing in the yard. Very few of the teachers bother to show up and many of those that do do other work. It's the incentive model of the DMV plus the rampant corruption of post-Colonial government graft. Yet, Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono, the UN, and all the big-name global philanthropic NGOs will not admit that there is another game in town.
He told me that DfID didn't put much into education, just $80 million or so over the past five years, all of which had gone to the government for improving primary schools-- much of that was for improving their buildings. (I saw it as I traveled around later, plush new government primary school buildings proudly sporting the DfID logo. There were also European Union logos and logos for various other European government aid agencies.) But he was openly dismayed at the lack of accountability for how the DfID funds were spent.
The day after the conference, I met him at noon, and he took me from the plush DfID offices, in one of DfID's chauffeur-driven, brand-new air-conditioned Toyota four-by-fours, to lunch at the Ivy, a tony air-conditioned café, frequented mainly by Europeans-- possibly aid workers and the like. One could almost imagine oneself not in West Africa at all. He had a brie-and-tomato sandwich; I had chicken and rice. The odd thing about meeting government aid representatives in countries like Ghana is that they're not at all afraid to criticize the waste and inefficiency of their host government. Indeed, it seems that nothing is more important to share with you. But then as soon as you press them on the alternatives, like a greater role for private education, it's as if all they've said is irrelevant. There is no alternative, they repeat, to what the government is doing. It only has to be done better, with more aid. Don, it appears, was no exception.

The problem with private education to all these people is profit. A school cannot be "pro-poor" if a proprietor seeks profit. But a bunch of corrupt Ministry of Education officials driving to five-star lunches with aid workers in limousines is fine. The few that admit that these schools exist then suggest that the answer is to regulate them -- give the corrupt government officials the power to close them down! That'll help.

I think ThreeSourcers are beginning to see what I like (I've highlighted probably 100 quotes). It is about education, incentives, and actually helping through -- mirabile dictu -- prvate enterprise. The author is not some crazed libertarian but a chattering class brit IMF worker who took the time to discover reality. The same situation existed in India, Nigeria, and rural China. At each place he was greeted with a laughable "no, there are no private schools for poor people." Everyone knows the schools for the poor come from Save the Children and Oxfam and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and DfID and other wealthy white people writing checks to government bureaucrats.

In the closing sections Tooley explains the title and makes the greatest pattern comparison of all time. Gandhi accused the British of damaging the soil and killing "The Beautiful Tree" because they destroyed the indigenous institutions in favor of transplanted western replacements that were less appropriate and effective. Eighty years later, check writing Brits repeat the performance: demanding schools that look like theirs whether they will educate the poor or not. I am amused to no end that the funders who would be offended most by the charge of "Colonialist" are the ones most fiercely pressing ahead.

What I see this means now is that, when Gandhi said that he wished to return to the status quo ante, he was saying he wanted to return to a system of private schools for the poor, funded in the main by fees and a little philanthropy. Not only has my journey into Indian history provided unexpected evidence of private education for the poor in India before the British took over, it has also provided me with an even more unexpected ally.
Development experts today, academics, aid agency officials, and the pop stars and actors who encourage them are modern-day Macaulays. They are well intentioned, as was Macaulay. They believe in the fundamental importance of education, as did Macaulay. But they believe that the poor need their help educationally, and can't be trusted to do anything on their own, as did Macaulay.

It is a masterpiece of heart and mind that promotes everything I believe (well, there's nothing about the crime of the AL's Designated Hitter...) so softly and subtly as to be almost by accident. It has returned to the news in the wake of Malala, the brave young woman shot by the Taliban for going to school. I saw it referenced in this Cato article and bought it. Better late than never.

Five Stars and the Editor's Choice Award.

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at November 24, 2013 11:41 AM
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